To survive the new coronavirus, owners of Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Waterbury Center are depending on experience, alacrity and luck.
Fayston residents Paul and Gale Brown bought the cider mill 20 years ago. “We liked living in this area of Vermont and wanted to own our own business. This was the most interesting one we found, so we decided to buy it,” said Paul Brown, former vice president of Sugarbush Resort. Before coronavirus hit Vermont, “We were rockin’!” said Brown, referring to the cider mill’s booming on-site and wholesale business.
Today, Cold Hollow Cider Mill is known for its world-class apple cider, exported as far as Hawaii, as well as its cider donuts, which attract people from all areas to the on-site bakery. “We are the most visited attraction in the state after Ben & Jerry’s,” said Brown.
Still, Brown admitted that success hasn’t always been the norm at the cider mill. “We’ve lived through quite a few crises,” said Brown. “We’ve made some classic small-business mistakes.” In their 20 years of ownership, the Browns have lost wholesale accounts, survived a major embezzlement from their bookkeeper and lost money by overextending themselves.
“It’s pretty tough when you first buy a business. You think you’re gonna nail it right off, but that doesn’t always happen,” said Brown, admitting that the cider mill was not profitable for its first six years. To stay afloat in those days, the Browns had to extend their line of credit and remortgage their house just to make payroll.
While these past financial predicaments were not favorable circumstances by any means, they have given the Browns ample experience in crisis management. Now, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Browns are counting on this experience to get through it. “We’ve been through some tough times. This is just another tough thing that we’ll endure and get through,” said Brown.
Additionally, this experience has taught the Browns how to be sprightly when it comes to making substantial business decisions. “We’re pretty nimble. We can hunker down in a hurry. We can shift gears. We’ve done it before. We’re doing it now. And once things get going we can ramp back up really quickly as well,” said Brown.
Unlike other businesses, Cold Hollow Cider Mill is not working on a massive expansion of curbside service. While they do offer curbside pickup, the Browns’ main pandemic survival strategy has been to cut expenses.
“We had to lay off two-thirds of our staff. Luckily they’re being taken care of with unemployment. But let’s face it: Our restaurant is closed, our beer room is closed, our tasting room is closed and our store is closed. That’s the bulk of our business,” said Brown.
Moreover, working from home isn’t a possibility for employees at the cider mill. “Our business is all about people visiting. We’re a tourist attraction. If you can’t let people in, then you’re dead in the water,” said Brown. Of the cider mill’s core staff of about 25 employees, 15 have been laid off.
Still, despite the financial pressure imposed by the pandemic, the cider mill has been lucky in one respect: This is their slow season. Cider sales are seasonal. Fall is when people crave the sweet taste of Vermont apple cider the most. “We do half of our business for the year in the months of September and October,” said Brown.
At the end of the day, Brown finds hope in the eternal resilience of the Vermont spirit and the ephemeral nature of calamity. “Vermonters are hardy. We will persevere,” said Brown. “And, like any pandemic, think back to the Spanish flu – this too shall pass.”