Hard cider maker enjoys organic growth in the Fort
By Jason StarrThe Essex Reporter
Until recently, one thing lacking amid the eclectic mix of businesses, student housing, condominiums and apartments in Fort Ethan Allen was a public gathering spot. That has changed with the evolution of Citizen Cider, a hard cider manufacturer that moved into an old railcar dock in the historic Fort’s east end in 2011.
The business owners, a trio of young men, always envisioned an open-door policy for curious passers-by. But they didn’t necessarily understand the size of the retail vacuum they were filling for Fort dwellers and workers. What started with a trickle of inquisitive patrons poking their heads in to see the manufacturing process and sneak a taste has turned into consistent open hours that peak weekly with a Friday night mix of music, food trucks and imbibing, as well as tastings and special events. Vermont Public Radio employees have been the most dedicated Friday night patrons, led by Vermont Edition Producer and Fort resident Ric Cengeri.
“I didn’t even realize there was a need for that kind of thing in the Fort until it existed,” Cengeri said. “It’s been a great gathering point. It’s become a really nice focal point for residents of the Fort and people from the surrounding area. It’s definitely sparked an interest in people who have lived here for a while in seeing if more businesses and services can be opened here.”
Citizen Cider co-founder Justin Heilenbach, a former farmer from Jericho who founded the company with Bryan Holmes of Williston and Kris Nelson of Ferrisburgh, marvels at how organically the spot has become a hub.
“This was kind of an after-thought and it just became something,” he said. “Our business still is primarily the manufacturing and wholesaling of hard cider, but people have pushed us to continue to do more.”
With confidence growing in the retail side of the business, company founders are looking to lay down roots in Fort Ethan Allen. They’ve submitted a new site plan application and have a June 27 date with the Essex Planning Commission to discuss expanded retail use in what is an industrially zoned area. The plan calls for expanding the bar area within the manufacturing facility, improving outdoor seating and creating a dedicated area for food trucks, a variety of which appear most Friday afternoons.
The business has an ally in Essex Economic Development Commission chairman Greg Morgan, who frequents the Friday night gatherings and helped organize a venture capital networking event called Tech Vermont Meetup scheduled for June 19 at Citizen Cider. Morgan will offer his support of the site plan application and says its approval could hasten a revitalization of the east end of the Fort into a retail cluster. Currently, industrial zoning limits the amount of retail space a business can have.
“Our committee would really like to see something done in that end of the Fort,” Morgan said. “There is great energy there. If we want it to thrive the town needs to address zoning issues.
“We’d like to generate some flexibility there for Citizen Cider to stay and expand. The guys have such great vision and great energy, and they seem to have the skill set to make this business work.”
Citizen Cider is available in about 200 retail outlets in Vermont and is expanding this summer into western Massachusetts and Boston, Heilenbach said. The business is committed to purchasing Vermont apples and has moved most manufacturing closer to its primary orchard in Middlebury. Business headquarters remains at the Fort and will act as a research and development space and small batch testing facility, with a test market ready to taste new flavors at the bar.
“They are not just a hard cider business, they are an agriculture business,” said Morgan. “They are going to be huge in the Vermont apple market.”
Heilenbach said the business is emerging from its start-up investment phase and expects to achieve profitability this year. The three founders were able to quit their previous jobs within the last six months. At the beginning, they were making cider at night and on weekends.
“It’s been a good start,” Heilenbach said. “In Vermont we are doing really well. The interest level and the cider continue to push us forward.”
Morgan sees the hard cider sector growing throughout the state and region. But because of their newness, cideries are treated as wineries in state and federal permits. Even if you classify it as a winery, Citizen Cider is a first for Essex, which has contributed to some extra scrutiny from town planners, Heilenbach said.
If the site plan is approved, he envisions hosting cider-making classes every fall, among other things.
“We will continue to be more and more of a hub of activity,” he said.