Ep 31: A Craft Cider Pivots and Finds Its Brand Voice
Jason Marraccini and Nicole Wheeler from Treehorn Cider join us to share their triumphs and setbacks of starting a hard cider business while keeping their marketing jobs. Their journey includes how they learned to pivot and uncover their true brand voice.
Hey everyone, this is Rudy Fernandez from Creative Outhouse. I want to start by saying thank you to all our listeners. We have listeners in big cities like Atlanta, New York, San Francisco, but also St. Francis, Kansas and Boardman, Oregon. And thank you to our international listeners in Germany, France, Israel, and even a handful of listeners in Tunisia. Thanks for listening, everyone. But now we want to hear from you. We want to know what you think of the show. What else you’d like to hear? Which episodes had the biggest impact? So Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. So let’s start the show.
Rudy Fernandez 0:42
Welcome to Marketing Upheaval. My guests are Jason Marraccini and Nicky Wheeler, founding partners of Treehon Cider in Marietta, Georgia. Both have had successful marketing careers and then a few years ago decided hey, why don’t we make a cider? Treehorn is still early on in its growth but it’s fanbase is growing. We’re here to talk about marketing a new product in a new category, the booze business and what it takes to turn an idea into a company all while keeping your day job. Also, we’re going to drink some hard apple cider. So welcome, folks. Thank you.
Nicole Wheeler 1:10
Thank you very much.
The Origin Story
Rudy Fernandez 1:11
So how did you go from thinking, “hey, this might be a neat idea” to “we’re going to do this”?
Jason Marraccini 1:16
When we tell the story. I like to say that it’s my wife’s fault. So my wife, Davina who who works for the EPA was at a sustainable small business conference in Asheville. And one of the presenting small businesses was a hard cider operation. When she came back and we were just kind of debriefing after the kids were in bed, she was just really taken with, you know, what a cool, business model. Cider was kind of taking off, small footprint, very, obviously, because she’s with the EPA, you know, the eco-friendly end of it is important. But we got to talking about it. And then we went out to dinner and over a few bottles of wine with friends of ours who ended up being our business partners, just really couldn’t get the ideas out of our head that ciders taking off. We have apple crop in Georgia. Nobody’s doing it yet, but it seems like a hot market segment. And we bounce it off some, some friends of ours in the restaurant industry, and they all seem to agree that like, wow, yeah, if there was a local product, it would do really, really well, just on the basis of being local, even if it wasn’t, I hate to say that. But even if it wasn’t great, yeah, and obviously, that’s very important to us that it is a great product.
Rudy Fernandez 2:20
It is a great product, by the way, I’m drinking it.
Jason Marraccini 2:25
But yeah, that’s kind of where the idea came from. And then it sort of got momentum. From there, we put together a business plan. We went and looked for some outside investment money, which we raised, in the grand scheme of things, pretty quickly. I feel like I mean, probably over the course of like four or five months, and then off we went.
Nicole Wheeler 2:42
And I will say at the aforementioned dinner, my first response was, ooh, cider. And because, you know, most of what I had had was very large commercial ciders usually made with concentrate, usually very high sugar. And, Davina, I was like, No, no, no, hold on. This is really good. She was like, let me go out. She went got some French and Spanish ciders. Because at that time, it was still pretty hard to find really good American craft ciders and brought it back. And my husband and I are both foodies. And I was like, oh, okay, I can do this. This is something I can get behind.
Rudy Fernandez 3:16
That’s funny is because as soon as I taste this as it tastes like “sidra”, which is Spanish cider. Okay, so I have to ask this because before we started recording, Nicky, you were talking about how this is made, and yeast and the smell. And it was such, you said it with such passion, every little description of how you craft these things. Before you just described it was a practical decision. So how do you go from “Hey, this makes sense” to an obvious “I really care about this.” How did that happen?
Passion vs. Practical Business Decisions
Jason Marraccini 3:47
I think I mean, part of that is, you know, having a well-rounded team of pragmatists and craftspeople all kind of together. And Nicki kind of straddles the line I think between both.
Nicole Wheeler 3:57
And I think at different times, we played different roles within the company. So Jason and I do a lot of the operational stuff together. But he also has really great input on the more passionate product side as well. Andrew came up with – Andrew is my husband in our head cider maker – He and Jason had been friends since eighth grade, I believe. He had a product idea. And we were kind of struggling with it.
The ingredients that we were putting into it were excellent ingredients, but it just wasn’t coming out the way it needed to come out. And Jace just happened to stop by and he’s dropping off a microphone or something like that for trivia night. And he was like, why don’t you put some yuzu in it? And I mean, it totally – yuzu which is Japanese lemon. So we have a very culinary focused approach to new product development.
Typically, it’s we’ve tried something and we’re we really like the flavor profile. We like how something is paired and we’re like, why don’t we try and do this in a cider. I think that goes back to there’s, you know, Jason’s very practical, but he also can be very passionate about the ingredients in the same way that Andrew is when he’s developing a product. And you know, Andrew and I were having a weekly planning meeting, where we talk about sales, the distributor and products are developing and all that kind of stuff.
I said something to the effect of “all we really need to focus on sales”. And Andrew was like, “No, we really need to go into a second state”. Georgia alone isn’t going to achieve the goals that we have right now. We need to, you know, that was a very practical thing. So I think that goes back to all of us, kind of coming from a variety of backgrounds. Most of us came from media, but we’ve all known each other for a really long time. And it’s always product first for us. We have a marketing background, but we never come up with a campaign and then figure out a product. It’s always very product driven.
From Idea to Launch
Rudy Fernandez 5:38
So what sort of obstacles were the hardest overcome to go from that idea to launch?
Jason Marraccini 5:46
The most obvious stuff is that the alcohol industry, particularly in Georgia, is complicated. Legally, in your notes you mentioned and it’s interesting that we’re a malt beverage at the state level, which you know, there’s no malt in the process. It’s essentially nonsense, but they just don’t know what to do with us yet. We’re a wine at the federal level. There’s no like nowhere for tax purposes are we classed is what we actually are like, the thing we make. And that’s, you know, it’s just it’s a young industry in the US. And It’ll come back around to in the intro, you mentioned hard apple cider. That’s an interesting point, too. Is that where, you know, the US is the only place that makes a distinction where they have to say hard meaning it’s alcoholic. Anywhere else cider is booze.
The US is like, Oh, that’s cloudy apple juice. We’re the only ones. Everywhere else, cider is alcohol. We’re in between category designations. And that was very interesting and navigating all the legal and all the licensing was, you know, coming from a video production background, a service driven business. A product, and particularly a product that’s heavily regulated by the government is totally different. Like it was a massive, massive difference.
Advice from the Experts in the Field
Rudy Fernandez 7:00
How did you learn all this? Just to hired really good attorneys? Or you just…
Nicole Wheeler 7:03
Oh, no, a lot of a lot of legwork. Honestly, it was talking to a lot of people who knew what they were talking about. So Noble Cider that we mentioned, from a production standpoint, they were great about, you know, telling us things like you need a 20 foot trench drain. Or you’re gonna be squeegeeing all the time, talking to different people doing a lot of reading. As much bureaucracy and legal red tape there is, there are some pretty good explainers online for kind of how you start this sort of thing, what you need to what regulations, you need to follow.
Justin Pierce, one of our other partners, actually kind of spearheaded the more legal aspects of it in terms of the alcohol licensing. Jace had a good trademark attorney, which is one of the first things we started with. Which any marketer or a small business owner, that’s where you 100% where you need to start. After you figure out what you’re actually going to make, yeah. And honestly, in all stages of starting the business, I would say being methodical was really important. So we looked at over 20 geographical venues in terms of where to base our business. The economic development people made a big difference, and also how close they were to where we lived. And kind of where we wanted to be.
Having a tasting room wasn’t such a big thing at the time. But the fact of the matter was, it was going to be, you know, 45 minutes to an hour to get there. And when you’re running a manufacturing business, which cider needs to be fermented when cider needs to be fermented, sometimes being really close is really a good benefit.
Growth of Craft the Beverage Industry
Rudy Fernandez 8:25
So we are all familiar with the craft beer boom. And you know, from what I understand, the cider boom is sort of right behind it. What are the reasons for this growth of both those industries?
Jason Marraccini 8:36
I think consumers just get more and more savvy. As you kind of get into the entry level products, and then some people are happy with just that. They want a Coors Light and they want it to taste the same every time and they want that experience every time. And there’s other people who are just more curious. If you’ve got a good import package store that you can go to that has, you know, some European or French cider, what have you. You’ve maybe had some good cider, but If you’re having American stuff, there wasn’t anything. And then there was only really bad product – essentially just sugar water for “Oh, you know my wife doesn’t drink beer. What else do you have?” Or like “I don’t want wine. What else do you have” as like an alternative. It was kind of a stopgap to being more of its own thing and it’s got its complexities and there’s so much to it.
Rudy Fernandez 9:21
People have always wanted choices, but something happened, I don’t know 5-10 years ago that made things go from Bud, Bud Light, Miller, Miller, whatever, to an infinite amount of…
The Importance of a Brand Story
Nicole Wheeler 9:34
I think that mainly the thing that consumers crave is a story and be good elements to the story and when you’re talking about a consumable product like cider or food, it’s ingredients are the consumable part of the story. So you know, when we go back to talking about a cider with shiso and yuzu in it, there’s a story. You know, Andrew and I were sitting at our favorite sushi restaurant he wanted to he wanted to cook with it. I was like why don’t you put it in a cider, that sort of thing.
I think consumers really, really started to appreciate the narrative behind what they were buying. They wanted their purchase to mean something in a lot of ways. And they wanted it to be local. I think that’s kind of where people started to want a local and I didn’t even have to be hyperlocal. You look at some of the Asheville breweries, even Trim Tab in Alabama. They just have a really good sense of self in terms of their branding. And I think people really react to that in a positive way.
Rudy Fernandez 10:33
Often the value of a painting is the story. So people will spend a few seconds looking at a painting but they’ll spend half an hour talking about the paintings and the whole power of the story.
Nicole Wheeler 10:42
Yeah, and I come from a marketing research background immediately previous to Treehorn. And if you look at the numbers, Nielsen does a lot of research in the alcohol category, as well as IRI they do a lot more on the sort of the retail side and domestic big domestic brands have been in big trouble and craft has just really taken off. We’re kind of reaching a point right now where we have so much proliferation of brands that it’s kind of leveling off for everybody.
In the past year and a half, there’s so many great breweries opening that it’s hard to get tap handle space. The path to success has maybe changed a little bit. So when we launched distribution was a big thing. And we were lucky to be the first craft cider in Georgia and in the Atlanta area. We had a good first market advantage in terms of distribution, getting self space. Somebody launching today, but needed to do something a little bit more like what Variant does in Roswell, where some of the industry call it refers to his own premise. So most of their revenue comes through their own front door, as opposed to from their big distributor client.
Revenue Model Pivot
Rudy Fernandez 11:45
So the goal then is to get people in your door. I was gonna ask you about that because it seems like a lot of craft breweries. And you guys, it’s creating an event space, you know, come for trivia. Come to our brewery or our facilities, that seems to be a big thing wherever you go. Is that why? Because it’s hard to get tap space?
Jason Marraccini 12:06
I think a variety of reasons – the law has changed to be a bit more favorable to that model. Because now, before we weren’t able to sell quite so much product, that’s why kind of the old model was. You had to have some sort of an education component, you had to go on a tour and that was and then you could buy souvenir beer, souvenir cider, to take with you, but it was a very low number of ounces. But now that the laws have changed, people can buy a case per consumer per day. So you can go you can hang out, and then you can actually like, you know, take them to drink at home and get a better price point, then you’re going to get at the local package store. Because it’s coming straight from us. It’s not going through the distributor.
Rudy Fernandez 12:46
So we have a recent podcast was about digitization. And the woman who spoke was brilliant about the trends she said every trends to counter trend, one of the counter trends of everybody being different As people are seeking more and more human contact, and it seems like an event space, you know where you can, rather than just have a drink by yourself in your house while you’re playing video games or whatever you can, here’s a space you can enjoy it as a human with other humans. By the way, what did you just pour?
Nicole Wheeler 13:16
Okay, so I’ve just poured, we started out with our flagship, the red can Treehorn.
Rudy Fernandez 13:20
I’m the only one who finished it, but they drink too much of it here.
Nicole Wheeler 13:24
So this is Treehorn Roots. So this is our zero sugar cider, no artificial sweeteners. One of the distinguishing things of cider versus beer and most wine is you can ferment completely to dry. So yeast basically eats all the sugar. So this is a really a very dry white wine. And it’s gonna have a lower ABV than wine. So we like to think about it as a little bit more sessionable which is actually a big trend in the past year and a half.
Rudy Fernandez 13:53
I don’t know EBV or sessionable means.
Nicole Wheeler 13:55
Thank you. I will clarify ABV is just Alcohol Beverage content by volume, so that’s the percent that so you know, whenever you’re trying to judge how many you can have. So the ABV on this is 5.9. So compared to a wine, you would be closer to 10-12% with the wine. So therefore, when we call it sessionable, it’s something you can drink a little bit more of. You know, you’re not gonna have to pace yourself quite as much. And lower ABV content has actually been a big trend in the past year. The millennials, I know they get blamed for runinig everything. They’re not ruining everything.
They’re changing everything. Perhaps.
Rudy Fernandez 14:34
A lot of stuff needed to get changed.
Nicole Wheeler 14:36
Yeah, but that’s actually been a big surprising trend for the past year that not a lot of people saw coming was lower ABV, both in cocktails and mixed cocktails, which is one of the things we think is great about Treehorn – any of our products you could take instead of having an expensive well liquor that’s going to be high ABV, particularly for our restaurant clients because we have two client bases that we have to be thinking about at all times. The ones who come into our tasting room, the consumer, the end consumer. And then we have bars restaurants in retail stores. So we are a B2C and B2B business simultaneously.
Being a B2B and a B2C
Rudy Fernandez 15:09
So how do you manage that B2B and B2C?
Nicole Wheeler 15:12
We didn’t have to do so much managing of it before we opened the tasting room. I think this goes back to what you were talking about human contact. My brother managed a restaurant for a long, long time. And when we open the tasting room. Pretty much all of us I think had worked in food service before, but my brother told me there’s two things that are gonna get people in your door: either a good deal or something happening. And we pride ourselves on the value of our products, particularly buying at the tasting room. And there’s a reason our, the fact being it’s 100% juice drives a lot of our cost factors. But we knew that getting people in there was something we had to really focus on. So that goes to the trivia that goes, we have a book club, we do paint parties. We have a tabletop game night we try and do things that we want to do. Yeah, like Sunday we have a macrame class where it’s a fundraiser for the people next door to us, their nonprofit. The service part of the tasting room has been really interesting because it’s almost like we have a product lab. So from my marketing research background, it’s great because instead of like taking a chance on 200 cases of something we like, and we think is gonna work. We can take something, make a keg of it in the tasting room and see how it does. And sometimes what we think is gonna do well is not necessarily what does well and so we really get a lot of really good background on what people really want. We actually have a variety called Forest Moon that started as tasting room only. We’ll taste that in a few minutes.
Rudy Fernandez 16:40
What have you learned in your informal research at the bar from people not just what products they like, but how they interact with it, how they engage with it, why they choose Treehorn?
Defining your Niche
Nicole Wheeler 16:51
We have two sort of distinct markets. We have people who are gluten free or celiac who are making the decision for it starts as a medical decision.
Rudy Fernandez 16:59
Yes, I do find that funny. Not funny…
Nicole Wheeler 16:59
Yeah, all of our products, we are inherently gluten-free.
Jason Marraccini 17:06
We would have to put gluten in it. But yeah, that’s probably like email traffic phone, you know? Yes. That’s the number one question by by a mile.
Nicole Wheeler 17:16
And we take it really, really seriously because we know that’s a it’s really important to people. I mean, it’s their body.
Rudy Fernandez 17:21
This podcast is gluten free, too.
Nicole Wheeler 17:23
Yeah, absolutely. Just straight no wheat going into the year. So we make sure even the yeast that we choose is not propagated in any sort of gluten containing ingredient. The people who are driving some of this movement to craft, the people who were really thinking about what kind of food they’re eating, what kind of drink they’re consuming. On they can, I mean, you can call them any sort of names. You can call them hipsters, you can come foodies. I don’t know, you can call them whatever you want. But they’re just very focused on the ingredients that go in, so those I would say those are the two people that come through our doors.
Brand Story Pivot
Jason Marraccini 17:56
Yeah, and that was a big course correct for us. That didn’t seem to be that important at the beginning. We were much more concerned with sort of carving out this niche of you know. We knew because we were going to really grit our teeth about the quality of the ingredients and where everything was coming from, we’re going to be at a higher price point. So in order to back that up, I guess we felt like we had to develop this persona of being more like a wine brand. And yeah, very buttoned up and very, you know, very nice and polished. And what we came to realize after you know, I don’t know a year, year and a half in, and when the tasting room became a much bigger priority was like, that doesn’t really matter so much as what we bring to it and what our personality is. And that that I think really was kind of when the momentum sort of moved in a better direction.
If you go to the tasting room. It’s not your typical, very buttoned up type of operation. The tables and the chairs are mismatched. It’s the clubhouse. I mean, that’s what that’s how we talked about it is like, I don’t want to have a place that you’re going to be super excited about having a high end event. I would like it to be like, this is our clubhouse. Like, this is a fort we built. And this is where we make really good stuff. And this is where we want to hang out. You want to hang out?
Rudy Fernandez 19:09
Well, that you know, that’s, that’s a great story. You both have marketing backgrounds and it sounds like you went about it in a sort of methodical way. What sort of brand we want to create? And then from what you told me earlier and just now is “well screw that”. It’s going to be what it sort of organically came out of who you are as people and that’s where you’re going to…
Jason Marraccini 19:30
Yeah, and it’s funny that we came around to that sort of, you know, in a in a roundabout fashion because, it was it was sort of counter-intuitive. We thought that because it was going to be more expensive than then your national brand that we had to sort of bring this this polish to it that we didn’t really need to bring, but that it was more about bringing our own thing to it. And it took it took a minute to realize that. Like I think we had to kind of be in the market and mess with it for a minute. And see what people reacted to. To realize that consumers are very savvy right now. And they can smell a try hard from a mile.
When you’re really trying to sort of invent something that’s not necessarily you, and not necessarily where the brand came from, it’s not going to resonate with anybody. And a good example of that actually, I don’t know if you have any ginger with you, but that’s one holdover from the days when we were trying to make a different brand than kind of our trajectory is now. There was our second variety we had we had, you know, dry and then Ginger Reserve. And that’s a very, very much a wine name.
Rudy Fernandez 20:40
I think that’s is that your Susan’s favorite that you’ve said, Susan’s favorite one? But she’s a little bougie. So…
Jason Marraccini 20:50
The name was very much you know, like a like a reserve batch and it’s very you can tell from you know, things like El Treeablo that came a few years later. Yeah, we got a little bit more cheeky and fun with it. And we got a little bit more out there. And Ginger Reserve was a holdover from what we thought we were supposed to be at the beginning, where it was, you know supposed to be this very high end very you know, cosmopolitan product. And I think once we got past that and move towards other stuff is when we when we started to figure out what the brand was really going to be.
Rudy Fernandez 21:22
I love ginger actually.
Nicole Wheeler 21:23
And this was actually so this is our number two product in the market after our flagship and the name still drives Andrew crazy. We were literally just talking about it yesterday. There’s nothing reserve about this. I mean, it’s delicious and it’s fantastic. But you know it goes back to what we were talking about with the product always coming first.
This is a hard cider to make. The way we started making it is we would crush 300 pounds of ginger. It was a very intensive physical process. And it just really wasn’t sustainable. We actually had a couple of – this is one thing about owning a manufacturing businesses. Particularly that is commodity related. The seasons and the products themselves, what kind of Apple season, you have, what kind of ginger you get, it can all really have long term implications on the product and therefore your branding because you never want somebody to crack open a cider and have it tastes like it should not taste. That’s our number two, but the name is just, I mean, even the description on the back,
I think it’s a it’s one of the hardest things to do in marketing because you get attached to your concept of the way things should be. And you don’t let yourself flex when you need to. Which is what we did, or tried to do. We are still trying to do. We discovered that we needed to be ourselves and that was a much more sincere and appealing story to consumers than whatever we thought was gonna be Treehorn.
Jason Marraccini 22:46
Yeah, and the funny thing is, it’s so much easier. It’s literally so much easier, so much less wasted effort. Yeah, but it’s very, it’s counterintuitive. It’s not what you think you’re supposed to do. But you kind of take your knocks and you realize that “oh actually, like, just don’t try so hard”. Just be yourself.
Growing a Brand
Rudy Fernandez 23:05
I’ve often thought of, you know, branding as as sort of dating, you know, you could pretend for a little while, but if it’s gonna last a while, you know, eventually there real you is gonna come out. And I think that yeah brands are uncovered not really created so much.
Nicole Wheeler 23:19
I’ve been thinking about that from a long term perspective lately because eventually, I’m not gonna be able to do our social media all the time, but really figuring out from a marketing perspective, long term, how do we make sure that we have a pretty cohesive voice right now? Jason and I do a lot of social media together. We do a lot of the web copy. Andrew is always involved in the can copy. I consult him on virtually everything, but we have a really good rhythm and how do we sustain that when we’re looking two to three years down the road? Where it’s gonna be somebody else writing the copy, and I’m gonna have to let go. And hopefully that person won’t use as many exclamation points. But how do we make sure they still have that personality because they’re not going to be us. Yeah, they’re gonna be somebody else and they’re gonna have their own personality and a lot of ways.
Rudy Fernandez 24:07
So you’re gonna have to make that jump. It sounds like soon from what I guess, is the owner’s passion, and then creating a company that that is beyond you guys. But maintains the integrity of its brand.
Nicole Wheeler 24:22
Jason Marraccini 24:24
Now we actually have a Tasting Room Manager and we’ve slowly you know, we’re still in there, but we’re not necessarily the whole driving force behind it. And I think, now that moves to other parts of the company and to the marketing, into the copywriting into, you know, it has to happen. I mean, if we’re going to go to the next level, and then keep expanding, that’s, we got to come to terms with that.
Your Internal Audience
Nicole Wheeler 24:46
And honestly, I think a lot of that is training and the way you treat your employees. I know this is a big thing with Muss & Turners. They’re very, not to keep going back to them, but they’re very much a company that we respect. They treat their employees really well. They make them family. And we pay our bartenders quite a bit more than a lot of places might. And part of that is because I want somebody who feels really vested and being a part of the Treehorn family. And I think that’s really important that in training, giving people the tools to talk about the brand, as passionately as they want to, and some people are more passionate about different aspects of it than others, but I think it’s really important the way you treat people.
Rudy Fernandez 25:24
So in this process, what have you seen marketing wise that works and doesn’t work?
Nicole Wheeler 25:29
Oh, we’ve tried everything. You know, it’s funny because, so half of our partners are football fans. We were in the south. Footballs big thing. I remember a very distinct moment in late 2017, which is the first fall that we opened the tasting room. And so prior to that, most of our marketing had been like oh, I’m here at Superica downtown having a Treehorn and having delicious tacos or you know, whatever. I would just literally like to drive around the city all week, and eat and drink Treehorn and take pictures of it. Which sounds fun.
We started posting a lot about the tasting room and I remember a very distinct moment in late 2017. And Jase was like every post cannot be about football, because it was like, “At the tasting room we’ll have the Falcons game on” or “come to the tasting room, we’ll have the Georgia game”, you know, whatever it was gonna be. Yeah. But Jason made a really good point. Not every tactic it was going to work for every consumer. So there’s people who would not come if the game was not on.
Jason Marraccini 26:23
Yeah, we don’t necessarily care about that guy or girl who needs to watch the game. But if that person is in your eight person group, and they’re not going unless it’s on, yeah, cool, it’s in the corner. Go watch it. We’ll, talk to the other seven people about the product and about what’s going on and stuff but that person’s not gonna steer them to Taco Mac or you know, Applebee’s or wherever the wherever you want to go. That’s exactly why we have we have 20 tabs now in the tasting room and two of them are beer. And that is because there are certain people who are going to come through that door, and they’re usually with a group and they’re just not going to drink a cider for whatever reason. Convinced they won’t like it.
Rudy Fernandez 27:02
How do you get into a bar? You said, there’s limited tap space. There’s more and more craft beers. How do you, how does that process work?
Jason Marraccini 27:08
It’s two prong for us. So obviously, at the volume that we do have to have a distributor, and, you know, to get the product to where it needs to go. And we’re with United, and we’re very happy with them, and they’ve been great. So it’s kind of their, you know, their team and their reps going out and going to, you know, it’s off premise and on premise.
Off premise is, you buy it at a package store or grocery store, and you take it home and you drink it. And on premise is, you drink it on premise. That’s part of what we have to do is educate them about the product and make sure that they know what they’re out there selling and then be there to support them. Where, you know, they’ll give us a tip or they’re like, Hey, you know, I went to this place and they’re really interested but they’d like to taste more stuff. Or they’re really face to face people and they really want to just know the ownership. Can you guys swing by there, that’s part of it. And then the other side of it is, anytime I’m out and I happen to look at a menu and they don’t have us or maybe they have a competitor, I’ll talk to the bartender or the waiter about it. Or just, trying to have some sort of personal connection. But then we also go back to the distributor and say, like, “Hey, you know, I had dinner at this place, and they seem really interested. Can you come by and taste them?”
Rudy Fernandez 28:16
Nicole Wheeler 28:17
Yeah. And so it’ll depend on the time of year. Rotation is a big thing. Because just like in the tasting room, people want what’s new. You know, we put in we had eight taps, we put in 12 more, and people are still like, “you’ve got 20 taps, but what’s new?”, and I’m like, you guys are monsters. So a lot of places will rotate. And so we’re in about, like Jace said, over 600 in between off premise and on premise. We’re all over the state. And we’re actually just found out, just got confirmation on Friday that we’re going to be expanding to Alabama.
Rudy Fernandez 28:51
Wow, Roll Tide. Yep. We have listeners in other countries, they won’t know what the heck we’re talking about.
Nicole Wheeler 28:55
So I’ve just opened Miyabi. This is the one I referenced earlier. That kind of were Jace brought some of the passion to the production. So as shiso, which is it’s in the mint family. It’s not actually minty. It’s a really delicate herb. Yeah, it’s really hard to describe to people but once they taste it – I like to call it bright and citrusy. I think that’s a really easy when I’m in the tasting room when people are like what is this?
Jason Marraccini 29:16
It’s probably the most unique one we do. I think that there’s, to my knowledge, no one else is doing this flavor profile. Yeah, shiso like for a visual reference is usually like if you’re at a really nice sushi place. That’s often the garnish. That’s the thing the sushi sitting on. But uh, yeah, like Nicky said, it’s, you know, relative to you know, it’s bright, it’s green.
Acquiring New Customers
Rudy Fernandez 29:38
Have you marketed I’m guessing you have two sushi places? Gone down Buford highway. How are you acquiring new customers?
Nicole Wheeler 29:46
Word of mouth is a big thing. I worked in advertising. I was a journalist by training first couple years out of college, did that. And then for about 10 years I worked in advertising and marketing. And in that since I started in the industry, and now it’s changed completely. I mean, the basics, the fundamentals of marketing and telling a story haven’t really changed. But the vehicles in which you do so have definitely changed. Where earned media wasn’t a thing 15 years ago. I mean, sort of, if you got, you know, the big food writer to cover you in the local paper, you know, you got some earned media, but it wasn’t really a thing like it is now. And so you have to, I think that’s one of the reasons authenticity has become such a big thing. Because with paid media, you can just pay for it.
Rudy Fernandez 30:33
And control the message 100%…
Earned and Owned Media
Nicole Wheeler 30:35
Control the message but with earned media, you’re 100% depending on people buying into the story that you’re telling. And I think that’s been a really big shift. So most of where we get new customers from is earned media, people talking about us online. So I think there’s sort of two aspects to word of mouth. There’s the consumer word of mouth where people are telling their friends, there’s also business word of mouth. So while I was meeting with Cobb County tourism, I was like, Oh, you know, you could think about doing a bartender Derby with a cocktail contest during your Restaurant Week. And you think about doing XYZ. So I think that sort of synergy between people with vested interests in a specific location or specific industry, where they’re like, Oh, I have this idea that might help you. And I might be able to send some new customers your way.
Rudy Fernandez 31:22
But it seems like, like you said, There are, however many alcohol manufacturers in Cobb County. Whereas my perception before manufacturing, alcohol was viewed as sort of a bad thing. You know, you were a bootlegger?
Nicole Wheeler 31:39
Oh, it still is. We have trucking companies that won’t work with us.
Rudy Fernandez 31:42
But now I think, in terms of the general public, it’s you’re a small business. It’s not like you’re making – you’re passionate – because they’re, they’re your craft people. You’re passionate about a thing you’re making you care about it and you’re a small business. So it’s a different story. Like you said, your story has changed from these are these are moonshiners to, these are small business people who just want to follow their passion, which I think is a better story anyway.
Nicole Wheeler 32:11
Yeah and it really goes back to some of the challenges that you face in the alcohol industry. You know, we just had the tax legislation passed at the very end of the year, there was some federal tax legislation. And it basically gave us a break as small producers. So it’s not going to give like Miller or Coors a break. But it really gave a lot of benefits to small producers. It was a lot of work. We had to we had to reach out to our local representatives and say this is really important to us. Like what you’re saying like we’re a small business owners.
Advice for Craft Beverage Startups
Rudy Fernandez 32:42
Based on everything you’ve learned here in the last few years. What advice would you give to someone who is where you were in 2013? Ready to start making cider or something similar? What advice would you give them?
Jason Marraccini 32:50
I can jump in on a couple there. I would say probably, however much capital you think you need at the beginning, triple it. Always give yourself more runway than you think you need. That that’s pretty broad though. I would say, get advice from people who’ve been through it. And we did a good job of this actually Noble were very forthcoming about that is, you know, ask people what they wish they would have known. Ask people what they spectacularly failed at. Ask them what they did wrong. Ask them what they regret. Like, you know, people usually are not super guarded about that type of thing, if they’re if they’re entrepreneurs. And Noble was, you know, like, Nicky mentioned the slot drains, which is a very specific thing, but yeah, just generally be like, you know, what did you mess up and what do you wish you knew?
What did you guys mess up? What did you you wish you knew?
Ah, let’s see. Probably a lot of things. Um, I think probably like revenue models, our projections were way off. Not making the tasting room a linchpin at the beginning is probably a mistake. Because, as we alluded to earlier, that face time and that, you know, having a personality to it is, is so important. And we really, we thought we were building a brand, kind of offline in the lab, and it was really more about the, consumer face time. And that’s that’s really what mattered. That’s one of the interesting things to look at, like Google reviews and Yelp reviews is, there’s not a whole lot of people who are like, I really like how high end it is. It’s more like I really like how laid back this place is. Like I really like how unpretentious it is. I really like how it feels like I’m in like, you know, my friend’s basement. I really like the ownership. I really like the fact that they’re in there all the time. I really like that they’re passionate about the product.
Nicole Wheeler 34:50
I’d also say from a manufacturing perspective, and I’ll always go back to this, 100 times a day. We really didn’t realize what a difference a manufacturing businesses is versus a service business. We were really hamstrung by some of the manufacturing choices we made it beginning, simply because we didn’t realize we were going to need to expand so quickly.
So in terms of our specific manufacturing process, without sacrificing quality, it was really difficult for us because for a period about two years, we could not literally could not grow. Because we just didn’t have enough tank space, we needed to make a significant investment to make that leap to be able to grow. And I really wish that somebody had told me that at the beginning. Like, hey, if you if you move into cans, yeah, you’re gonna have X, Y and Z problem. Yeah. As opposed to being keg only. It was hard. And it was going back to what Jase mentioned about our revenue projections. You know, we if we could have made those changes two years earlier, we could have lowered our keg prices, which might have given us a little bit better situation in terms of tap space and it dominoes a lot of things that you don’t even know that might be dominoed.
Managing Multiple Roles
Rudy Fernandez 36:00
Wow, how did you manage your time between maintaining your current companies and jobs? And starting a new one? How did that work?
Jason Marraccini 36:09
Yeah, I don’t know, the work is probably not the right word. I don’t know if it worked. That was very, very stressful, particularly in the beginning. I feel like any new venture is way more than you bargained for almost immediately. And especially for us because we were seeking outside investment. So it was a lot of, you know, bringing out the dog and pony show just again and again and again and again and having to having to pitch I mean, you make it work. I feel like certain people just have that kind of entrepreneurial spirit where, even if you’ve got something running well, it’s like, what’s the next thing and you’re kind of always looking? I feel like it’s never like calms down, but it changes.
Nicole Wheeler 36:48
Yeah. So I’m full time now. So I kind of, I don’t think I really got any ease in that. But I did take over a lot of things. Jace is probably one of the most involved still from other partners. So what you’re drinking here, this is Pineapple Root. This is one thing that we love to do is do small variations on things that are successful. This one is the second cider of that we tasted this super dry wine-like one. This is the same concept except for we’ve co fermented pineapple with the apple juice. So it has good pineapple flavor still zero sugar. I was doing double duty for about two years. And it was really hard. I was really accelerating in my career and was it just less sleep, less family time less anything besides Treehorn or work. So like I don’t see much of my friends beyond my Treehorn partners anymore and my bar staff. Which, I’m good friends with all those people so you know there’s that benefit.
Jason Marraccini 37:50
Now my kids, it’s a very good example because they you know, they grew up. One was born during it and one was, you know, very young and gotten older during the growth of the this business. And they both associate like when we say like, oh, we’re going to Treehorn, they think that’s because we’re having a meeting. And they’re like, oh, how long is it gonna be like, are we gonna have? And you know, now at least, you know, there’s proper tasting room and there’s a kids corner and there’s fun stuff to do. But yeah, I’d be lying if I said that there isn’t some sort of trade off where some of that stuff goes to the background, and you got to kind of rebalance the scale. Yeah, it is hard. I mean, you know, anyone who started, you know, a business of any size knows that it has to come from somewhere. You can’t just generate time from nowhere. And you’re always pulling it from somewhere.
Nicole Wheeler 38:37
So Jason, Divina and two of our other partners, Justin both have kids and young kids. And one of their partners Mallory, his wife’s sister. She was the cider maker with Andrew my husband and she decided to go back to school. So you know, you just have to kind of roll with it and figure it out. Now that we’ve had our expansion equipment put in we have a lot. We have more time. We used to, but you know, there’s times where, you know, it’s, and it’s like it was any small business, you just are all in all the time. And you never stop talking about it. But I think it’s important if it’s something you’re passionate about, that I don’t get bored talking about Treehorn and I look forward to doing a podcast interview about Treehorn because that’s literally what I live and breathe.
Rudy Fernandez 39:19
If we had time, we could we could create a little small business therapy group.
Nicole Wheeler 39:27
No, we don’t have time to show up. Exactly.
The Future of the Craft Beverage Industry
Rudy Fernandez 39:32
So when you look out in the future of craft beverages, you know, the industry you’re in? What do you think are some of the things you’re most excited about in terms of an industry? And what are the things you’re most concerned about?
Jason Marraccini 39:46
I think that you know, consumers are getting sharper and sharper and seem to be more educated about ingredients and there’s so much information out there and the people who want to go find it are going to find it. So we get a lot more interesting questions. At the tasting room a lot of people who are really steeped in insider knowledge or who have encountered it and other places and are excited that you can find it in Georgia. That’s kind of the good side.
I feel like people are much more educated and we I feel like every year it gets a little less difficult to educate consumers about, what is cider? Why is it not this garbage product that I’m used to drinking that’s so super cheap. The flip side of it, I think, is that they are kind of these race to the bottom games as far as price which is just you know…
Nicole Wheeler 40:37
Particularly with the introduction of hard seltzer, which is also gluten free but it’s made with water and sugar so…
Jason Marraccini 40:43
Yeah, but that’s that’s the the other side of it. Yeah, it’s like a race to the bottom on price and then mathematical evaluation of a product whereas like, how low can we get the sugar and the carb count and I’ll buy that? I don’t care what it is. Does it get me drunk and how low is the nutritional information so that I can have it on, you know, keto or paleo or what have you. And that is really a powerful market force right now, where the buying decisions are somewhere between math and price, you know, mathematical, nutritional information and how cheap is it? And if you can find that apex, and that’s where, you know, that’s where this hard cider phenomenon or hard seltzer rather, not cider, hard seltzer phenomenon is coming from, is, you know, those two forces just really, really dominating the market.
You can tell just by what gets shelf space and what good gets ad space now, as you know, hard seltzer is definitely the big thing right now. But at the same time, we can’t be blind to that, you know, and that’s maybe what we’ve learned since originally trying to make a “high end brand”. You have to pay attention to market forces.
Nicole Wheeler 41:56
I’d also say that in terms of development, so I kind of talked about the latitude we had for creativity. In terms of product development inside the US. Some of that is starting to solidify in terms of how our industry as a whole speaks to consumers. Because consumers need a way like you know, if you’re ordering a Pilsner versus an IPA, what the two things are going to be different. Even if you’re not super into beer, you’re gonna have a general idea.
Same goes with like, you order a Chardonnay versus a Riesling, you’re gonna know what you should expect when you order that. Cider is kind of in a wild west area. And we haven’t always as an industry, because we don’t have that rich history, done a great job of defining what consumers can expect. And we’re in the process of kind of like, hammering that out now. So our nationwide Association, American Cider Association, we’ve kind of just redone our lexicon of how servers can speak about cider. And so we’re doing that and we’re kind of getting better. There’s two very distinct approach to cider in the US. There’s sort of more a wine focused orchard base, people have access to really good apples.
For instance, Diane Flint, she runs Foggy Ridge Cider. She’s won a James Beard award. She’s an orchardist. She has beautiful, beautiful ciders. And they are always nothing but Apple focused. And we have, of course, we have a cider con, because everybody has a con. And I sat in one of our sessions, I think it was either last year or two years ago. And she would be horrified by some of the things we make. She probably is horrified by some of the things we make. And but there’s room for both of us. Having a reason to make it is, I think, is sort of more of this other approach. So that’s one of the things I’m most excited about is seeing where that kind of takes us and how we can explore that in a way that feels authentic to people who are like well, I only drink cider with just apples. Because those people are out there. They’re militant. I mean, I eat an apple almost every day, literally, which I think is so cheesy. I’m sitting there in the middle of my cidery eating an apple. But I was like, I love apples.
Rudy Fernandez 44:07
It goes well with cider, I hear. Well, thank you guys both very much for this. This has been a big treat and thank you for all the cider. I could just keep talking. You keep pouring. That’d be that’d be awesome. But thanks very much. I’ve learned a lot and it’s gonna be a great episode.
Jason Marraccini 44:24
Absolutely our pleasure.
Nicole Wheeler 44:25
Launching a Brand
Rudy Fernandez 44:27
If you’re launching a brand or a company, check out our website where we have a whole section on brands we’ve launched and check out Treehorn Cider at TreehornCider.com, that’s TreehornCider.com. They have delicious ciders and cool swag, so don’t miss that. Thank you, Susan Cooper for producing our show. And remember, visit CreativeOuthouse.com and check out our podcast page for previous episodes. That’s it for this episode of Marketing Upheaval. And remember, if the current state of marketing’s got you confused, don’t worry, it’ll all change. See ya.
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