Bellwether Hard Cider shares challenges during reopening

Posted

After having to shut down and switch to delivery and curbside mid-March, Bellwether Hard Cider has finally been able to return to some kind of normalcy thanks to phase three of the county reopening. But it hasn’t been an easy few months for the cidery, and co-owner Bill Barton said he’s still facing a lot of challenges.

Barton started the business with his wife, Cheryl, in 1999 and has since found his place in the Trumansburg community. As Bill explained, the passion came out of a trip he and his wife took to Europe.

“My wife and I had traveled in France and England in the early ’80s and had been amazed at the amount of really great cider that was commonly available and had always wondered why there was not cider in the U.S.,” Bill said. “Most of our questioning was due to ignorance of the history of cider in this country. But … that’s the questions we were asking, [and we] thought that someone ought to do it as a commercial product.”

Getting into the cider business was a new journey for Bill, who had previously worked in software and oil. And as he was learning how to make great-tasting cider, the community was learning as well.

“I’ve seen it grow very slowly, for a number of years, because nobody really knew what cider was,” he said. “And then, we did branch off a bit and added grape wine, which was a little bit more in keeping with what other people were doing in this region. But we also were trying to focus more, in terms of cider, on drier ciders, which was almost like starting over again because the market that had developed for cider really was tilted towards much sweeter things than we cared to make.”

Even though Bill’s business is located on the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail just outside the village, he said Trumansburg has been very welcoming since moving his business from an old Babcock chicken hatchery building on Route 96 in Ithaca to a new building on Route 89 in 2003.

“We feel like we’ve been a part of the Trumansburg community since we moved here,” Bill said. “Trumansburg is the closest thing for us, and we feel like we’re part of that community and we pay school taxes here and all that other good stuff. So, we like to think of ourselves as part of this community.”

Being on the Wine Trail has helped Bill to grow his customer base, with most who come in being tourists. This would create a lot of busy summers for the cidery, but COVID-19 has ensured this year will unfortunately be very different.
As Bill described, when COVID-19 first hit the county back in March, Bellwether was in its slow season. As a result, when the coronavirus initially affected the county, Bellwether was mostly unaffected.

“Business wise, we were considered an essential business,” Bills aid. “So, we were allowed to stay open. But there was virtually no one coming in. We couldn’t give tastings, so it really didn’t dawn on us until April that things weren’t going to get better.”

Bill’s challenges mirror what a lot of other business owners faced because of COVID-19, including financial losses and mental strain.

“I really couldn’t afford any staff,” he said. “I did get one of those PPP loans but just a very small amount. And so basically, I was here most of the time alone. It wasn’t like I was being overrun with customers, but you basically have to do everything as one person. It just kind of got tough.”

And indeed, Bill saw very few customers come into the store during those first few months of the shutdown.

“I’d say probably up until we entered phase three, I had only seen maybe 50 people come in the front door, and that includes the UPS man and a few other people who weren’t here as customers,” he said. “So, it was pretty dismal.”
Thankfully, Bellwether saw a little boost with increased internet sales, but it was nowhere near what Bill was used to.

With phase three of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s New York Forward plans taking effect in the county earlier this month, Bill was finally able to reopen his business for tastings, and other retail businesses reopening meant that people were getting out more. But Bill still hasn’t seen much of a difference.

“We have seen a few more people come in, but we’ve noticed that the people that did come in before phase three were basically sheltering in place and they tended to be really stocking up and buying more quantity,” he said. “And now, with the phase three, the people coming in are back to what I would call more typical Wine Trail-type customers, and they want to do a tasting and they may buy a bottle here and there, but the buying is not nearly as good as it was.”

Bill said that COVID-19 has had an undeniable detrimental effect on the business, and he doesn’t have high hopes for the rest of the year.

“I’m pretty much guessing that this whole season is going to be a write-off in the sense that we’ll never get back to the level of visitation in the area that was typical to the average summer,” he said. “It may pick up a bit in the fall, but given the way things are going, I’m still not too confident that that’s going to happen.”

As a result, Bill is in “survival mode,” he said, and is largely focusing on increasing his internet sales.

“I’m hoping we can just hunker down and survive through the fall and then hope that next year will be a better year,” he said. “There’s not much I feel I can do locally. Maybe [I can] try to hope that the restaurant business comes back and pick up a few more retail accounts, but I’m not real hopeful that they’re going to bounce as quickly as they would like.”

Bill said that Bellwether doesn’t typically get a lot of local traffic, with most of its customers being tourists, but he’s hoping that locals will view the cidery differently since COVID hit.

“I’d hope that the local communities would look at us a little bit more like going out to a restaurant or something like that,” he said. “It’s an outing and they can come out and either learn a little bit about our products or sit out [and] enjoy our patio with a glass of cider or wine.”

Bellwether Hard Cider is located at 9070 Route 89 and offers around 10 varieties of hard ciders, ranging from semi-sweet to very dry and both sparkling and still. Visit the website at cidery.com for more information.

In Brief:

Artist/blacksmith Durand Van Doren to close studio

Well-known artist-blacksmith Durand Van Doren announced the closing of his studio/workshop in Mecklenburg and will sell the accumulated ironwork and assorted iron pieces and elements made and collected over the course of 40 years as a metal worker in and around Tompkins County and central New York.
The sale will be open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, July 2, 3 and 4, at Durand’s Forge, 6340 Carman Rd., Trumansburg.

On offer at the sale, at very good prices, will be more than two dozen of his finest pieces, as well as excellent works at even better prices from the scrap pile. The sale event does not include shop tools or equipment.

For many years, Durand was a prominent member of the Greater Ithaca Art Trail. His work can be seen in Trumansburg (notably on the outdoor seating area of Gimme! Coffee); at Cornell University (multiple sites at the Botanic Gardens, documented in this app-designed tour, https://rb.gy/zdsqon; at the main entrance and interior of Willard Straight Hall; at the Law School); in and around Ithaca (Children’s Garden, figurative bicycle racks and more); and internationally at the Globe Theatre, as well as in many area private collections.
To call Durand’s Forge, please use 607-387-4493.

In line with prevailing health guidelines and public concerns, all visitors to Durand’s Forge are requested to please wear appropriate face coverings and be alert to practice social distancing.

Comments

No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment