Cider pioneer Eleanor Léger on growing a business with intention.
Movies have been made about the romantic notion of leaving corporate America to start a business in a remote, bucolic Vermont town, but few of those fictional characters can hold a candle to Eleanor Léger, the real-life founder of Eden Ciders in Newport, Vermont.
Her story began in the winter of 2006 when she left her management consulting job and bought an abandoned dairy farm in West Charleston. She dreamed of owning a beautiful, remote property in the Northeast Kingdom, where her family dates back generations. Her great-great grandfather trained as a blacksmith in West Charleston before serving in the Union Army in the Civil War, and the family burial plot is in West Glover. Buying the property felt like coming home.
This, however, is where Eleanor’s story departs from the movie versions. Beyond simply creating a different life for herself, Eleanor also dreamed of bringing economic prosperity to the corner of Vermont she loved so well. Although the financial crisis of 2008 was still looming, unemployment rates in the Northeast Kingdom hovered around twelve percent and family farms were regularly being forced to sell, jeopardizing the working landscape. With a background in economics and business, she wanted to start a company that would benefit both the land and the local economy.
Discovering Ice Wine
That winter, she and her husband, Albert, traveled to Montreal and were served ice cider for the first time. “It was amazing,” she said, “We both thought, ‘why isn’t this a thing in Vermont’?” The climate in the Kingdom is perfectly suited for ice cider and, of course, Vermont is known for its apples, but most people had never heard of it. The Légers went home and made a batch of ice cider in the basement—way more than they could drink themselves as it turned out. Pleased with the result, they decided to sell some to stores and restaurants across Vermont that were part of the locally-focused Vermont Fresh Network. It sold out in a month.
“We looked at each other and were like, “Okay, I guess this is what we are doing,” said Eleanor.
Not one to dabble, Eleanor dove in. She met with the managers of Scott Farm in southern Vermont, who were growing 80 to 100 different varieties of apples and soon had her own orchard started in the former cow pasture. At the same time, she signed up for an Advanced Cider Making class at Cornell University.
“We knew we needed a low-volume, high-profit product that we could sell outside of Vermont,” she said. “Making the finances work so that we could support small-scale apple growers in Vermont became core to our mission,” said Eleanor. “It was about providing apple growers with a source of revenue outside of grocery stores and farm stands.”
Their initial target market for ice cider was primarily high-end restaurants that already offered sweet wines by the glass on their menus. As the market developed, and hard cider grew in popularity, Eden expanded its offerings to include dry, wine-like ciders that would appeal to those restaurants. “Coming from the corporate world, I had developed a palate for good wine,” said Eleanor, “and applied that to our cider-making. A story might get you in the door, but the product has to be exceptional tasting if you want to build a business in high-end hospitality.”
“The small, local orchards we buy apples from grow fascinating heirloom and tannic varieties with intense, complex flavors,” said Eleanor, noting that they only press the apples once a year at harvest time. “It’s like the difference between making wine from Chardonnay grapes versus the seedless white grapes you buy at the grocery store.”
Growth with Intention and Impact
Ice cider and hard cider were still relatively unknown until 2011, when a few large beer makers got into the business. “It just exploded,” said Eleanor, who now has distribution all along the east coast and parts of the west coast. Over the past decade, Eden Ciders has expanded their product line to include bottled sparkling, rose, and special cellar series ciders, and recently launched a new line of canned ciders.
Eleanor also became more involved in the industry, serving on the inaugural Vermont Working Lands Enterprise Board and twice being elected to the board of the American Cider Association, where she currently serves on the Executive Committee. In addition, she was instrumental in opening the Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center in Newport in 2014 to allow visitors to sample ciders and specialty foods from local producers,
“With the growth of our business came the opportunity to support more apple growers,” said Eleanor who, in addition to her own orchard and Scott Farm, now buys apples from seven local orchards. While the core of their mission—supporting the local economy and preserving the working landscape—remains central to their business, Eleanor has also realized that the business can play a role in supporting orchard management that is better for the environment. Her orchard, managed by orchardist Benjamin Applegate, is “holistic,” which in a nutshell means they focus on growing a healthy tree instead of a “perfect” grocery store apple.
“Organic isn’t a high enough bar for us,” explained Eleanor, “it’s not just about the absence of certain chemicals; it’s about the entire orchard ecology and the long-term impact on both the health of the land and the people who grow the apples.” She notes that consumers increasingly want products that are free of additives and concentrates, another benefit to small growers who are using sustainable practices.
Navigating Challenges with Flexibility
Eleanor’s and Eden’s success has not been without challenges. A few years ago, realizing that the business was being stretched thin with the opening of the Tasting Center, and most recently with COVID-19, Eleanor turned to the Flexible Capital Fund, L3C (the “Flex Fund”) for support.
“We needed to grow quickly in order to support the business,” said Eleanor. “The Flex Fund offered us flexibility and support in ways that most banks just are not able to do.”
Working with Flex Fund president Janice St. Onge as an informal advisor, Eden Ciders was able to secure royalty financing quickly and establish an advisory board that has been instrumental as the company has grown, most recently in helping them to navigate through COVID-19.
“Our growth has really been centered around two strategies: distribution expansion and e-commerce,” said Eleanor. “When COVID-19 hit, we had been on track for the best spring on record, then restaurants closed down and everything ground to a halt, while at the same time e-commerce exploded.” The company pivoted from selling bottles to restaurants, to selling cans to retailers. They hope to follow in the footsteps of Heady Topper, who taught the world that a high-end beer can come in a can. “We’re about to do the same for cider,” said Eleanor.
Despite the challenges of 2020, Eleanor remains optimistic and hopeful for the future. “It has been an extraordinary year as a business owner, and as a human being,” she said. “What I hope will rise up from the pandemic, increased awareness of systemic racism, and the divisiveness of our current administration is a broader understanding that there is more to life than power and capitalism as raw forces. Companies can operate in a way that has a positive impact on the world, and consumers can buy from those companies that are not solely about turning profit, but also about supporting the planet and humanity.”
Cheers to that.
About the Flexible Capital Fund
The Flexible Capital Fund, L3C is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) and impact investment fund that provides flexible risk capital in the form of subordinated debt, revenue based financing (also known as royalty financing) and alternative equity structures, to growth-stage companies in Vermont and the region’s food systems, forest products, and clean technology sectors.