Customers' Fierce Loyalty is Applebrook's Harvest
By Mara Lee
EAST WINDSOR -- Loyal customers doesn't even begin to describe it.
"Ten years? Twenty years? I have no idea how long they've been here," said Lois Noble, who was trying to remember how long she'd been shopping at the orchard owned by Sharon and Tom Muska.
Wende Mitchell said her 9-year-old son begs for the orchard's apple cider. "Best cider in the state of Connecticut," she said. She'd arrived on a Sunday afternoon past 3, and the cider had sold out two hours after the stand opened at 11. She bought ready-to-bake apple crisp instead. Mitchell said her husband's been shopping at the orchard for 20 years.
Sharon Muska said their longtime customers are like friends now. "We've consoled them, we rejoice with them."
Before the Muskas began selling apples commercially, they had more apples than they could eat from hundreds of trees they'd planted over the years. Tom Muska had to bring in boxes of apples to Aetna, where he worked in systems administration. They also had a farm stand that brought in a few thousand dollars a year.
"We knew nothing about this! I don't even know why we did it," Tom says. He decided to leave his family's oil delivery business and become a full-time farmer, and used the gradual buy-out to fund the first five years, when the 1,000 new trees weren't mature enough to produce in quantity.
From 1993 to 2003, the orchard had 2,350 trees on 17 acres. Today, it has 1,475 trees on 11 acres, 35 varieties of apples, and only 300 of the trees date back to the early years. "We didn't have the right formula for success," Tom said.
An E. coli outbreak in 1996 of Odwalla unpasteurized apple juice in California -- even though it had nothing to do with their apples -- decimated Applebrook's cider sales, which were 8,000 gallons a year at one time.
"We lost 75 percent of our cider business. Gone. That was a big shock to us," Sharon said. The year before they'd finally started to feel like they were making enough money for farming to make sense.
The farm's total sales went from $63,000 before the outbreak to $52,000 the next year.
The wide variety of apples the Muskas grow, and the inclusion of heirloom varieties, such as Roxbury Russet, the oldest apple bred in the United States, is because of their passion for cider. To have a full-bodied cider, you need to mix sweet and tart varieties. The second pressing this year had 16 varieties.
Cider "drove our business for too many years," Tom said. He regrets how much energy they spent on cider -- at one time, they were doing three pressings a week at the peak of the season. Now they do one.
That's because apples sold by the pound are more profitable than cider, even at $5 a half-gallon. Even "thirds," smaller apples that sell for less than the cheapest apples in the grocery store, are more profitable than cider.
Not only that, but cider doughnuts and baked goods, both of which use the orchard's apples but are provided by outside vendors, are more profitable than cider.
In 2011, less than half of sales were apples, cider was still 20 percent, doughnuts were 12 percent, and baked goods, pumpkins and gourds, sunflowers, firewood, fudge, cookies and honey made up the rest.
Tom said that in recent years, he has been doing a lot more financial analysis figuring out what's the most profitable use of the apples. "This farm is like putting together a complex jigsaw puzzle. ... We're intelligent people. Why can't we be more successful at this?"
Collecting Social Security helps -- the couple are both 70 -- and they think they'll keep up the pace for another five years.
"I can't believe my own energy level," Tom said. He works some 18-hour days during the harvest. "I was almost dead five years ago. I feel amazingly good."
He was referring to a bout of cancer he had five years ago, and what happened then shows why they continue to work so hard, even though their non-farming jobs made more money. Customers would knock on their door, even days they were closed, and ask what they could do. Tom teased Sharon that she didn't hesitate to put them to work. One customer would come by with hot coffee every morning.
Linda Patrylak and her fiancé, Jeffrey Seeley, who live in Windsor, were shopping at Applebrook for the second time this fall after finding it online.
"We just find them better than the supermarket. We're supporting local business, and it's more fresh, and it's kind of fun," Seeley said.
They bought Macouns, which used to be the top seller, until Honeycrisps surpassed them.
"Honeycrisps are insanely popular," Sharon said. They cost more because they don't ripen all at the same time, so you have to go back to the same tree each day to get them at the best color. "We call them the divas of the farmstand," she said.
Applebrook's September sales were fantastic, 50 percent higher than any September they've ever had. It's a welcome development, because the late freeze in the spring of May 2012 killed 95 percent of their crop. The farm went from more than $70,000 in sales in 2011 to $12,000 in 2012, though they did get $22,000 in crop insurance.
It was not the first time the weather devastated the farm. When they lost the crop in 2001, they had to sell a piece of land -- a mini-mansion now crowns the hill overlooking the orchard and their home -- and Tom, who had substitute taught to subsidize the farm for years, had to get a full-time teaching job. Sharon, too, worked full time that year as a reading tutor in Hartford public schools.
"I was so cocky," Tom said, thinking back to before he quit the oil business, saying he thought: "I'll make as much money doing this. I had no idea what I was getting myself into."
Aside from the five years when they were hired by commercial landlords to hand out hot cider and doughnuts for customer appreciation days, their sales were not quite enough to pay their son, who works nearly full time during the harvest; their four part-time employees; and their vendors, and to cover the cost of new trees, cider containers and living expenses.
"We really need to get our sales up to $85,000, $90,000," Tom said. At that level, "we wouldn't need to throw in our own money."
Applebrook Farm is at 216 East Road in the Broad Brook section of East Windsor, and is open Thursday-Sunday from 11 to 6 weekdays and 11 to 5 weekends. It will also be open on Columbus Day from 11 to 6.