This post is brought to you by GOOD, with support from UPS. We’ve teamed up to bring you the Small Business Collaborative, a series sharing...
This post celebrating a timeless small business is brought to you by GOOD, with support from UPS. We’ve teamed up to bring you the Small Business Collaborative, a series sharing stories about innovative small businesses that are changing business as usual for their communities and beyond. Learn how UPS is helping small businesses work better and more sustainably here.
When you talk to Tom Schierman about his company, the 35-year-old Louisburg Cider Mill & Country Store, you get the sense that good things can come to hardworking folks—like having an already-established hobby business when times got tough, like landing in a small patch of tourist-attracting rolling hills in Kansas, like having a father-in-law with a master plan.
Today, Louisburg Cider Mill & Country Store is a thriving year-round business that offers the sort of autumn attractions that become part of families’ annual rituals—a pumpkin patch, a corn maze, a two-weekend-long Ciderfest with live music and pony rides. More than three decades ago, that same site lay bare with empty land and a neglected hay barn.
Back in 1977, Tom and Shelly Schierman were newlyweds. Shelly’s dad had a piece of land with an old barn in Louisburg, Kansas, and after learning about a friend’s seasonal cider mill, her father posed the idea that they launch a similar small venture. “My father-in-law had a plan,” Tom Schierman remembers, chuckling, “and he saw me as cheap labor.”
The cider mill began as an autumn project. Out of a 120-year-old barn, the couple sold cider doughnuts and fresh apple cider, “and of course, back in those days we didn’t pasteurize or anything,” Schierman says. “We just made it fresh off the press.” They filled and sold jugs of cider straight out of that old barn. It was a nice side business, but Shierman already had a job working in construction.
“What brought us to a more serious level was in 1980, [mortgage] interest rates went through the roof,” Schierman recalls. Much like with the recent housing bust, when the real estate market froze, so did construction. The couple began to look into developing cider as a year-round wholesale product.
Like many start-ups, the Schiermans went through a period of research and hustle. They visited wholesale cider-makers to the north in Michigan, got advice on what processing equipment to use. They didn’t have their own orchard so they linked up with growers in Missouri and a few in Kansas. To this day, Louisburg Cider comes entirely from U.S.-grown apples.
They learned by doing, but started at a time when they would be first in their niche regionally. “When we got into the business, there was not much natural cider on the shelf,” Schierman notes. However, cider’s seasonality—part of what first drew the couple into the business in the first place—proved to be a challenge. From late August until the start of January, stores want cider on their shelves, but soon after it's less of a draw for customers. In spring and summer, Louisburg Cider began making sparkling ciders, a signature root beer (as part of its Lost Trail soda line), fruit butters, and lemonades. “We do things in the opposite time of the year just to keep our production facility going and keep our core people employed,” said Schierman.
“They’re always evolving,” said Jason E. Camis, executive director of the local Paola Chamber of Commerce. He cites Louisburg Cider as a company that isn’t afraid to experiment each year with new products, and yet has managed to hold on to its roots. At the same time that new salsas and barbeque sauces might appear under the company’s label, said Camis, “they do a good job of keeping the base of who they are.”
And that base, according to Camis, is right at the heart of Louisburg, Kansas. Of the mill, he says, “it’s kind of an icon in our region.”
Camis points out Shelly’s role on the local Rotary Club, her past service on the local school board. “You’re hard-pressed to go to any community event and not see a basket that they’ve donated for fundraisers,” says Camis.
In Louisburg, which rests in an unusually hilly, forested region similar to the Ozarks, the Schiermans have become part of a local growth in agritourism. On the area’s rich soil, a handful of local wineries have cropped up over the past decade. Within half an hour of Kansas City, visitors come for cider and stop for wine, or come out to wine country and stop for cider. “We have a small emu farm and other places in the agritourism realm that have grown out of their proximity and involvement,” says Camis.
Like other small businesses, Louisburg Cider Mill’s success has been a mixed bag of hard work and a little luck (both good and bad). In the early years, there wasn’t much capital behind the business and they ran things lean. Today, Schierman warns other would-be business owners that capital is crucial, that cash flow is always a challenge. “Sometimes you run into times that aren’t as good as others,” he explains. Last season, a late bloom and early freeze ruined ninety percent of their source apple crop—doubling apple prices. “A one-hundred percent increase on your number one raw material—that’s a hard one to handle,” Schierman warns that as a business owner, you have to be ready for hard times.
But a renaissance in ciders, particularly hard ciders, can be a gateway for new customers. The promise of natural, healthy products is a desired perk for others. After more than three decades in business, their products are still on shelves regionally but now anyone can find their fruit butters, sparkling ciders, root beers, and more online, ready to ship to hungry customers anywhere. “We were fortunate,” Schierman reflects. “Ours are different than a lot of people’s products—a lot of our competition is using concentrates and doing something different than what we’re doing.” Old-fashioned simplicity and an ever-evolving business sense seem to have something to do with that good fortune as well.