Salt Lake City
Industry: Brewing & Distilling
Products: Hard cider
Husband-and-wife co-founders Jennifer and Jeff Carleton launched Utah's first hard cider operation with a plan for growth.
The Carletons started their careers in the restaurant/hospitality industry, then landed in financial services before agreeing to invest in something of their own. "We were able to take my love of cider and grow it into a thriving business," shares Jennifer.
It was on a trip to Ireland that Jennifer fell in love with cider. "I tried all the national brands but also local craft ciders," she says. "I loved it as an alternative to beer." When they got back home, Jeff researched the cider market and discovered it was experiencing double-digit growth year after year.
"After a lot of research, we became convinced that we could build a profitable business." Jennifer says. Jeff enrolled in an intensive cider-making course, and they attended the national cider conference, CiderCon, and asked a lot of questions. "We talked with other cider makers, industry vendors, and experts, and we tried to get as much industry intel as we could. We talked to the tank manufacturers, the bottle people, the label people. All the technical resources were there!"
One thing they did not have to look too hard for: quality apples. Those they found locally in Utah and Colorado. "The key to our success is using quality ingredients from local purveyors to craft high-quality, modern world, hard ciders," says Jennifer. "We source the ingredients for our ciders from the Mountain West, with most of our juice coming from our home state of Utah and Colorado. Our name, Mountain West Cider, was deliberate. The market for our cider is regional and it was important to us to buy the best ingredients we could find in the region."
When it came to producing the ciders, the Carletons conducted a national search and found Joel Goodwillie, a winemaker working in the Pacific Northwest with cider experience. He jumped at the opportunity and relocated to Utah.
The Carletons originally found their dream location in the heart of Salt Lake City but found out wineries are not allowed in the city center. Looking beyond downtown, the Carletons not only found a better initial location in the Marmalade neighborhood, but room to grow. Mountain West Cider's revamped a warehouse into a production space as well as a tasting room.
"We are the only dedicated cidery in Utah," Jennifer says. "The tasting room is important because it gives customers an opportunity to try our ciders before they buy them. It also provides us with a platform to educate the consumer. This direct-to-consumer model tremendously helped our business grow in the first year and a half."
Their neighbor, Red Rock Brewing's Beer Store, also provides a boost to the new company. "Men come to Red Rock for beer but stop and grab a cider for their wife. And while they are here, we convert them," Jennifer laughs. "Red Rock has been a great neighbor."
Currently, Mountain West Cider is self-distributed throughout the state of Utah. "Distribution partners are expensive," Jennifer explains, "and with our limited resources we felt we’d be better off hiring our own sales staff." While that strategy works for Utah, Jennifer acknowledge that they’ll need distributors to help them as they grow their sales into other states. Mountain West has made great progress in the last year. "We are already in 80 to 85 percent of all restaurants and bars in our area and have built great relationships with local resorts."
Challenge: Growth. With backgrounds in finance, the Carleton's are very aware that they are benefitting from lower mark up and tax assessments because they are producing under 20,000 gallons of cider. That could all change the minute they increase their production. "State charges would be so high, our profitability would be hurt." Expanding in what some may arguably consider -- or would like to be -- a dry state is a challenge. "We have the infrastructure to grow here," Jennifer says, but she remains realistic as to the political challenges that her business faces.
Opportunities: A new canning line. "We continue to make amazing cider, and we are looking at new blends, new offerings, and expanding from only bottles to cans," says Jennifer. "We are already the cider of choice in Utah, but there are lots of ways for us to expand."
Needs: Laws that help small businesses. "We've hired a lobbyist and will continue to work with the state legislature," says Jennifer. "Working together, I know we can forge ahead."