One family, three businesses
‘All three businesses are very interconnected’
The ongoing success of Brantview Apples and Cider, and the creation of Brantview Events Pavilion and Howell Road Cider Co., ultimately comes down to a matter of timing.
Jay Howell is the seventh generation to live and work on the orchard, which is located in St. George.
This September will mark the 202nd harvest for the orchard.
“We’ve been here for a long time; before Canada was a country,” said Melissa Howell, eldest daughter to Jay and his wife, Linda Howell.
Like everyone who grows up in a farming family, Jay had to make the decision of whether he would remain with the family enterprise, or strike out on a different path.
“The year before I graduated (college), there were lots of jobs; my year, there weren’t many jobs outside of farming,” Jay said. “But my grandfather was ready to take a step back, and there was enough work. It seemed like the right thing to do, so I did it.”
Since then, Jay said, he’s “enjoyed every minute of it.
“Well,” he amended with a smile, and then a laugh, “Not every minute of it, but most of the minutes. There was a couple I’d like to have over, but I think anybody can say that.
“Hey, farming’s tough. But then you see results.”
For a long while, the farm did cash crops and beef cattle, as well as the orchard.
“I was a one-man band for a long time,” Jay said.
After he and Linda married, her father decided to take an early retirement to help Jay with the farm operations.
“You couldn’t have asked for a better mentor. He was the right guy at the right time,” Jay said.
But in 1990, they had to face the fact that the apple wholesale business wasn’t viable for them anymore; Ontario farmers couldn’t compete with the lower prices of the offshore imports.
“It wasn’t that we weren’t doing a good job; we were actually doing a really good job. We just weren’t getting paid for it,” Jay said. “We were faced with a decision … Either you get out of the apple business, or focus on it.”
They decided they were going to go all in.
“Thank goodness for that,” Melissa said.
Geography proved to be on their side. They were able to get into some of the markets in Toronto and Guelph, which allowed them to build up their business. They also moved to a pick your own (PYO) model at the orchard, which took off, said Linda.
“We grew exponentially in very few years.”
Then 2016 came, with the biggest burst of activity – in the form of three new ventures.
After working as an educator for over 30 years, Linda retired and opened an onsite scratch-made bakery at the orchard, employing many of her friends, who are also retired.
“They’re good bakers; what can I say?” Linda said.
“I wanted a store, I got a store. I wanted a bakery, I got a bakery. And now I’m dealing with the work that goes with it,” she said with a laugh.
While it’s a lot of work, Melissa said, “You can taste the difference; I will attest to that. Not very many people can leave here without donuts.”
However, while “Everyone comes for the apple pies and the apple donuts … the secret weapon is the butter tarts,” Melissa said, adding that her mom’s butter tarts “are next level.”
The baked goods are available in the storefront, along with the fruits – or rather, hard ciders, of Jen Howell’s labours. Jen, Jay and Linda’s second daughter, is the owner and cider maker of Howell Road Cider Co., which also launched in 2016.
She had started working on her teaching degree, but realized that wasn’t actually her passion.
Jay said she’d come to them to talk about what she wanted to do instead.
“I want to make copious amounts of alcohol in the backyard. OK, that’s great,” he said.
Jen said her dad had asked her if it was going to be beneficial to the farm, and when she said it would, they supported her in going ahead with her business plan.
“How many parents would be that supportive? Or take that big of a risk?” she said.
Jen took oenology (wine making) courses, as making wine is a very similar process to making hard cider, and at that time, there were no specific cider making courses. That’s since changed. Another thing that’s changed is, “There’s lots of craft ciders now, which is really nice to see the scene emerging,” Jen said.
After she finished her courses, Jen travelled out west to do some co-ops at cideries before opening up shop in Ontario.
“It was kind of a natural fit to include the cidery. Depending on the year, sometimes there’s hail damage, and then there’s frost damage, so it gives us an opportunity to use the apples that we can’t necessarily sell as firsts, which is nice to make into juice,” she said.
Melissa added that in 2016, hard cider was just starting to take off in the North American market, and the Ontario government had just changed the laws, so that wine and cider producers could sell their wares at farmers’ markets.
“That was a huge motivating factor too, because we weren’t just confined to our farm store; we were able to sell our ciders at farmers markets, where we had already established a very strong customer base.”
Brantview had also established a strong customer base at the orchard, too.
“People leave here, they feel they’ve gotten value. They feel like they’ve had some fun,” Jay said.
Melissa added, “We have a lot of people who, this is a tradition for them, which is honestly so magical for our family; we have created something where people call it their family tradition – they come every (year). They take pictures in front of the same landmark on our farm.
“It’s really special.”
Over the years, many people have wanted to celebrate their connection to Brantview in a heartfelt way.
“We had been asked for many years if we hosted events,” Melissa said. People wanted to take their engagement photos at the orchard, hold their wedding there, etc.
“After a while, you kind of get tired of saying no to people,” Jay said.
Melissa added, “It was just a natural fit for us … We had the space for it.”
That’s how Brantview Events Pavilion was born; it’s owned by Melissa and Jen, but the rest of the family pitches in.
Linda said, “Everyone’s involved with everything, to some extent.”
Dan, the youngest of the siblings, completed his master of architecture and was the one who designed the blueprints for the pavilion, besides also offering his skills as a graphic designer for the labels, logos and marketing materials for the businesses.
The pavilion has a capacity of 140, and it is currently the only licensed outdoor private event space with the County of Brant.
That’s important, because couples often want to incorporate Howell Road Cider Co. drinks into their festivities, Melissa said.
“Almost every wedding, they ask to include at least one of our ciders,” she said. “It’s really nice to be able to tie all aspects of what we do here at Brantview (together). All three businesses are very interconnected.”
Jen noted that being able to have hard cider from the orchard where the event is taking place “Is kind of unique to the space.”
That’s not the only way guests might get a taste of what the orchard has to offer.
Melissa said they work exclusively with five specific caterers; couples must choose one of them for their event. The caterers will often incorporate products from the orchard into their menus, such as the apple butter barbeque sauce.
Brantview Events Pavilion also has a list of preferred vendors for other products and services, like flowers and photographers.
“All other vendors are the couple’s choice, but we do have ones that we highly recommend, because they’re here a lot and they do a great job,” Melissa said. “It’s amazing knowing that there are vendors local to this area that you 100 per cent can count on.”
These are part of the details that are discussed during the couple consultations. Melissa generally takes the lead on those in and around her work as a full-time teacher, while Jen, whose full-time work at Brantview includes orchard management, is largely in charge of setting up tables, chairs, etc. for events, besides making sure the grounds look pristine.
“I love working outside; I love working with the trees,” Jen said. “As much as I love making cider, I love the farming aspect of it as well … to be able to learn so much from my dad in terms of the agricultural side of things.”
Their collective dedication to quality and attention to detail has certainly gotten them plenty of attention. During their wedding season, which runs from the end of May until Labour Day weekend, they average between 30 to 35 weddings. After that, it’s right into harvest season – though they always take part in St. George Apple Fest on the third weekend in September, as they have done since the event’s beginning.
Jay said the first few years, “some people set up their pickup trucks in (a) parking lot.” However, “It just grew from there.”
Now, St. George Apple Fest is one of Festivals and Events Ontario’s top 100 Festivals and Events, and the Howells are happy to be an active part of it.
In 2019, the third weekend in September proved to be especially busy. Besides being Apple Fest and harvest season, the family was also named the recipients of the Farm Family of the
Year award from BMO, with the presentation taking place in Sudbury on the Saturday. Jay ended up driving up with his mother and father-in-law to accept the award, and immediately turned around and drove back home, only to attend Apple Fest the next day – and crash on the couch the day after, he added with a laugh.
That’s not the only recognition they’ve received. Brantview Apples and Cider got another feather in its cap this February when it was selected as Ontario’s sweet apple cider champion at the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Convention for its non-alcoholic cider – a distinction it also won in 2015.
Of course, these sorts of recognitions don’t just happen; it’s a lot of fine tuning to their approach and hard work behind the scenes. But while things can get hectic, the family is grateful, Linda said.
“We’ve been very lucky, and we’ve had a lot of positive things happen to us.”
She noted that especially throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the community was very supportive of them. That’s likely because they regularly make a point of being supportive of their community.
For instance, this past October they hosted their first-ever Barktoberfest, a fundraiser for the Brant County SPCA and 4 Lucky Paws Animal Rescue in Peterborough, where they got one of their dogs.
Jen said in the inaugural year, they were able to raise $2,000, which was split between the two organizations.
“It was a great turnout; everyone was so happy,” she said. “The Howell family has always taken a part in our community. It’s such a nice way to be able to give back.”
Barktoberfest will definitely be returning, Jen added.
As the family, along with the rest of the world, transitions out of pandemic mode, they’re taking stock of what still works, what doesn’t, and what can be improved.
For instance, Linda noted that they’re keeping the payment booth in the orchard for the PYO guests, which they had originally installed as a physical distancing measure with COVID, but found it created better flow in the storefront.
Now that pandemic restrictions have lifted, there are sure to be more new events and initiatives introduced.
“We live in chaos a lot,” Linda said.
“But it’s fun,” Jay said. “The beauty of it is, you’ll never have the same day twice. Every day is something different.”
And while he joked that, “I used to be able to make a decision; now it goes to committee,” he stressed that he’s pleased with how involved all of his children are with the businesses, and how carefully thought out their approach has been.
“It wasn’t that we decided to do this, and rolled the dice and threw spaghetti against the wall,” he said. They researched their plans, reached out to others who had tried similar approaches, and were as prepared as possible.
“These guys make really good decisions; very methodical and very practical,” Jay said.
When they collectively made the decisions to expand to new products and services, “We didn’t want to do a crummy job of it,” Jay said, so they made sure to have a good plan in place, and to have the resources necessary to execute it lined up.
“Everybody seems to pull the boat in the same direction, which is nice,” Jay said.
And while his family is exploring their passions with baking, events and cider, for Jay, it all goes back to what he started out with.
“I still giggle when somebody buys a bag of apples,” he said. “You talk about passions – that’s my passion.”