Fire Cider is expanding, and not a moment too soon.
The Pittsfield, Mass.-based brand, manufacturers of an apple cider vinegar-based tonic sold in three varieties, announced Tuesday it had entered into a partnership with nutrition store chain GNC to carry the product line in its 4,500 locations nationwide starting in May.
While that opportunity represents a significant distribution gain for Fire Cider, Shire City Herbals co-founder and CEO Dana St. Pierre told BevNET that it would have been impossible had the company not made an even more important step forward this same week: securing a new 20,000 sq. ft. production facility and headquarters that, when fully operational this fall, will be the brand’s first space it can call its own.
“If we weren’t going to move into this new production space, this would be our last big deal,” said Dana St. Pierre, co-founder and CEO at Fire Cider, of the GNC partnership. “We are in talks with other various larger chains, and we would basically have to put them all on hold. Just that alone is mind-blowing.”
Fire Cider’s new home in Pittsfield’s East Street neighborhood heralds a new era at the company. For starters, it’s the first time St. Pierre and his staff have some control over the design of their workplace. Having launched brewing operations in a commercial kitchen at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Pittsfield in 2011, the company had been using a shared production space at the Franklin County Community Development Corporation Food Processing Center in Greenfield, Mass. since 2012.
As the brand has grown in subsequent years, the limitations of the space have become more apparent. The cramped quarters did not allow for integration of additional machinery and equipment, while St. Pierre noted that the repeated cycle of stacking and unstacking pallets to make room for more product resulted in much wasted labor.
“We called it ‘playing Jenga,’” he joked. Yet aside from the extra sweat, the space was hampering further growth in real ways. “If we didn’t move, we would have had to start turning away new business at the end of this year,” he added. “We would just completely cap out at production.
In contrast, the new facility, a former bottling plant for the Coca-Cola Company, will be designed from the ground-up to best serve Fire Cider’s evolving needs and specifications. The new kitchen space is over 8,000 sq. ft., which St. Pierre called “enormous, compared to what we’re used to.” Once construction of the kitchen has been completed, the company plans to hire four additional staffers to work it, adding to the existing roster of 15 full-time employees.
“When we really start thinking about it, we feel like kids at Christmas,” he said. “We’re going to be able to make our process more efficient and have less wear and tear on us physically. Stuff we do manually now we’ll be able to get conveyors and cool stuff to make our lives easier.”
As an example, he points out that the new facility will contain a “honey room,” in which the raw, coarsely filtered honey that arrives at the plant in crystallized bricks inside drum barrels can be warmed up and made pourable and movable. The dedicated area will allow for a more precise process compared to the makeshift method the brand currently employs, using space heaters to melt the honey and a thermometer for temperature control.
“That’s what we get when we design our spaces,” said St. Pierre. “Everything is going to be so much easier.”
The new facility will also allow Fire Cider to improve efficiency by taking control of bottling. St. Pierre said that the current process of packing bulk material, sending it to its bottler in Connecticut, and having the finished product shipped back takes about a week. Once the plant is fully operational, he said that process could be replicated on-site in one day.
Beyond improving its existing workflow, Fire Cider’s new headquarters gives the brand a runway for exploring further innovations and introduce new products.
“We have what we think are some really great ideas,” St. Pierre said, noting that the company did not have the space to create product prototypes in its previous facility. He added that plans to create a 2 oz. SKU had run into technical issues with co-packers that should be resolved when bottling operations are moved in-house.
“Longer term, we have ideas for all kinds of other products like honey-based syrups, possibly ready-to-drink beverages,” he said.
In the meantime, he said the company was focused on continuing to grow and establish commercial partnerships like the one inked with GNC, which brings the brand’s total retail penetration to over 6,000 locations. St. Pierre said the brand has received interest from fitness-oriented consumers as a post-workout recovery drink, and being on GNC shelves would help position the product in a way that greater emphasizes its functional and health benefits to that audience.
“It made a lot of sense for GNC to offer that option, and it made a lot of sense for us because we are mostly carried in natural and specialty food stores,” he said. “Business is booming there, but being in GNC gives us a whole different group of people who don’t necessarily go to the natural/specialty channel.”