They say if you want to eat well, eat like your grandparents ate. For Dana St. Pierre, that was lots of funky concoctions of grated horseradish, vinegar, honey, onions and garlic his grandma would feed him to help keep his allergies at bay. When he got older, he wanted to keep the tradition of those home remedies, but play around with the flavors to make it actually taste good. After some tinkering, Dana came up with Fire Cider, a raw, organic apple cider vinegar based tonic. We got to chat with founder Dana to discuss sourcing organic ingredients, the challenges of growing a business without an investor, and their exciting new kitchen space.
R.K.: What made you start your brand? How did you first get the idea?
D.S.P.: Fire Cider is based on my very German grandmother who used to feed me very German home remedies, and most of them were disgusting. But allergies and respiratory issues run in my family, so I was being fed things like grated horseradish, vinegar, honey, onions and garlic. That’s how I grew up! As I got older, I wanted to keep using those home remedies but I didn’t like the taste of them. I was combining different ingredients and got into herbal medicine a bit, and eventually tinkered with all of these things and came up with what is now Fire Cider.
R.K.: How do you source your ingredients?
D.S.P.: From the very beginning, we only used certified organic which is very important to us for a lot of reasons. Initially, we were sourcing as much locally as we could but we ran into the difficulty of there not being a lot of certified organic in our area. We started out making tiny batches in our kitchen in mason jars. When we were at that scale, sourcing 100 percent locally worked but as we got bigger, we became certified organic.
It’s been a bit of a struggle, so in the long term we’d like to buy land or cultivate relationships with local farmers so we can use the produce. But in the meantime, we’re buying certified organic from the best sources we can find. We get our peppers from a family farm in Mexico, and our honey is from the Yucaton Peninsula in Mexico. It’s super high quality, wild and multi-floral, and comes from this collective honey operation, which we’re pretty proud of.
Our unsweetened cider started out for my wife Amy, since she doesn’t do sugars, so we’d reserve some before we put the honey in it just for her. Word got out so we’d informally make it for friends and it slowly became a thing. Now we sell a great deal of it!
R.K.: What did you have to learn the hard way? Any particular challenges along the way?
D.S.P.: There’s the business side and the food side. On the business side, it’s really hard to grow a business without investors. For a long time, we couldn’t get a loan without three years of business behind us. So for the first couple years we’d go to banks, but they’d want to see three years of tax returns first. We wound up hooking up with a community development corporation, and we were able to get financing through them. Also when we first started, no one knew what vinegar tonics were; it was unheard of and we had to convince them to take a risk on our product. No matter how much you believe in your business, you have to convince others to take a risk on you, which is really hard!
When you scale up, it’s not simple like going from making it in mason jars to 55 gallon drums, which you can’t just pick up and dump through a filter. Now we need pumps and new equipment. We had to do our research and ask others in the industry, like figuring out how to move 300 gallons of vinegar around! We now even have $100 food-grade shovels to move our products around.
R.K.: Has there been a benefit to starting your business in the New England area that you don’t think you’d get elsewhere?
D.S.P.: I was born and grew up in Western Massachusetts, and also lived in Phoenix, Ariz., for 10 years, and they’re really different! The personal networks I have here in New England have definitely helped, and I can’t imagine doing what we’ve done without them. We were friends with the manager at our local co-op so we could go to him and ask what we could do to get Fire Cider on the shelves. He spent a good amount of time with us, explaining the barcode, insurance and other requirements. We’ve been able to get a lot of advice from others who own small local businesses.
R.K.: What would you love to see in the New England food and wellness scene that you don’t now?
D.S.P.: There’s a lot of small-scale help, but we haven’t encountered a lot of peers who have grown their companies from relatively small to medium size, at least in Western Massachusetts. We go to these trade shows, and there are a lot of people on the West Coast whose businesses have followed a similar trajectory, but we haven’t found many in New England. Maybe I’m just bad at networking, but more of network of people locally to plug into would be really helpful for Fire Cider.
R.K.: What other local food and wellness brands are you a fan of?
D.S.P.: There’s a brand called Raw Food Central from Connecticut that we met at a trade show, and they make all kinds of flax crackers and dehydrated snacks, and we eat a lot of that. We also love Taza Chocolate—the chocolate is so good and the people are super cool.
R.K.: Who has been the greatest influence or role model in starting your business?
D.S.P.: There’s a business called Blue Q in Pittsfield and they’re our landlords; they make novelty stuff like socks and bags. They’re just a really inspiring business because they kept it local. They’re a great company to work for too—they have really great wages and benefits and really take care of their people. They’re great at supporting local causes and events, and inspire me because their hearts are in the right place.
R.K.: Where do you hope to see your brand in the next two years?
D.S.P.: We are currently finishing building out our new kitchen, and when we finally get it built, it’s going to really make a big difference for the sanity for our production staff. In two years, I want us to be fully moved into our new space, and that will enable us to come out with new products as well as variations on existing products. It’ll also open the door to collaborations with other companies. We have a lot of really great ideas!
I really want Fire Cider to continue to grow at a sustainable and healthy rate, and hire more people to make a difference in our community.
R.K.: What advice would you give someone looking to start their own wellness or food business?
D.S.P.: I would say talk to everyone and ask them questions because a lot of people have helped us in ways large and small. You never know where help is going to come from! All kinds of random people have randomly known fascinating things about the food and beverage business. Talk is free, even before you have money to spend.
R.K.: Here at The W.E.L.L. Summit we like to say “Your vibe attracts your tribe.” How would you describe your Fire Cider vibe?
D.S.P.: Definitely not fancy; we’re pretty relaxed and unpretentious and approachable. Some people are overly serious, but we don’t try to pretend that we’re bigger and fancier than we are. A lot of people who work with us are passionate about what we do so they’re interesting and fun!
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