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Fly Creek Cider Mill moves forward out of pandemic

By Traci DeLore (tdelore@cnybj.com)

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Has new offerings and a new outlook

Owner Bill Michaels stands in front of Fly Creek Cider Mill’s historic water-powered cider press on the second floor of the mill. (TRACI DELORE/CNYBJ)

FLY CREEK — “Apples and cider, apples and cider, apples and cider.” If you just sang that jingle in your head, you’ve probably visited the Fly Creek Cider Mill & Orchard just outside of Cooperstown.

The mill, located at 288 Goose St. in Fly Creek, opened for the season on April 29 after a rocky time during the COVID-19 pandemic that saw the mill owner close, liquidate inventory, and put the business up for sale.

Owner H. William Michaels — just call him Bill — kept the cider mill open through 2020 as the pandemic ramped up. However, in January 2021, much to the dismay for more than 2,000 fans who “disliked” the post on Facebook, he announced the mill would close on Jan. 31. More than 1,200 people commented on the post how saddened they were by the news and nearly 5,000 people shared it.

By May 2021, the business was listed for sale at $1.9 million, and Michaels figured his cider-making days were over. But he kept hearing over and over how much the business that he grew up in — Michaels purchased the business from his parents — meant to people. 

With some help from Farm Credit East in restructuring the business’s debt, Michaels was able to pivot, streamline the business into a slightly leaner version, and reopened the doors on Aug. 14, 2021, just in time for the mill’s busiest months of September and October.

“Sometimes you have to recognize your strengths and weaknesses, and not be everything to everyone,” Michaels says of his leaner operation.

So what does this “new” version of the Fly Creek Cider Mill look like? Fortunately, for its many fans, it looks a lot like the version they have known and loved for years. It still sells cider pressed on site; cider donuts; mill-made fudge; an array of sauces, dips, marinades, and other co-packaged items sold under the Fly Creek brand; other baked goods such as cookies and pies; mill-aged cheese purchased from McCadam; farm winery products; and many gift items.

However, there have been a few changes.

One of the first changes customers might notice is that the mill’s line of wines and hard ciders, including the tasting station, are no longer located on the first floor.

All of the orchard’s winery products are now located on the second floor in former gift shop space. And some of that space is now home to a tasting room complete with tables and chairs where customers can now purchase a flight of four different products to sample.

The $20,000 project, funded in cash, is designed to create more of an experience for customers, where they can really taste products before deciding what to purchase, Michaels says. As a New York State farm winery, the mill can operate a tasting room selling its own farm wine products along with any New York farm brewery, winery, and distillery products.

Michaels says he plans to add some “grab and go” assortments of cheese and crackers after Memorial Day and can add additional seating as the demand grows.

Outside, Michaels is moving forward this year with plans to expand the boardwalk along the millpond and add a pavilion to showcase some older mill equipment. The boardwalk addition will include two wheelchair ramps, making it easy for everyone to enjoy the boardwalk and the feed the waterfowl in the pond.

Another change is that the business no longer operates an e-commerce side. While the mill was an early adopter of e-commerce, Michaels says, it never really took off and only comprised 1 percent of the mill’s total sales. Much of the issue stemmed from the cost of packing glass jars of mill goodies like salsa and barbecue sauce for safe shipping.

In the Amazon Prime market, Michaels says, “it’s very hard to compete with free. People aren’t willing to pay the price of shipping.”

The other major change Michaels implemented when he reopened in 2021 was to take the business back to a seasonal one. For five years prior, Michaels kept the mill open year-round, but found that customers treated it like a seasonal business. Sales couldn’t match the cost of keeping the business open all year long. The mill now closes after the holidays before reopening in the spring.

For this season, Michaels is still looking for employees to bring him up to his full staffing level of 35 people. He utilizes the federal H-2B visa program, and this year was able to have 10 visa employees. The program allows employers to temporarily hire nonimmigrants for nonagricultural labor for temporary jobs such as the seasonal positions at the mill. Fly Creek houses the employees, who come from Jamaica in the mill’s case, and employs them until November, which gets the mill through its busy season.

“It’s costly, but helps offset the full-time needs,” Michaels says. Like many other businesses, he is struggling to find workers to fill vacancies. Currently, he is looking to hire a maintenance and lawncare employee along with someone for the production team, office staff, two people for the snack barn, and three people for the mill’s retail side. He is advertising to fill those vacancies.

A year after listing the business for sale, the future is looking much different for Michaels and the Fly Creek Cider Mill & Orchard (www.flycreekcidermill.com).

“We’re starting to get motorcoach groups back,” he says. Both the Cooperstown Dreams Park and the Cooperstown All-Star Village are gearing up for their seasons that will bring in close to 200 visiting baseball teams to the area. And the mill’s jingle is happily playing once again: “Apples and cider, apples and cider, apples and cider at the Fly Creek Cider Mill!”         

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