Quality products and service with a focus on homegrown and state-sourced products have always been the cornerstone of Rittman Orchards and Farm Market and Bent Ladder Cider and Wine. But when COVID-19 changed the world, safety in preventing the spread of the virus became another key component in attracting customers.
For the Vodraska family, which runs both operations on their 125-acre farm just south of Wadsworth, Ohio, it meant exploring new opportunities to meet customer demand — including adding curbside pickup, increasing product offerings, limiting customers and more.
“Necessity breeds innovation,” says Matt Vodraska, 36, who works on the farm and manages Bent Ladder Cider and Wine. He’s also the cidermaker and vintner.
The farm, which has been a functioning fruit farm in some capacity since the early 1920s, boasts more than 100 apple varieties, including several heirloom varieties ideal for hard cider-making. The family also grows strawberries, peaches, blueberries, wine grapes, and red and black raspberries, while a small portion is rented for soybeans and corn.
Matt’s parents, Dale and Peg, who are still active on the farm, originally farmed in the northeast corner of the state in Ashtabula County, running a 200-acre fruit farm primarily serving the wholesale market. About 25 years ago, they sold the Ohio farm and bought an apple farm in Washington.
Markets deteriorated, and Dale was looking for something more hands-on. They moved to the Smokey Mountains (Sevierville) to pursue other endeavors until Rittman Orchards became available in 2004 and they moved back to Ohio. The neglected orchard had to be completely replanted, and the farm market was bulldozed and rebuilt in 2005.
The 2,000-square-foot farm market offers products grown on the farm, as well as other artisan food products made in Ohio. “There’s a book nook section with cookbooks and other books geared toward agriculture and the outdoor world, as well as an old-fashioned candy section, an ice cream counter and more,” says Matt, who has a home on the farm, as do Dale and Peg.
Matt is in a partnership with his older brother, Chris, and together with about a dozen employees (more during harvest), they run the entire operation, which includes a tasting room that opened Labor Day weekend in 2016.
With the onslaught of the virus, both businesses, which share a parking lot, were shut down for much of March, April and May.
To keep some sales trickling in, the farm had to develop a way to accept online orders and offer curbside pickup and delivery.
“My brother definitely deserves a ton of credit for this — he redid our website to add online sales, which was a huge investment of time on his part,” Matt says.
Sales were better than anticipated, and customers were wanting even more options, Matt notes. “We started bringing in products, which was a big change from selling just what we grew,” he adds. “Through our connections over the years, we were able to source extremely high-quality produce. Before, we never offered citrus or staples like bananas, lettuce, bread, tomatoes, eggs and milk.
"It’s not going to make us that much money, but it's something we can offer to customers who want less shopping stops. And we source the brands we trust with high quality. We contacted a dairy right down the street from us, and now we sell their milk.”
People responded with more orders and positive customer feedback. “So even now that a lot of restrictions have been lifted, we're continuing carrying those items,” says Matt, who was the 2019 Ohio Farm Bureau Federation’s Outstanding Young Farmer and is president of Wayne County Farm Bureau and involved with Midwest Apple Improvement Association.
“We’re not a huge store with droves of people. We’re a small farm market with a lot of open space that is conscious about social distancing. People feel a lot better about coming here.”
Welcoming back customers
As strawberry season approached, the state began to reopen. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of people may visit the market in a day. “During harvest, it would literally be thousands of people a day,” Matt says. “We knew we couldn’t do normal operations safely, so we had to start decentralizing.”
In the past, customers would check in at the market before heading to the U-pick fields and then back to the market to check out. “We knew that wasn't feasible with the occupancy restrictions,” Matt says. “In a typical summer, we would have 30 to 40 people waiting in line. So, we transitioned the U-pick operation toward the field and separated it off from the market.”
Staff normally in the market were moved to little stations in the fields to check in customers who were given containers for their pickings. “We didn't let people bring their own containers anymore,” Matt explains. “We required them to use one of ours. We stopped charging for it and built it into the price.”
Checkout was at those same field stations where there was plenty of room to social distance.
“It greatly reduced congestion,” Matt says. “We still had to put up markers and signs and ropes and stuff so people were properly distanced out there. But we found out really fast that most people were more than happy to accommodate the new restrictions because we were offering a family-friendly activity they felt safe partaking in.
"Because our fields are big enough, there's no need to be right next to another group of people picking. Families naturally spread out and were really enthusiastic with the changes — feeling safe and comfortable with our accommodations.”
Matt says the substantially reduced foot traffic in the market — where customers might pick up extra berries, jams, ice cream or other goodies — did not result in less revenue.
“It was a downside to decentralizing, but as word of mouth and social media got out about what we were doing, it brought in more U-pick business than we've ever had,” Matt says. “It kind of offset any lost add-on sales in the market.”
The market was limited to only one or two people per family or group and had an occupancy capacity. “Initially, especially at the start of strawberry season, our ice cream sales were down,” Matt says. “But by the end of June, those numbers had recovered. One family member could come and get ice cream for the whole family.”
The businesses have a diverse customer base, being in the country but being able to draw from large population centers — about 15 minutes from downtown Akron, 45 minutes from Cleveland and 20 minutes from Wooster. The closest town, about five minutes to the north, is Wadsworth.
“We continue to do one farmers market in the Cleveland area,” Matt says. “And we had a thriving business selling directly to restaurants in the Cleveland metro area, but that has obviously tapered off considerably. I was up to around 20-some restaurants. Now it's down to like five, but that number will come back as some restaurants reopen.”
Matt says he’s not super concerned because he’s invested a lot of time in individual chefs. “Some chefs may leave a restaurant, but establish themselves in a new place and call me up.”
To keep workers safe, everyone had to mask up while inside, and lunches were staggered to prevent congregating. “But when it comes to fruit farming, you don't really ever get many people in one place," Matt says. "It’s pretty individualized, and there's a very low risk of transmission because they're not just 6 feet apart, they’re 20 to 100 feet apart."
COVID-19 forced businesses to evaluate what they were doing and identify what could be improved. “There was no choice. We had to make tough decisions, and there were some mistakes along the way — not all ideas pan out,” Matt says. “But it behooves us to identify what did and incorporate that going forward, because we don't really know what a post-COVID world is going to look like with potentially other epidemic-causing diseases.
"And, I don’t think people are going to be as comfortable coming out of COVID with large groups or being crowded in the same place as they were pre-COVID. There could be some lasting changes, and businesses will have to adapt. I think customers are going to continue to be attracted to types of business that really prioritize safety and comfort along with the quality of their offerings.”
As of now, the Vodraskas are planning to run the 2021 season the same as 2020. “But, as things change, there’s always room to pivot,” Matt says.