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Common Cider pressed by growth, scalability issues

John Seelmeyer
jseelmeyer@nnbw.biz

Common Cider Company’s products generally are the most expensive of the growing number of hard-cider drinks on the shelves of liquor stores in Nevada and California.

And it bothers Fran Toves, founder of the Sparks-based company, not one whit.

Sales for the two-year-old company has been growing at a 200 percent annual clip, and it’s won gold medals for its Blood Orange Tangerine Cider at the California State Fair and for its Hibiscus Saison Cider at the Mendocino County Apple Fair.

“We’ve been blown away by the phenomenal growth we’ve had,” says Toves, who’d worked as product developer and consultant in the natural food industry before launching Common Cider in early 2013.

Grocers and liquor retailers including Raley’s, Whole Foods, BevMo and Total Wines carry the company’s cider, and its distributors have made good headway into restaurants and bars as well.

Toves’ timing is good.

By one calculation, sales in the still-tiny cider segment more than tripled from 2011 through 2013. Unlike the crowded craft-beer segment, hard cider sells equally well to women.

While some big craft brewers have launched cider lines, Toves draws from her culinary experience in developing products.

“The flavors are layered and complex,” she says. “It’s all about innovation in recipe development.”

It’s also about careful selection of ingredients. The company uses real blood oranges and real tangerines — no artificial flavors — for its Blood Orange Tangerine Cider. Apples are fresh-pressed.

The result is a product that’s higher priced than competitors who use less-expensive ingredients.

“I don’t stress myself about the competition,” says Toves.

Instead, the company’s eight full- and part-time employees work hard to engage consumers individually at retail outlets, craft-beer festivals and charity events.

The company’s marketing focuses on the wine crowd, positioning the layered flavors as an alternative to wine rather than a swap for a craft beer. Unlike sweet-tasting competitors, Common Cider formulates a dry, crisp product, using proprietary techniques developed by Toves.

Common Cider doesn’t have a Web site, and Toves says it’s a low priority. Instead, she likes the engagement of the company with its customer through its Facebook presence.

That involvement creates loyal customers, and it’s equally important to help Toves open the doors to the distributors that get the products onto store shelves.

“They want to see that you are committed to growing your own brand,” she says.

The company has ramped up carefully from its first 15-gallon batches of cider to the current production runs of 30,000 gallons at its contract production facility in northern California.

And that, Toves says, has proven to be challenging.

“We want to be true to our craft, but also to understand the scalability,” she says.

So far, it’s managed its rapid growth while operating at break-even or a small profit.

The next big step for the small group of investors who have funded the company is development of a dedicated production facility in northern California. Ownership of its own facility will give Common Cider the opportunity to develop seasonal varieties similar to those that craft brewers have created to generate marketing buzz.