SHRUB on Midday Makeover WENY TV

Dorothy Poppleton and Andri Goncarovs are the owners of Finger Lakes Harvest in Ithaca, NY. Their product is SHRUB, a process of fermenting fruit that dates back to colonial days. It includes 3 ingredients: whole fruit, organic apple cider vinegar and organic cane sugar. They can be reached at (607) 346-3849 and SHRUB can be purchased at a variety of Farm Markets and online at www.etsy.comshop/FingerLakesHarvest.

The whole umbrella picture of Finger Lakes Harvest originally was to bring products that were made in the Finger Lakes under one site and sell them. We veered off from that when we discovered this one product, SHRUB that we could produce. We have taken that Finger Lakes Harvest and turned it a little bit. The Harvest part is the fruit is harvested from farmers in the Finger Lakes region. The brand represents what we intended on doing originally. We found that there were very few direct ‘farmer to producer’ connections especially for the small farmers who cannot participate in the large wholesale markets. We can source out markets (even by knocking on doors) from small producers who might have half an acre of rhubarb. We will harvest that and put it in freezers that we rent. We produce SHRUB from that.

The nice thing about what we do is this: we can use ‘ugly’ fruit. The farmer might not be able to sell this at the market because it is not ‘pretty’. We don’t need pretty fruit. We are going to transform the fruit into a wonderful liquid.

How is this different from fruit that has been dropped to the ground and considered unusable?

 There are 2 things going on there. NY State passed some legislation about 10-12 years ago based on several incidents, but one in particular. Tainted fruit ended up in a product that caused some health problems in individuals and then on top of that, there was a contaminated water source that was used to wash fruit. The legislation was a reaction to clamp down on potential contaminated sources of fruit. Farmers in particular when you are trying to process apples, and other foods (in particular ‘drops’), which they may have done in the past, they may not have been cleaned well enough.

Our approach is if it’s really dirty or moldy, we cannot use that fruit. However, we go through a cleaning process just like any food processor. The FDA and USDA have certain rules about how much other contaminates can be in there. Even a small percentage is not good but in the big food processing world up to 5% is allowed.  What we do is establish a DIRECT connection with the farmer. We know them intimately. Farm to Table is a movement that is happening right now. What it’s doing is bringing the farmer and the consumer closer together. What we are doing is basically the same thing – making a product where we know that the product that we are getting is clean, not damaged, we know who it comes from and the conditions under which it was grown. If it’s organic and certified as such, we can label it organic. If it’s not certified organic we can’t label it organic. However, we can certainly let our consumers know under what conditions it was grown.

How long have you been doing this?

We were FDA Certified back in November, 2016. How we started the process is an interesting story. Andri closed a business. I had just left a job. We needed a vacation so we went up to New England. On the trip we ran into some friends and talked about our concept of Finger Lakes Harvest. The conversation brought us around to talking about shrub. They knew someone who made it. We had never heard of it. We went to a colonial village and in their refrigerator was a bottle of shrub! We decided to buy this and see what it was all about. We bought it, tasted it, put it on everything and on the way home we began talking about it. We researched it when we got home. I started working with it in the kitchen with small amounts of fruits and vinegar. I tried different kinds of vinegar. We discovered Apple Cider Vinegar was the way to go. Over time we developed this really great product.

I am curious about the sugar. Why do you have to put sugar in it?

It is part of the process. When you put sugar on berries and all that wonderful juice comes out, it’s the same type of thing.

There is this idea that all sugar has negative effects. Unfortunately, that’s a great generalization that is not necessarily true. For certain people with certain medical issues even a little bit of sugar can be a problem. For the most part in the shrubbing process it has extreme value.

  1. It acts as an extractor. It helps pull the fluids and helps loosen up the flavor esthers which are the things where the colors and flavors are.
  2. It also acts as a preservative and so does the vinegar. The vinegar is also an extractor. It’s called a vector. Vectoring is how you extract and do it at a LOWER temperature than most of your juices that are extracted.

Most of the juices in this country that are bottled by FDA law are extracted by a heating process which, unfortunately, destroys most of the A’s, a lot of the B’s, and all of the C’s or ascorbics. This process is different and the extraction process is at a much lower temperature over time. Sugar is part of that. Sugar helps create a stability. Sugar is the food for the lactobacters to continue to do their work in the conversion of fibers and esthers that live in the fruit to the liquid. You could do this with just the fruit but there would probably not be enough to pull out all the nutrients.

You are using organic cane sugar? Is that different than the white, processed cane sugar you buy at the store?

Organic Cane sugar is unbleached. It is coarser and has more of the micronutrients in it. It is a certified organic sugar which feels different, has more flavor and works differently. It is hard to explain but the lactobacters like it too. It is also twice the cost of bleached, processed cane sugar.

What has been your evolution as a business owner?

Dorothy Poppleton: Throughout my entire life I have always loved to cook –specifically BAKE! As a kid coming out of High School I thought about going to culinary school but loved to cook so much that I was afraid that if I did it for a living, I would hate it. I was very pragmatic and I got a degree in Radiology and X-ray. I did that for the first 15 years of my young adult life. I was in healthcare and specialized in mammography; I did family practice, urgent care etc. I did most of that in Boston and the Adirondac region.

I am from this area and when I had my first child, I wanted to come back to Elmira. One night I was working the 3-11 shift and I had a patient that I wasn’t sure what they had.  I was holding them for a procedure and thought, “What am I bringing home to my kids”. I reevaluated after that what I wanted to do with my life. My husband was in landscaping and I opened a retail garden center. We did that for awhile and relocated to a place where I could have a kitchen. It was called Westside Marketplace (café) at the Point. I closed the shop in West Elmira and worked for a caterer for a time and then Cornell for a time. I had an opportunity to open Sophie’s Cafe in Big Flats.

My business partner and I had an opportunity to open a bakery/café with food on Market St. in Corning. I did that for awhile and as life happens it was not a good fit for 2 single women raising families so we sold it. I began working for Corning, Inc.. I discovered that working in a corporate setting was not my ideal place. Around that time, Andre and I met. I left Corning and began helping Andri at his Antique Center for about a year. He closed that and we went on our New England vacation.

Andre Goncarovs: I was in the wholesale sourdough bread business for 20+ years. We were self-taught. We created our own cultures, we grew them and inoculated our doughs. We sold bread throughout New York State. We learned how to create great natural sourdoughs. Some were sweeter than others and some were more sour than others. We learned branding and shaping packaging.

Somewhere in the middle of there I also ended up in the consulting world. I did a lot of re-engineering consulting work with manufacturers in the US. We also did things like competitive intelligence, product positioning, new product development and due diligence acquisition. It was a one stop shop consulting firm.

There was the wholesale, family bakery business partnership and the consulting work. They coexisted for awhile. Then there were some life changes and it was time for me to make some changes on the baking side. Portions of it were sold.

I also earned a couple degrees from Cornell and was President of Ithaca Farmer’s Market for years. This laid the foundation for a lot of what we are doing now. At Ithaca Farmer’s Market we did a lot of local development. I wrote papers on marketscape development and presented at different educational groups and institutions. We were very involved in Cooperative Extension. There were a few other stops along the way. I worked overseas with an NGO doing agri-tourism and small business development. I taught courses in the Wisconsin Dells to former Soviet Union regional economic development ministers about the basics of starting an economy from the ground zero for several summers.

About 10-12 years ago I got into the antiques business. I ended up buying out the partners in the Antique Center north of Ithaca and ran that. It was the old Babcock Industries building. It was a big footprint retail business so I learned about customer acquisition, antiques and the history that goes along with it. Dorothy and I would have liked to purchase the building, but the negotiations did not go well. We decided to leave that and go find something else to do but enjoy life for awhile. That lasted about 2 weeks and we bumped into shrub. We are serial entrepreneurs.

I appreciate you are able to pick something up, play with it for awhile and put it down. Some people can’t do that. They ‘beat it to death’. They don’t ever want to put it down.

You have to be listening – to what your body is saying, the things that are around you (the conversations of people and the). It’s not easy when you are neck deep in all the crisis that a small business can create. In taking on something completely new, I had some background in helping manufacturers; I am comfortable around machinery. We have designed some of our own equipment that we use specifically for SHRUB.

We did the research on the shrub market and felt the timing was right. We were seeing all the right things that you would want. As a consultant to myself, I would be saying if you have the time, energy and money to do it, jump in now. We convinced ourselves this was the right time to do this. Dorothy worked diligently every night working up different processes on a small scale. In the meantime, I am figuring out how we are going to go from making a 2 gallon batch to a 200 gallon batch while keeping it all financially moving. This is not something a bank is going to throw money at unless you have lots of collateral. We didn’t. I had some retirement assets and other monies. I was Antique Rich at the time and sold that off. We made some good decisions along the way – it was a challenge. We made some not so good decisions, but not ones that would sink the ship.

With our baking experience, food is in our blood. Bottling is a whole different thing. Bottling, labeling, figuring out the size of the bottle, the shape of the bottle. But we love learning and figuring out another way to go about it.

Are there any misconceptions about you or your business?

I think we are moving fast enough that people can’t catch up to it. Some people have one career in 30 years where we have done 3 careers in 30 years and that’s pretty normal now.

The other thing is that when people say what are you doing? Why are you doing that? Why CAN you do that? Why should you be doing that? It didn’t cross us as a stumbling block. We went for it. We have regular business meetings. We plan our strategy just like a big business but we are a small business. (You have wonderful backgrounds for this. Lots of people don’t).

I think there was one minute when we talked about it and we thought maybe we should go out and get traditional jobs. And then it was like “No. That’s not us”.

Are there misconceptions about your Product?

Some people will walk up to our booth and ask, “Is this a skin product”? We tell them it’s not SCRUB, it’s SHRUB. Other people will know what this is when they come up to the booth and say, “Oh. This is juice”. No, it’s not juice and we have to educate.

The learning curve on knowing what this product is, is HUGE and very steep. We accept that as part of our mission to be the industry leader in this country. We recognize that people are just learning about what shrub is but also this whole concept of making a simple wholesome ingredient from a few ingredients that is stable and can be used in so many different ways like they did 250 years ago. They were smart back then. They didn’t have commercial refrigeration. They didn’t even have bottling really. They learned that through simple processing you could end up with a product that is stable and nutritious and last for a little bit longer than a day or two.

What have been your greatest achievements?

(Dorothy) I think the fact that we could take something from nothing and make it into a successful business in a very short period of time. We have a ways to go but we look at this as very much a success.

I feel that in my life – having the courage to do things on my own. Many people have looked at me as if I am crazy thinking I could have stayed in medicine and be retired by now. I would not have been happy. As much angst as being in a small business can cause you wouldn’t want it any other way. I think that in and of itself is an achievement.

(Andri) In reality, the best is yet to come. We have something here that is uniquely different and interesting. We are bringing a lot of people along with us. It’s not just a few customers. Farmers are starting to see there may be something interesting here and maybe they could make a value added product. (Of course, that will be on them to make it happen for them). But once we are in this for another 2-3 years, there is going to be a pathway that we will have cleared to make a difference for many other people that want to get started.

We have intentionally gone to Farmer’s Markets and Wine and Food Shows. Some things are under development but we have met a lot of people in the process. In doing so we learned a lot about ourselves and what it takes to make a product that everyone is comfortable with in general. In doing so, we gain a confidence in ourselves. Smaller businesses are beginning to notice it and asking us questions. They see how far we have come in a short amount of time.

Of course, we are very dedicated. We work well together too. I have a partner that I can fully trust. When something has to happen, it happens. Every Monday morning we have a business meeting and we talk through every issue that is related. We clear the table a lot. In a family business that can be hard to do because it becomes personal. Then you become stuck and goals are not being reached. We have gone from zero to some great numbers in year one. We are profitable NOW!

I keep thinking Shark Tank.

We talked about this the other day. Someone did bring shrub to Shark Tank about 2 – 3 years ago. The woman had a great idea but she was very unclear about her market segments and where to go and how to present her products. We learned from that. We are humble enough to know that we don’t know everything. As smart as we are and with the backgrounds we have, we still don’t know everything. We are willing to ask anyone for help.

We learn a lot from our customers – how they are using the product, how they are perceiving what we are telling them. We had this whole thing in the beginning about all the wonderful ways you can use this but it became as simple as saying it is 3 basic ingredients. We had a 3 minute elevator speech and now we are 30 seconds. We didn’t think that was important. We thought people would listen to us forever. They would walk away. The market is relentless in that way.

We re-watch some of the Shark Tank segments, but the one about the shrub teaches us something new every single time. The shark’s language is finely honed. The first time we heard a question it may have gone over our heads. The next time we heard it we understood what they wanted.

Do you have any stumbling blocks?

Lack of capital to start. We grew faster than we had finances for. It’ been a balancing act getting into things slowly. We realized that if you put everything on the shelf and you’re not getting immediate money back that is money you can’t reinvest in the company. We have also begun to grow out of our present space. Finding a new one is a challenge.

However, some of these challenges have been valuable lessons for us. They have taught us to look for efficiencies in our processes. There are times when we ask experts for ideas and may look around for common household items to build things. Stumbling Blocks are great lessons.

Would you take a Do-Over in anything?

No. I am a believer in lessons learned.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

We know where we want to be in 2 years. We will be a million dollar business. We have an opportunity to grow.

Are you developing this business to sell it?

I don’t believe any of our 6 children are interested in what we do. Our children have their own directions they are going in.

We are in this for the long haul. This business requires a lot of intention. It’s not just money and hardware. It requires a lot of attention to details that could come back to bite you. We are pretty aware of that. We want to build a clientele that is happy with a great product that are willing to pay a little extra for it while keeping our margins happy. We know our business will remain here. We will not be moving to Michigan or Ohio or Florida.

We plan to expand a SHRUB based product line. We have some of those developed for now (Bloody Mary Mix). We have brand extension product plans as well. If someone made a significant offer for a business that we have built, yes we would sell it. I don’t plan to be working in my 80’s. I am doing this as a way to retire eventually.

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