For Burrville’s Steiners, lasting success comes down to good genes
For the past 21 seasons, something special has happened in Burrville that involves one close-knit family and lot of apples. It’s where apple cider and doughnuts are happily married and old traditions continue while new ones are born. For legions of north country residents, autumn wouldn’t be autumn without a few sips of nature’s sweetness at Burrville Cider Mill. We sit down this month with Tina L. Steiner, the matriarch of the current generation of Steiners who, since 1996, have owned and operated the mill.
NNYB: What family members are you in business with? What is it like working in such a very close-knit family operation?
Steiner: I am in business with all my children, obviously. My five youngest totally participate in the cider mill. My three youngest participate in the CSA that I run with my friend. And my son owns a store (Steiner’s General Store & Diner) down here; we help him out. And then I have my husband, of course, and my in-laws. (During the peak season, the mill typically employs 30 people.) It’s fun. I always wanted my children to be with me, and this is my evil way to keep them home. But no, it’s nice because I can depend on them. They know exactly what I’m thinking. I don’t have to tell them specifically. They’ve grown up here. They know exactly how things need to be done. And they come up with the best ideas. They have that younger mentality; they can think of better ways to do things than us old folks do. It’s always growing. We aren’t stagnant at all.
NNYB: As an undergraduate student at SUNY Oswego student 25 years ago, did you ever see yourself in the apple business? How long have you owned the mill?
Steiner: No! I was going to be a child psychologist. I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t think I’d have that many kids, either. But I’m very glad the way my life has turned out. In 1996 we purchased it, and that summer, my husband and I refurbished it with my father-in-law. My three oldest were babies back then. We learned the business, and as the children got older, they became part of the business. They started working about (age) 10-ish. We homeschool, so it’s easier for us to facilitate that idea. They learn all processes of the business. My husband and I were just finishing college, and his great-uncle, from his mother’s side, was medically not able to run the mill anymore. He was getting ready to get rid of it, so we jumped on it. We thought it would be a great opportunity to be able to work as a business together as a family.
NNYB: Apparently that very first season, 1996, was quite a learning curve. Describe what that was like, jumping into this, with your husband with a math background and you with elementary education.
Steiner: The first thing we did was learn the equipment. The old press downstairs was an old press. We learned how to run that. We learned how to run the grinder, the sorter — everything that had to go into making the cider itself. Another thing we had to do was learn how to make the doughnuts. Just to get the store set up. The books and that fun stuff. That actually never happened that year. We ended up taking cider boxes to our accountant because there was just so much. This business — there was so much to learn. Once we got it all under control, we brought in our employees, taught them how to do it.
NNYB: How many acres of apples do you currently manage?
Steiner: We only have trees right now. Our apples are still infants. We have about 10 acres of trees (on a farm in Rodman) that we’re nursing up. It’s a lot of work because of our weather and the way the north country is. It’s just not very forgiving, especially with apple trees. We also have cherry trees and pears that are doing very well. We’ll see what happens.
NNYB: Where are the apples you use for cider grown? How many different varieties of apples do you press in your cider?
Steiner: Most of them are grown in Mexico, New York. At the moment, I think I have close to 20 varieties. When you come to the cider mill, the fresh fruit that’s available for you to buy is a good indication of what’s going into the cider, except we do not press Red Delicious and we try not to press Galas. They don’t have the flavor and they don’t blend well. … The more out there, the better it is.
NNYB: The greater number the varieties of apples in a gallon of apple cider, the better it tastes? What’s the secret (that you can share) to the best-tasting cider?
Steiner: If you press just one apple, it’s very watery tasting. It’s very, I want to say, blah. But when you take a Mac, and put a Cortland in, and then some Idas, Empires, you get that complex flavor. You get the sweetness from the Macs , the tartness from the Cortlands and you just keep mixing it, it tastes a lot better that way. Best tasting cider? You take really good fruit, and you mix it and you don’t add anything to it. We don’t add any water, we don’t add any sugar. That’s the secret to good cider. … That’s just how you do it. You have sweet apples and mix them with tart apples, and you get a good cider.
NNYB: For how long have cider doughnuts been a tradition?
Steiner: When we bought it, we might have been doing only 20 dozen a day. Now we’re doing hundreds of dozens a day. The tradition has gotten up a little bit. Same recipe as I started with, though.
NNYB: Characterize this season with respect to the quality of harvest and the challenges all growers and producers have had with drought conditions. How much of a challenge was it to get the volume you needed?
Steiner: It was a challenge getting (apples) in in the beginning of the year, which is Labor Day weekend. It was very hard to get enough apples to make cider. Once they started coming in, they were very small. With the machinery we have, it’s hard to get them to go in because they’ll fall through the cracks, literally. But the taste, because of the drought, the sugar content is higher this year, so they taste better. Sweeter. The beginning is always fun. You fight to get as many apples as you possibly can. Once we get going and everybody’s on the same wave length and knows exactly what needs to be done, it’s not a challenge.
NNYB: What’s the No. 1 product for you? How do you prepare for years like this, with the extreme drought?
Steiner: Cider. (Sales are) right on target usually. We’ve got quite a few new stores because of TOPS opening up, Sunocos and things like that. We live a very simple life. We don’t go into debt and that helps a lot. If we have a bad year, my husband can go plow. We can make money other places so we can get through. Like I said — stay out of debt. We’ve taught all our children to stay out of debt. My daughter is building her house on a cash basis.
NNYB: What is a typical season like for you from beginning to end?
Steiner: We like to open at least a week before Labor Day. That gives the girls and the guys time to figure out how to run the equipment, get in the swing of things. Then we go all the way to Thanksgiving. Last year, we went into Black Friday because it was warm enough, and we this year hope to do that again.
NNYB: What’s the rest of the year like for you? Please explain the CSA.
Steiner: The offseason? We take December off for Christmas and get prepped for that. We homeschool during the winter. Once April hits, it’s planting season, and we get ready to run the CSA. That’s our summer; we have animals and things like that. Summertime is also time to do some kind of project on the mill, some kind of renovation or fixer upper so that she does well. Then fall hits very quickly. The CSA is called Miracles by the Acre. We formed, I think, 15 years ago. And it’s six farmers. We’re all local. We grow vegetables and sell shares in the spring. And each week, people come and get a half bushel bag of what’s in season. I have, I think, about two acres of vegetables that I contribute. Mostly greens, beans, herbs, tomatoes, and then I do some squashes and pumpkins for fall because, obviously, I have a good place to sell them.
NNYB: How old is this building? What was this building when it was built?
Steiner: She was built in 1801. She’s 215 years old this year. We’ve got a solid roof, and we’ve got a solid foundation. We made sure all that is done. Now we’ve got to work on the walls and floor joists and you know, we’re going to make her perfect for another couple of hundred years. This room right here was the grist mill. The long part where the press room is now was a sawmill. And downstairs was an old press, but nothing like the big presses we have now. And it was all run by the water falls. It’s kind of neat. … I love the history part. That’s our goal: to get the history back together and maybe put a book out so that people can understand why she’s here.
NNYB: This year had a major project that’s quite noticeable to customers. Tell us how you decided on the addition.
Steiner: I wanted a new kitchen, went into the back rooms and decided they would not be able to hold the convection ovens I wanted. So we brainstormed and my boys said, “Why don’t we put it in the porch. Put it in the wall, have a cement floor and everything can go in there.” I said that’s a great idea. Now we’ll be able to take the time to fix the old building and make her stand another couple hundred years.
NNYB: What was behind your decision to invest in your facilities here recently?
Steiner: The children, literally. We are building something that is important — not only is it important for my children but it is important for the area’s children. It is a historic building. Raw food. Healthy food. Things like that are very important to us. It’s also important to us for people to know where their food comes from. We invite the school children to come in and watch us press. We invite the parents and families to come in and watch us press. That’s our drive right now. That, and the history.
NNYB: You’ve diversified a bit in recent years, planting additional acreage of apples in Rodman and buying the former convenience store that is now Steiner’s General Store. How have those efforts paid off?
Steiner: Very good. As the children grow, their interests grow. Not only does my son have the general store, but my oldest daughter has an apiary business. They have 50 hives. We bought that business for her when she was 16. It’s important for the kids to have their own stuff that they can work and do themselves, too, and it makes life diverse. It’s really fun.
NNYB: What will the next five to 10 years or more bring?
Steiner: There’s going to be a lot of construction on the old building. She’s going to be put into a state where she will live another several hundred years. There could be a cidery involved, where we’ll make hard cider here. Or a conference center. Who knows? It’s exciting. … I see it growing more and more, and I see other businesses coming in.
NNYB: What is it like for you to watch the generations visit with their families over 21 seasons? What drives repeat customers?
Steiner: To see the generations coming out, to see the grandmas and grandpas bringing their grandbabies and saying, “You know what? We used to come out all the time,” and they’d have their stories, and they’ll tell us all their stories and it’s just amazing to see their eyes light up. It’s a very happy place to be. It’s just a joy. Our goal is to let the families come in and enjoy themselves in an old-fashioned environment and not spend a ton of money. My husband’s and my goal is $20. You can bring your family and spend time here, see the waterfalls, watch the press, enjoy yourselves, giggle and you know pick a few apples and spend less than 20 bucks. And kids are so happy. They’ve got a doughnut in one hand and a cup of cider, and you get to spend time together.
NNYB: How do you manage a seven-day operation, mostly with family?
Steiner: I’m lucky because my family’s got my back. Let’s say one of my daughters is sick. My other daughters will step up and do her job and their job. We always have each other’s backs. There’s so many of us that we can do that, where if you’re working in a workplace, you get to leave but you have to come back and take care of where you left off. It’s much easier with your family. Much easier.
NNYB: Who’s one of your greatest mentors? What has he or she taught you?
Steiner: I know it’s very cliche, but it’s my mother. She taught me family first and a work ethic. We’re very hard-working people, but my family comes first.
NNYB: What’s the best business advice you have ever followed?
Steiner: Business stays at the business and not into your family life. It’s very important that if something happens during business hours — and things do happen — that you don’t let it go into your family time. Somebody told us that right in the beginning. And you know what? It’s helped us a lot. Being married to the boss, literally, and having your children here all the time, things do happen. And you have to discipline. But business is separate from family. They understand that when we’re at the cider mill, things have to go a certain way. And if they don’t go that certain way, yes, they’ll be disciplined like an employee would be. But when we go home, everything’s done.
— Interview by Ken Eysaman. Edited for length and clarity to fit this space.