Growing a Business by Cultivating Community

Updated February 2016

Glenn and Karen Cook have welcomed generations of happy customers to Cider Hill Farm in Amesbury, MA, and it's a place where everyone feels at home. Besides Karen’s effusive affection and infectious smile, their keys to growth are simple: Knowing their customers and their needs; empowering employees; and adapting to market trends.

We spoke to Glenn to learn more about this and how they’ve grown their business without losing its sense of community.

How have you built such strong customer loyalty?

Our business has always had a strong personal connection with our customers. As a first-generation business, we’ve been very involved with each step of growth, and have a genuine appreciation for everyone who shops with us. Plus we have a secret weapon in Karen. She’s off the charts in personality and people connection, and just oozes love.

We also train our staff on how to treat our guests. Over the years, we’ve created an environment of trust. We expect our customers to treat us fairly and honestly, and in return, they get the same from us.

Besides word of mouth, how do you reach new customers?

We do very little print or radio advertising, but a fair amount of social media. We send mailings once every two weeks during the season to 5,000 active subscribers, and our emails tend to be grassroots feeling.

What are some things you do to make your employees feel like part of the Cider Hill family?

We make a point to tell our people how much we appreciate them. We give small rewards, like raises, even though they haven’t asked or expect one. We also send couples on nights out, throw a barbeque in the summer and host dinners at our house for the field crew twice a month. At season’s end, we take everyone and their mates to a nice restaurant. This year, we gave one employee a trip to Costa Rica because she performed so well. 

We also invest in the staff by sending our managers to trade shows, conferences and training workshops. 

Tell us about your internship program. Was it hard to set up?

We work through Communicating for Agriculture Exchange Programs (CAEP) for our interns and seasonal workers. We end up with very educated and motivated individuals from around the world. We appreciate their time with us and the potential positive impact we are making as they return home and become leaders in their areas of expertise. And since we house all of them at the farm, they become part of our very large extended family. 

How do you stay involved in the community? 

We support dozens of organizations through monetary and product donations. We also give scholarships to our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, and donate food to local food pantries. Karen is very involved in town activities honoring local individuals for excellence. We also provide school tours for as many as 4,000 students every year. 

How do you keep Cider Hill ahead of the trend?

We’ve built a reputation for always being ahead of the curve. We’ve been leaders in the field for our adoption of renewal energies as well as conservation practices. In the 80s we adopted IMP practices for crop protection, which have since become mainstream. We are one of the most diverse farms in Massachusetts, making our operation difficult to manage, but it helps our bottom line remain stable even as we lose major crops any given year.

We’ve also worked hard to stay current with customer needs and have seen at least four major shifts in customer motivation. 

Tell us more about these four shifts.

In the 80s, customers came to farm stands for cheaper produce than at supermarkets. They also bought in bulk. The 90s customers were coming from households where both parents were working. Savings took a back seat and farms became more about entertainment. The 2000s added a whole new loyalty thing where people were much more interested in who was growing their food. Biosecurity was all a concern. So CSAs rose up to offer relationships with farms.  

Around 2010, specific diets like paleo and gluten-free and the buy local movement changed things again. Customers started to believe local food was fresher and more nutritious.

In the last 15 years, we’ve seen a decrease in quantity shopping, and much less preserving for winter consumption 

Now millennials are looking for really good quality food, convenience, and a cool, real and unique place to hang out with friends. We’re addressing these changing needs with a hard cider production facility complete with a tasting room, as well as a possible café and prepared foods.

Finally, what’s your secret to making more happen?

Finding personal balance and family health in an industry that demands near total commitment of time and energy. We’ve built the business to a level where we can pay for highly experienced and qualified help. Karen and I are able to delegate much of the day-to-day operations and decisions to those who we consider to be smarter than we are. We steer the ship, look to the horizon to determine our course and set the coordinates to get there. We communicate our goals, dreams and hopes to our team.

We workout at the gym for health, take long adventurous vacations in the winter, treasure our time as family and treat our employees as family. And most of all, we love to have fun along the way.

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