Steamboat’s Cider Fixins expands wholesale mulling spices business
December 20, 2013
Steamboat Springs — A Texas winter is only ripe for mulling spices for about two months. Head north into a snowy corner of Colorado, and there's half a year of winter cheer along with temperatures perfect for cider and mulled wine.
The move to Steamboat Springs has been a huge boon for Sandi Nelson and her daughter, Heather Philmon. Their Cider Fixins business went from selling a few thousand packages of holiday-themed mulling spices through shows in the lobbies of Houston area office buildings to a year-round operation that distributes to both coasts and countless places in between.
That wasn't the plan when Nelson and Philmon decided to pick up and move. Their husbands were in the construction industry, but after the financial crisis, there was little building demand.
"This was Plan B," Philmon said Thursday.
She and Nelson were finishing up a late order at the commercial kitchen they started on 13th Street, and the makings of their mulling spices were spread across the kitchen in every state of the process.
Halved and hulled Texas red grapefruit sat next to the oven, waiting their turn to dry into the firm cup that holds the spices.
Texas red works the best for the cup, Philmon said. It cooks faster, and the rind forms a nice firm shell. But at a certain point, she said, they'll use anything they can get. During their peak months, about 30 cases of grapefruit get delivered per week.
Whole nutmegs, ordered by the hundreds in 50 pound bags, had little eyes drawn on them with a food-grade marker. The nutmegs are the faces, placed on the packed mulling spices, and antler patterns made of cloves are what differentiate the cider moose from the cider deer. During the holiday season, a red candy nose separates the deer from the reindeer.
In their first year of business in Steamboat, Nelson and Philmon sold about 5,000 mulling spice packages in two months. Their first full year in 2011, they sold about 40,000, and they followed that up with 80,000 in 2012. Philmon said they've surpassed the 80,000 mark for this year, but she has yet to figure out by how much.
Among the first retailers to carry Cider Fixins' mulling spices in Steamboat were the Artisans Market of Steamboat and Homesteader, and Philmon and Nelson said those two businesses were huge supporters of their products.
But the real wholesale growth took off after Nelson and Philmon attended a trade show for gift retailers at the Denver Mart. They only went in 2011, but once the handmade mulling spices found their way into regional gift shops, word of mouth, holiday stocking stuffers and travelers helped spread Cider Fixins everywhere else.
Nelson and Philmon said they never turn down orders no matter how late in the season or in the dead of summer, but the majority of the production is done August through March.
To keep the kitchen and themselves working during the summer, Nelson and Philmon started producing jams and other products.
The idea came out of a desire to repurpose the sweet fruit of the Texas red grapefruit, but grapefruit jam didn't take off. Undeterred, Philmon and Nelson now sell about 200 jars of jam per Saturday at the Mainstreet Farmers Market in downtown Steamboat. Triple Berry — with strawberries, raspberries and blackberries — is the most popular variety but jams such as jalapeno also have a following and they produce more local flavors such as sarvis berry.
The grapefruit finds a home as juice and is donated to churches or LIFT-UP of Routt County and people stop by the kitchen regularly to ask for it, Philmon and Nelson said.
They sell the jam out of the kitchen, but don't do retail sales of the mulling spices except for some holiday shows to respect the Steamboat businesses that carry their products.
Philmon and Nelson will be at the Local Products Market from 3 to 6 p.m. Sunday at The Steamboat Grand.
They work seven days per week for as long as 12 hours at a time during their peak months to fill orders, but so far, Philmon and Nelson have been able to handle the growth of the past few years with their husbands and two employees.
They've learned lessons about what packaging works and how to be meticulous about having plenty of materials on hand, but they anticipate being able to handle future growth by hiring more help, if needed, and starting production earlier in the year.
Philmon said they've been encouraged by people to try to get on the TV show "Shark Tank" where entrepreneurs pitch investors, but she and Nelson fear the panel likely would suggest changes to the process and product that would clash with their vision.
The process of preparing and packing the grapefruit and placing the deer and moose faces are all done by hand, and Philmon and Nelson are particular about where the spices end up.
Philmon said she wants to keep them in small shops, and they parted ways with an outside sales representative about placements that they weren't comfortable with.
"We've worked hard to build this business," Philmon said.
And, Nelson said, the commercial kitchen they built is available for others to make something themselves.
"We'd like more people to do what we've done," Philmon said.