Sandy Hook entrepreneur taps into a sweet market
When it comes to the subject of maple syrup, there are two words that Dave Ackert would prefer not to hear: Aunt Jemima.
"Aunt Jemima has no maple in it whatsoever," stated Ackert, founder and CEO of Sandy Hook-based Maple Craft Foods. "It has a lot of highly processed high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors and colors. Maple syrup comes out of a tree and with it comes 54 different oxidants and minerals. It has more potassium than bananas, more calcium than milk. There are compounds in there that are found the fend off Alzheimer's disease, and it only has two-thirds of the sucrose that processed sugars have."
Ackert admitted that maple syrup expertise was not his initial calling. After 20 years as a digital advertising sales executive, Ackert took a personal inventory of his life's goals following the Sandy Hook school shootings. "I wanted something more fulfilling and meaningful, and something that would bring families together," he recalled.
Oddly enough, that's where the maple syrup came in. In 2014, he was hosting swimming lessons at his home, but each session grew stressful whenever a local ice cream truck would drive by – the kids were eager for a frozen goodie but had to fight with their parents to get the treats being sold from the truck. Deciding he could dial down the tension with a healthy alternative, Ackert began experimenting with recipes to create frozen pops made from maple syrup – and while initial presentations were greeting with acute skepticism by the young swimmers, he eventually latched on to a tasty formula.
"My neighbors encouraged me to turn it into a business," said Ackert, who packaged and marketed his creations as Fruple Ice Pops. Alas, there was one hiccup in this plan. "Ice pops are very seasonal in New England. We still make them, but we evolved into making more products that are year-round."
Today, the mainstay of the Maple Craft Foods product line are six maple syrups plus a waffle-and-pancake mix and a maple syrup candy shaped like the maple leaf. Ackert sources his syrup in Connecticut and Vermont in the months when there is little in the way of local agricultural harvesting.
"Maple syrup is processed and boiled during a time when nothing else can grow – it's called mud season, the end of the winter," he explained. "Why not tap into the trees that are giving their sap at this time?"
The most popular product in the Maple Craft Foods line-up is the Bourbon Barrel flavor. "Litchfield Distillery lends us their empty bourbon barrels so we can age the syrup," said Ackert, adding that the distillery then stores a new batch of bourbon in those maple-soaked barrels in order to sell a maple-flavored bourbon.
Ackert had quick success getting his products into retail channels, ranging from the neighborhood grocery stores to high-end specialty outlets like Williams-Sonoma. He recently upgraded the company's website after a desultory initial effort in online sales.
"Our online component has been pretty small, about 10 percent," he said. "I haven't been proud of our e-commerce abilities until now."
One sales channel that Ackert has been focused on has been corporate gift programs, with packs of his maple syrup being marketed as incentive items for employees and clients.
"We started doing that in started in 2016, and it is probably one-third to one-half of our fourth quarter business," he said, although he acknowledged it is also among his most time- and labor-intensive outreach. "It's a lot of dialing for dollars, making sure you find the right contact person and send them out a sample. For example, we work with Deloitte out in San Diego. They don't know a lot about maple syrup out there, but I found someone at the company who is a transplant and who thought it was a great idea. It appeals to client and the client's family – they get to share a nice breakfast together."
Closer to home, Ackert is also promoting his products for fundraising tools for local marching bands and school teams, as well as national gun violence prevention groups. "We decided to give people a local product, something that has health benefits, and we give up to 50 percent of sales they make back to the organization," he added.
Looking ahead, Ackert is exploring new relationship with local restaurants – The Granola Bar chain is already offering his syrup to its customers – and he is experimenting with sauces and condiments to add to his product line. "Sales were just under $300,000 last year, and we are more than doubling year-over-year," he said. "I hope we can continue that growth rate."