A Taste for Maple at an Early Age
The story behind Ben's Sugar Shack
Ben Fisk's passion for making maple syrup started at the age of 5, when he went on a preschool field trip to a sugarhouse. He was amazed by the entire process of sugaring and the transformation of sap to syrup. When Fisk arrived home that afternoon, he immediately shared his excitement of the experience with his father, a builder, who set out the very next day to help his son build a homemade evaporator. Father and son then got permission to hang 13 sap buckets on the neighbor's maple trees.
"The next year I sold a couple of quarts and figured out what money was, and I knew right then that I was going to make syrup for a living," says 23-year-old Fisk, owner of Ben's Sugar Shack in Temple, N.H.
At the age of 15, Fisk was already operating his sugaring business with the help of a Christmas present from his parents, an even bigger evaporator. He was also busy collecting blue ribbons at the Cheshire and Hillsborough county fairs for his Grade A Medium Amber syrup. That same year he went on to win the 2004 Maple Producers Carlisle Trophy for the best maple syrup in New Hampshire. The following year he won the Walter A. Felker Memorial Award, a prize given to an up-and-coming maple syrup producer under the age of 18.
"I was told by career counselors in high school that there was no way I could do this for a living," he says.
Ben Fisk, 23, owner of Ben's Sugar Shack in Temple, N.H., started making maple syrup when he was 5 years old.
Photos by Marcia Passos Duffy.
Fisk has proven them wrong. Today he operates two sugarhouses and a gift shop (open seven days a week, year-round) and employs five full-time workers. Each year he taps 11,500 trees scattered throughout Temple, Lyndeborough and Newbury, N.H. In 2011, a record season, he made 3,044 gallons of syrup.
This year, Fisk says the weather did not cooperate for good sugaring, with temperatures spiking early in the season. As of this writing, he had made 2,700 gallons for 2012.
Ben Fisk started making maple cotton candy for his business when he was a teenager. He now sells 1-ounce containers to Shaw's supermarkets.
Young, earnest and driven
Fisk is the consummate entrepreneur, although he admits that he has never written his ideas down in a business plan. He seems to have a natural flair for marketing and promoting his products; he says he is constantly on the lookout for creative opportunities to promote and add value to his syrup.
For instance, when he was still a teenager exhibiting his syrup at The Big E, he noticed a vendor had attracted a line of customers with a maple cotton candy machine.
"I saw right then that there was money to be made in cotton candy," he says.
That night he went online and purchased a cotton candy making machine. Fisk now sells his line of maple cotton candy online, at his gift shop, and in 1-ounce containers to Shaw's supermarkets (where it retails for $1.99).
Ben Fisk is always looking to add value to his maple syrup. Pictured, maple candies the business produces and sells in its gift shop and online.
His maple syrup is also sold in more than 90 locations throughout New Hampshire and Massachusetts, in venues ranging from small co-ops and neighborhood stores to several N.H.-based Shaw's and Hannaford supermarkets (through its "Close to Home" program). Ben's Sugar Shack's maple candies are sold in a variety of farmstands and small stores throughout New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
Marketing in unexpected places
His primary method of getting the word out to the public about his products is not necessarily through food or farm fairs (although he does exhibit at these shows), but rather craft and holiday festivals.
"I'm usually the only maple syrup vendor at these shows," he notes.
His show schedule is relentless, almost every weekend starting in late May with craft shows and going through Fourth of July festivals, summer craft and seafood festivals, all of the area's state fairs, pumpkin and harvest festivals in the fall, and in December all the holiday fairs within a 100-mile radius.
The festivals and fairs give him the opportunity to meet potential customers and offer samples of cotton candy, syrup and maple candy.
His high visibility, and his youth, have also led to some interesting publicity for his business over the years: from an Associated Press article about his business when he was 15, to a recent write-up about his syrup in Saveur magazine (where the editors noted: "We also love his Dark Amber syrup, with its golden sugar and vanilla flavors that blend perfectly into baked goods"), to a recent interview for a Yankee Magazine feature (slated for publication in 2013).
"I haven't done any formal publicity," he notes, other than his website, blog and Facebook page. "I guess I've just been pretty lucky."
Ben's Sugar Shack donates to the National Breast Cancer Foundation whenever a pink container of maple syrup is sold.
Plans for the future
While Fisk has done more in business than most 23-year-olds, he is a little disappointed in himself when he talks about his plans for a pancake house.
"I always wanted to open one up by the time I was 20," he explains. "I'm three years behind schedule." He hopes to model his pancake house after some longstanding New Hampshire operations, such as Stuart & Johns in Westmoreland and Parker's Maple Barn in Mason.
While a pancake house may still be a few years off - he estimates he will have the funds to open within five years - he has plans to expand his business into produce (including sweet corn) this summer, using leased land from his neighbors. His goal: get more traffic into his gift shop and sugarhouse.
Ben's Sugar Shack operates two sugarhouses and a gift shop.
He also plans on growing the wholesale market for his maple syrup and continue to grow his third-party vendors' products on his website; currently he offers barbecue sauce, jams, jellies and honey. "I buy it wholesale and resell it," he says.
Ben Fisk has been winning awards for his maple syrup since he was 15.
Fisk also wants to give back. He's partnered with the National Breast Cancer Foundation and offers a specially labeled quart of maple syrup. For each quart sold he donates $2 to the foundation.
"It's a cause dear to my heart," he says. His grandmother is a breast cancer survivor, and his best friend's mother recently lost her fight with breast cancer. "Even the smallest amount helps; I'm just glad I can help out in a small way."
As Fisk's business grows, he continues to add taps every year and looks for ways to grow his business, including expanding his wedding favors and corporate gift sales.
Through it all, Fisk hasn't forgotten how he got that first taste for making maple syrup.
"We love doing demonstrations with schoolkids," he says, with a grin.
The author is a freelance writer from Keene, N.H.