Selling cute little 2-ounce sampler bottles of syrup makes the tourist feel warm and fuzzy about the maple industry. However, the real volume is moved in 5-gallon pails and 40-gallon drums.
Each spring, Fuller’s Sugarhouse in Lancaster, New Hampshire, taps more than 10,500 maple trees and produces more than 4,000 gallons of its own pure maple syrup that is sold to customers. The question facing the operation is how to get that syrup into customers’ hands in the most attractive, cost-effective way possible.
“Here in the North Country, there are a lot of maple trees but not a lot of buyers,” Dave Fuller said. So when thinking about customers, Dave and his wife, Patti, discovered that bulk sales can be just as profitable as selling tourists a bottle here and a bottle there.
Although Dave insists that their operation is not one of the “big boys” in the bulk industry, they definitely play a role in northern New Hampshire. “We are all about value-added as much as possible,” he said.
A good share of the syrup they ship, upwards of 75 percent, stays on the East Coast, Fuller said. However, they serve an active market in California and have bulk customers across the United States.
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Meeting customer needs
The two main buyers of their North Country bulk syrup are restaurants and food manufacturers. For example, one of their major customers is a granola company.
The Fullers will work with manufacturers who plan to use syrup in their business to help them determine which grade is best for their product or use. Then, they will work together to figure out which size package is best for the buyer’s process. Sometimes, the answer is gallon jugs. Other times, the best way to get the syrup to market is 40-gallon one-way drums.
With the recent change in maple syrup grades (the old U.S. Grade B is now known as U.S. Grade A Dark – Robust Taste) there was some education required. “I’m like a lot of others in this industry,” Fuller said. “I don’t particularly like change.” The grade change, however, was well received by their bulk buyers and across the industry. “We still get a lot of people who ask for Grade B,” he said. “We explain the dynamics of the new grades and point out that the Robust Taste grade is virtually identical. It has been well received.”
Manufacturers seem to favor heavier grades, seeking the exact robust flavor the name implies.
Restaurants, too, eventually come to favor the robust product. To start with, however, many restaurateurs ask for the new U.S. Grade A Golden – Delicate Taste. But they soon discover that the Delicate Taste grade presents a challenge in portion control. People tend to use a lot more of the Delicate Taste syrup than they do of the Robust grade. Since the color is not as dominant on the plate, they do not see as much syrup on their pancakes and tend to overuse the syrup. From the restaurant’s point of view, this becomes an expensive indulgence.
Considering the balance a restaurant requires between customer satisfaction and profits, Fuller’s Sugarhouse will guide the Dark Robust lots with a bit lighter flavor profile to the restaurant trade. They will send the heaviest-flavored syrup drums to an ingredient user who is looking for flavor saturation.
“It is important to pay attention to the end user’s needs,” Fuller said. “While it’s the same grade, we try to be responsive to what the buyer’s needs are.”
Not always easy street
Established in 1972, Fuller’s Sugarhouse is owned and operated by Dave and Patti Fuller. Dave’s grandfather first taught him how to make maple syrup, and he loved it so much that he decided to make it a business.
Today, the business has nine employees. Dave’s brother, Ed, is the operation’s general manager and is in charge of guiding the operation daily. He runs the inside operations and inventory control. Tom Hatfield, the foreman, runs the outside operations, including everything that happens in the woods.
The Fullers also buy from other local sugar bushes to assure their customers get all the product they need. And neighboring operations get a trouble-free sale, moving product off their farm and to market quickly in bulk.
“People look at all the syrup we are selling and think it is an easy market,” Fuller said. “It’s not so. It took us an entire lifetime of building those markets,” he added, noting their 43 years in business.
“Every company needs to sell enough to make money and turn a profit,” he said. “For us, it is based on the quality of service we give and our customer care. We try to be responsive to what our customers need and package what they want.”
A while back, they lost a customer to another state where the buyer was convinced to buy an in-state product for marketing reasons. It turned out that the new providers fell down on customer service and the buyer was back at Fuller’s Sugarhouse the next season.
“We don’t always look to sell more. We are not flashy. We just try to take care of the customer,” Fuller said. That includes being sure the correct product is delivered on time.
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The UPS driver may just be Fuller’s best friend. “The 5-gallon pails transport well on UPS,” Fuller said.
Fuller’s Sugarhouse uses a corrugated box that is UPS-approved packaging for shipment of liquids. It is no surprise that a leaky or broken package is a sticky problem for everyone involved.
“We go through spells of having some problems with shipments,” Fuller said. “But the system generally works well. I would say the failure rate is a minor problem given the number of pails we ship each week. Breakage is not a big problem.”
The UPS system provides a reasonably priced and trackable shipment service. “When we bulk out our syrup, most of it is going in containers,” he said.
Keeping those UPS trucks rolling with pails and drums of syrup requires more syrup than Fuller’s Sugarhouse can produce on its own. As a result, they purchase from other local operations. “We buy a substantial amount,” Fuller said. It all goes into the national market pipeline that Fuller’s Sugarhouse has developed.
Fuller’s Sugarhouse is truly a family affair with the involvement of several generations of the Fuller family, and their fame has spread. Last year, cooking star Rachael Ray’s Every Day magazine (July/August 2015) featured Fuller’s Sugarhouse’s pure maple candy as one of the top mail order treats in the U.S. And the operation is a Certified Best of New Hampshire Grand business for the past four years. Certified Best of New Hampshire Grand businesses are retail shops that are worth driving for and have gone through a strict vetting process to ensure that they are the best businesses that northern New Hampshire has to offer.
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