While sipping a glass of apple cider and listening to an old Dr. Dre song thumping from the speakers overhead, I looked around the patio of Newtopia Cyder in Scripps Ranch, and saw a few patrons sitting on the lawn chatting and enjoying the afternoon sun and company. It was starting to feel “normal” like before the COVID-19 pandemic as breweries and restaurants allowed indoor dining again in San Diego.
Many such places closed forever throughout the County, but Newtopia Cyder survived the craziness of 2020 by implementing several strategies to stay afloat and thrive in the first quarter of 2021.
Newtopia Cyder’s founders, Rick and Jennifer Moreno, created the craft cider concept in 2015 when they were living in Seattle, Wash. The idea sprouted from Jennifer’s love of wine and Rick’s fascination with distillation, brandy and craft beer. Despite Rick’s love of brandy, the process of making it takes about a year, and he didn’t want to wait that long for the end product. Apple cider, however, takes a fraction of that time to make. Instead of creating a wine or craft beer business, apple cider was a “compromise” for the couple.
“I wanted to start something that was ahead of its time and something that was really beneficial to my body. I don’t digest beer very well,” Rick said. “Living by Lake Washington, I had access to a variety of apples and understood how much of craft cider is so close to craft beer.”
When the Morenos were living in Seattle, Rick owned a restaurant and bar where he served craft beer and whiskey in the University of Washington district. He also did a ton of marketing research on college students in the Pacific Northwest to find out what they like and don’t like. One trend in the craft beverage business is that whatever is popular in the West Coast typically comes from New York City to Seattle. Then the trend trickles its way down to San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.
“We’re the last city that usually gets trends in that particular market,” Rick said. “And San Diego is the mecca for craft beer.”
The Morenos built the business foundation in 2016 in Scripps Ranch near Interstate 15 and opened its doors in January 2017. They chose to build Newtopia Cyder there because of the strong small business support in the community, like the Chamber of Commerce, that helped them expedite the legal hurdles of opening a brewery. Since then, there have been some competitors the following year, but the couple had already established a strong business relationship with many apple orchards throughout the Pacific coast, which gives Newtopia Cyder a competitive edge in gathering resources.
“The timing was everything,” Rick said, who also had established connections with many craft beer breweries and restaurants in San Diego.
“It was very easy for us to educate beer connoisseurs on craft cider because they already have a bigger depth and palate. They appreciated the art of concocting beer and how that is in direct translation of craft cider. Consumers were very welcoming to us and the craft beer industry pole vaulted our success into where it is now.”
Another advantage Newtopia Cyder has is that it already established good business relationships with some restaurants and breweries in the the Northwest, which made connections in San Diego easier.
“We did a lot of collaborations, and we crafted ciders that people have never seen or tasted before,” Rick said. “We’re making new categories within cider.”
The Morenos opened a second location near Cal State University San Marcos (CSUSM) in March 2018.
“We want to open one as close to a college as possible because educating consumers at an early level provides them with more insight of what quality products are out there and what to stay away from,” Rick said.
Most business developers say that it takes about five years for a new business to “break even.” It took Newtopia three years.
“That happened in March 2020,” Rick said. “Right before COVID hit us.”
When California Governor, Gavin Newsom, announced a Stay-At-Home order in mid-March 2020 to fight the coronavirus spread, Rick had bought a $175,000 canning machine two days before the shutdown. He and his staff at Newtopia churned out massive orders of their flagship ciders, including “Chai Me a River” and “Apple Soiree,” that were ready for distribution.
“As soon as the market got shut down, I had a significant amount of inventory with no channels of distribution,” Rick said. “I was in a really tough pickle to get our product out. In hindsight, it was a blessing that we were able to do that big of a run because that run sustained our tasting room. People were able to purchase with their drive-thru or online in 42 different states. We had to pivot quickly.”
On the first day of the shutdown, Newtopia launched a huge virtual campaign that shipped customers’ orders to their doorsteps. Before the first week of the shutdown was over, the brewery saw “astronomical” purchases online. The Newtopia team created a drive-thru in the back of the cider house to allow no-contact pick-ups.
“Leveraging technology was huge,” Rick said, which was what allowed them to operate during San Diego’s purple tier, which is the most restrictive tier for businesses in the county.
Even with Newtopia still running its gears, the Morenos had to lay off their entire team during the first week of the shutdown.
“Within 48 hours after the shutdown, we did a virtual food drive for our staff with a BBQ company where all the proceeds went to our staff,” Rick said. “We had to lay off our entire team. We wanted to pay homage to them. That put us in a good position for post-COVID.”
Newtopia bartenders returns
Bianca Potratz, who has been bartending at Newtopia Cyder for nearly three years, said that it was “very weird” to not be able to come to work.
“Coming back after eight months and seeing people again, it’s kinda weird, but I’m glad to see customers again,” she said.
One of her favorite parts of the job that she missed was crafting cider and learning about the fermentation process.
“It’s a small family business and I help out whenever we can,” Potratz said.
Eric Gerber, who bartends with Potratz, started to work with Newtopia in the very beginning. He pooh-poohed Rick for opening Newtopia, but after Rick gave him a private tour of the cider-making process, Gerber changed his mind.
“It’s his personality, how he presents himself and his damn-good product,” Gerber said.
On the shutdown’s first day, many businesses were still doing business as usual. When Gerber heard about the shutdown, he said everybody at work was “nervously joking about it” since the tasting room was packed. But Jennifer told the staff that everyone had to file for unemployment because they were closing the physical tasting room.
Afterwards, Gerber moved from Pacific Beach to San Clemente to live with his mom. It was a “sigh of relief” for him because he hasn’t stopped working since he was 16 and is now in his mid-thirties. The regular work routine got “old.”
He got called back to Newtopia in August and moved back to San Diego to work with the team again.
Gerber said the best part of his job is “showcasing a really good product to doubter and first-timers, and changing people’s minds about cider, particularly beer drinkers.”
Newtopia Cyder re-opens
To Rick, any crisis creates an opportunity, who had to scale down Newtopia Cyder’s production and distribution processes. When the state opens back up, the brewery is ready to receive orders from several states.
Within a week, Rick and his team told their patrons, distributors, wholesalers and retailers about the changes. “We scaled things down, so these are the steps you need to get our cider: drive thru, delivery, online. Everything is touchless. It’s socially accepted, they brag about it. Customers say they feel safe,” Rick said.
The best part of a cider house is its beverages. Rick said that a typical cider house would use fresh-pressed ingredients, specifically five apples: Fuji, gala, honey crisp, red delicious and Granny Smith.
“Those are our house blends. I was able to source them from different orchards in Washington, Oregon, and NorCal,” he said. “I developed relationships with the orchardists so I could source a particular lot in an orchard for a long period of time to get that consistency of a variety of apples and volume. We crush 30 tons of apples a month. They’re all West Coast apples so it’s nice to have that representation.”
One unique feature that both Newtopia Cyder locations have is that the bar counter is made from wood that was burned during the 2007 Cedar Fire in San Diego. Perhaps this is a symbol of resilience and adaptation of the brewery and the staff.
“It’s brilliant to see how society accepted and evolved with us,” Rick said. “We were definitely the lucky ones.”