ROTTERDAM JUNCTION — A Scotia couple has resurrected an overgrown orchard and a long-dormant country store along River Road, and now they’re setting out to produce hard cider there.
With late-arriving blossoms finally turning their apple trees white in the past couple of weeks, Louise Dickinson and Jeffrey Klein hope to have the state license that will allow them to ferment cider by the time the apples are ready to harvest this year.
In the meantime, they’ve been making test batches for their own consumption and turning the leftovers into cider vinegar (which they can legally sell).
The couple also demolished the crumbling house that came with the orchard and the store, and their contractor is nearing completion of their new house. When they move in, they’ll join a flock of chickens, a pair of hair sheep and a bunny named Maureen already living on the Dancing Rabbit Farm.
Dickinson and Klein, both divorced from previous spouses and working day jobs, met in early 2016 and found common interests in gardening and cider, among other things. They were married in October.
It’s an ambitious project, but they’ve made a lot of progress on one of the hardest parts, the store. They reopened in May 2017 as the Hungry Chicken Country Store. It has been the Apple Junction Country Store until it closed in 2005.
Neither knew anything about running a retail store. They hired nearby resident Dawn Emkin as manager, and she is joined there by her son Lucas and part-timer Terrelle Lefevre.
After the store stood vacant for more than a decade, “people are used to flying by and knowing that it’s empty,” Dickinson said. But the bike path and Kiwanis Park right across Route 5S provide a stream of customers in warmer months. And Emken has built a following for her breakfast sandwich: either the regular bacon, egg and cheese grilled on a hard roll or the Widowmaker, which adds sausage and ham.
“It’s everything on one sandwich. It’s half a pig, easy,” Emken laughed. “We’re not skimpy on anything we do here. The chicken may be hungry but you shouldn’t be.”
A small general store can become known for this kind of specialty item, but it has to have a lot more on the shelves. Customers never know what surprises they’ll find inside and the operators never know what they customers will ask for next.
“Everybody wants something else, and you can’t stock one of everything,” Klein said.
There’s no beer or cigarettes, but there’s a handful each of things like cold drinks, ice cream, crafts, home-baked goods and fishing tackle.
Emken talked the owners into adding smoothies to the menu, to reach a wider audience.
“A lot of people come over from the bike path,” she said. “They don’t want the Widowmaker. They’re looking for a little healthier of an option.”
Klein and Dickinson are considering a soft ice cream machine, but with an $8,000 price tag, it probably won’t happen soon.
“It’s a case of, if you build it, are they going to come?” Klein said.
Another potential capital expense is a cider doughnut machine. That’s only $3,500 and it is directly linked to the central focus of the operation: apples.
“Our business model is hard cider,” Klein said. “Our aim is to be licensed by fall for hard cider, that’s our goal.”
Already in place is a water-activated cider press that turns 1.5 bushels of crushed apples into 8 gallons of cider. Yet to come is storage, pumping and bottling equipment.
The old apple trees are a mix of eating varieties (red delicious, Mcintosh, Cortland, Burgundy) and dual-purpose eating/cider varieties (empire, northern spy, macoun). Klein saved the trees that were saveable and is replacing those that weren’t with a handful each of 30 cider-specific varieties.
Most are from France and England, so he’s trying to see what works best on a north-facing slope near a river in upstate New York. The couple plans to go all-organic when the last of the old trees are gone, so Klein also wants to see what varieties have the best resistance to the insects and plant diseases common in the area.
Both Dickinson and Klein still have their day jobs.
She is a mechanical engineer who is now an engineering manager for her longtime employer, General Electric, at its Schenectady-Rotterdam plant. She is originally from Oklahoma.
He is a Long Island native who operated an organic farm in Westerlo in the 1990s and worked as a computer programmer until last year. He now works at Mohawk Valley Railroad Co. in Rotterdam and sits on the board of the Schenectady County Farm Bureau.