Sugar shacks a sweet deal for area maple producers
EASTHAMPTON — When the Mollison family decided to sell breakfast along with their maple syrup in the early 1960s, the sugar shack restaurant was a novel idea.
“Back then there were only three of four in the whole area, in all of western Massachusetts,” said Jerry Mollison, 59. He was in middle school at the time. “My folks, really my mother, just decided they wanted to do it, so they did.”
Now, sugar house restaurants can be found all around western Massachusetts. Visiting a sugar shack to eat a plate of fresh pancakes or french toast smothered in syrup made on site is as much a spring tradition in these parts as mud season.
“The crowds seem to get bigger every year,” Mollison said.
Although they didn’t start the restaurant with the idea of doubling their profits, Mollison said the sugar shack is now at least as important to Windy Hill Sugar House’s bottom line as syrup sales.
“It’s either equal to it or we make a little more off the pancakes than on syrup alone,” he said, pausing to consider the family business’ income. “It’s probably what’s keeping us going.”
According to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, the state’s 300-plus maple producers generate nearly $3 million in revenue by turning out 50,000 to 60,000 gallons of syrup each year. They earn another $1.9 million with maple-related “agritourism,” from sugar shack restaurants to bed and breakfasts and other farm attractions that promote the New England sugaring tradition.
Maple sugaring season runs four to six weeks, usually from mid-February to the end of March, although it’s dependant on the weather. Sugar shacks open in the end of February or early March, and are open until early or mid-April.
Boiling sap, flipping pancakes
Less than 9 miles from downtown Northampton, Steve’s Sugar Shack on North Road in Westhampton mixes crowds of city-dwellers with locals. Owner Stephen Holt, 51, has been tapping trees around town since 1973. In 2002 he built his maple restaurant, complete with an evaporator inside so diners could watch the sap boiling.
“The first weekend was slow,” he said of the restaurant’s 2013 season opening on Feb. 23. “But this last weekend was good, it was almost a record day on Sunday.”
Like Mollison, he said his sugar shack makes about as much money as his syrup production. But it’s “drastically” improved his syrup sales, as well.
“A lot of people buy their syrup where they eat,” he said. “I used to have syrup year round or even into the next year, and now I can’t keep the shelves filled.”
And when you compare the amount of work required to run a restaurant two six-hour days a week to that needed to make the syrup, the restaurant is much less time-consuming, he said. It takes about 40 gallons of sap and hours of time collecting and boiling it to produce 1 gallon of syrup.
“There’s so much more labor involved,” he said Tuesday. “I boiled until 2 a.m. last night, and I’m going to be boiling from dark until probably midnight tonight.”
At Williams Farm Sugarhouse in Deerfield, the maple restaurant is busy enough to open six days a week, compared to most that only open on weekends.
But co-owner Kenneth “Chip” Williams IV said the farm produces “a fair amount of syrup,” so the restaurant is only a small piece of their income. They drill about 5,000 taps on their farm and buy sap from other area farmers to produce about 2,500 gallons of syrup a year.
The family started sugaring in Sunderland in the mid 1800s and opened the restaurant and farm store when they moved to their current location on Routes 5 and 10 in Deerfield in 1995.
“It was only open on the weekends then, but then we tested the waters and started opening during the week, too,” he recalled. “It’s been good.”
Despite the expanded hours and the increasing number of sugar shacks in the area, the market doesn’t seem to be saturated yet.
“This weekend was one of the busiest since we’ve been open,” Williams said Wednesday. While it’s great to be busy, he said it sometimes means people have to wait for their meal. “The restaurant is only so big, the grill is only so big, there’s only so much we can do.”
Like any kind of agriculture, maple production depends a lot on the weather. But fortunately for producers, people want to eat pancakes with syrup whether or not it’s a good year for sugaring.
A warm spring in 2012 ended the season early, so producers made approximately 40,000 gallons of syrup, compared to 62,000 in 2011, MDAR reported. But hungry patrons still flooded the sugar shacks.
Holt said the industry seems to be recession-proof, as well.
“If you listen to the economists, they say that even though there was a recession, people still want to go out to eat on weekends,” he said. “And I think the public really enjoys a relaxed breakfast at a sugar shack.”
The sap is running
Williams, a member of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association’s board of directors, said this season is “off to a good start.”
“We had a good run yesterday, the flavor of the syrup has been great quality,” he said.
Other sugar houses in the Connecticut River valley reported that sap is running well, but Mollison said the sap only started “drizzling” this week up in the colder Hilltowns.
“It hasn’t really started yet. There’s usually a week or two weeks difference between the valley and up in the hills,” he said Thursday. For sap to run well, temperatures at night have to be below freezing and the days need to be at least 40 degrees, he said. “We haven’t seen much over 35 degrees,” he said.
Holt said compared to last year’s early sugaring season, things are “right on the normal schedule” this year.
“It’s running quite well for an early set,” he said. “We’ve got 56 gallons so far and we hope to do about 200 per season, so that’s a good start.”