When Jane and Jon Birch decided to buy Yorkshire Wolds Apple Juice from their friends they really had no idea what they were doing.
“We had no experience of the drinks industry,” recalls Jane, a teacher who was a full-time mum at the time. “We had no experience of owning a business and it all seemed like a crazy idea, but then we mulled it over. Our son Toby had just started school and it seemed like the perfect thing for us to do. It would allow me to still do the school runs and have family time. Jon was working part-time for North Yorkshire Outdoor Service and we felt it was something we could have a go at.”
Yorkshire Wolds Apple Juice was the brainchild of Ray Kirby. As he drove around the Yorkshire Wolds, Ray noticed how many windfall apples there were in people’s gardens. He decided to knock on their doors and ask if he could use their surplus apples to make juice.
So in 2008 Yorkshire Wolds Apples was born. After much experimentation, sampling and trial and error, Ray made a decision to move to sourcing the apples from the more reliable cropping orchards in Kent and perfected the blend that the company still uses today. That earned him the business’s first plaudit – A Great Taste Award – and business from Bettys Tearooms.
Unfortunately Ray died after an illness, leaving the business in need of a new owner. Having been kept going by Ray’s family, his friend John Brooks partnered up with Joe Cole and their respective wives, Fiona and Alison, and took over the business in 2013.
With Fiona and John selling juice at farmers’ markets at weekends and Alison and Joe organising the juice production, the business continued to win awards for the quality of the juice and in 2015 moved to purpose-built premises at Joe’s family farm at Welham Wold, near Malton.
The decision was made to change the business name to Yorkshire Wolds Apple Juice.
After five years at the helm, family and work commitments led to a decision by the partners that they would look for a buyer for the business. Having worked with Joe for a few years at pressing time, Jon Birch was a natural choice to take over the business.
That was in 2018 and in the first three weeks, while Jane was learning the process, the couple pressed 30 tonnes of apples.
“Apples come in 300kg boxes and we got through four boxes a day,” explains Jane.
“It is a labour-intensive process. All the apples are checked by hand, washed and pressed and the juice is then bottled and labelled by us.”
Anything left over is given to Joe Cole to be put back into the land, as it is full of nutrients.
“We had a really good first year,” recalls Jane.
“Then in 2019 we did around 45 tonnes of apples and we decided to expand the range to include other juices including a sweet apple juice and a spiced apple juice.”
They also reintroduced the fruit pressing service, allowing us to create juice from people’s own fruit.
Keen to continue developing the business, in January 2020 Jane and Jon employed the services of a marketing and brand expert, with the aim of expanding into retail.
New labels and a new logo were created to update the designs that Ray had originally conceived.
Part of this process involved an addition to the name to reflect the increasing range of juices available. The business continues as Yorkshire Wolds Apple Juice Company.
Then Covid hit and suddenly the Birches lost 95 per cent of their customers and had 27,000 bottles of apple juice sitting in a barn.
One of the main problems was that because the majority of their customers were restaurants and cafes and the marketing company had only been employed a matter of weeks, no one knew their name.
And so they decided to work hard on raising their customer profile including using social media and improving their website.
“We had a few hard days deciding what to do with the roughly 27,000 bottles of juice we had just produced,” says Jane. “It was a very worrying time.”
But then Minskip Farmshop, near Boroughbridge, said they’d be happy to stock some of their juices.
“That seemed to trigger other farmshops wanting to stock our products.”
They also launched an online shop and local delivery service and began work on a box suitable to ship their juices through the courier network. By May they were able to launch nationwide delivery.
They then took another brave decision – to expand and develop their product range further.
Joining forces with some other Yorkshire producers, they created blended fruit juices including rhubarb and apple juice, raspberry and apple juice and apple and strawberry. They now have 12 juices in their range.
By being brave the Birches have successfully weathered the pandemic, and come out in many ways stronger. They have doubled their customer base and are looking forward to restaurants reopening, but they have no plans to expand further. To them the quality of their product is what matters.
“We are all about English fruit – great traditional varieties which have the best juice,” says Jane.
They even got a mention on ITV Love Your Weekend with Alan Titchmarsh when food and drink writer and producer Andy Clarke described it as ‘stunning.’