Nicole Todd, cider maker and owner of Watsonville’s Santa Cruz Cider Company, spoke with Lookout about her experience in the burgeoning cider sector, being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated business, and how someone can pursue a job in the beverage industry.
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Nicole Todd is a co-owner of Santa Cruz Cider Company, alongside her husband and sister. As the head of a local business, Todd wears many hats: owner, cider maker and saleswoman. Having worked at the likes of Bonny Doon Winery and Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, Todd grew to love the beverage industry and began homebrewing cider.
In 2010, Todd began the journey of launching her cider business with her sister. The Watsonville family business officially opened in 2013 and is continuing to expand. In February, they received keys to a new building that tripled their space.
Todd says the cider industry is a close community, sharing trade secrets and helping each other. Todd exchanges items with fellow cider makers, and when traveling she stops to visit her cider friends. Being a businesswoman, Todd has experienced sexism because of her gender. She’s found strength in this opposition, and takes control when she notices someone is treating her differently. When Todd isn’t working, she is either farming or gardening. In 2021, she purchased a homestead in Royal Oaks, where she currently lives off the land and grows cider apples to use for her business.
- University of Santa Cruz, bachelor’s degree in sociology
Lookout: What is your job and can you describe what it is?
Nicole Todd: I am an owner, cider maker and I work in sales. As an owner and cider maker you’re sourcing your ingredients, fermenting the product, bottling, selling it and serving it.
Lookout: How did you become a cider maker? When did you become a cider maker?
Todd: Around the late 1990s [and] early 2000s I worked retail and a couple restaurant jobs in downtown Santa Cruz. Then for a year and a half I was the supervisor and driver at the Bagelry. When I graduated college in 2002, I began working as a chiropractor assistant, where I greeted patients, took payments and controlled the office schedule. I quit in 2004 because there were just no pleasantries and I just couldn’t take it anymore.
I blindly applied to Bonny Doon Winery in 2005 as a tasting room assistant manager. The manager and I had a good rapport, so he took a chance on me and hired me. Within a week of working there, customers came in smiling and happy to be there. The people in the industry were passionate about the craft. I had found my people.
I started homebrewing and began working at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing in 2009. Our first batches of cider were made at the brewery, where we were told that you could make cider as a brewer. The second year we began making our ciders, we learned that wasn’t correct, and you needed a winemaker’s license. Around that time, I was given an apple press by the brewery and they encouraged me to pursue my business.
Lookout: What does a typical day on the job look like for you?
Todd: Every day is different and depends on the season. During the fall, we’re going out to the orchard, testing sugar levels, letting growers know when to pick and pressing apples. During the offseasons, we are doing events, packaging products and doing sales. Our tasting room is open year-round so we’re also working there as well.
Lookout: What are your biggest challenges?
Todd: The hardest part of the job would be picking apples, but we ended up hiring a crew so that helps us. But mostly, it would be navigating the business side of things in this day and age. There are hidden fees, such as paying taxes, or, for example, if you want to play music outside, the Broadcast Music, Inc. [which licenses music to businesses] will ask for $1,500 to be able to play music.
Lookout: What do you love about your job?
Todd: I love when people try our cider and enjoy it. All around, I just love serving and doing events. I get to socialize with people and share my passion for cider. I totally geek out when someone shows interest in apples. I love talking about the different kinds of apples. People don’t realize that cider apples are different from eating apples. Similar to wine grapes, cider apples are higher in acid and higher in tannins [which add bitterness]. Crab apples are an example of a cider grape, when you bite into one you get the pucker and that acidic taste.
Lookout: If someone in school wanted to pursue this career, what type of educational background would be beneficial?
Todd: I know that UC Davis has a great brewers and wine enology program, it’s the best school if you want to make alcohol. If you’re not already majoring in wine- or beer-making, honestly any kind of chemistry major would be OK. It would be beneficial to have such a degree because there is lab work involved, but it really isn’t necessary. I took a 10-week cider class and just learned things as I worked.
Lookout: What types of skills or qualifications would someone need to break into this career?
Todd: You have to be willing to multitask. You also have to be willing to work hard and have people skills. That comes with time or it’s just something you learn when you grow up.
Lookout: What type of person is best suited to this type of job?
Todd: You definitely have to be somewhat passionate about the fermentation process. The thing about this job is that you really have to have the passion for this stuff. So you have to be willing to learn trade secrets and have a willingness to learn. What’s great about this industry is I’ve noticed that it’s not as competitive as the beer or wine industry.
Lookout: What is the cider community like?
Todd: We’re always helping each other out. For example, Tanuki is a local cider maker and one of our biggest competitors but [the owner] our best friend. Our friend from Broad Cider and I are constantly exchanging bottles. We actually have a national cider association — I was on the board of directors with 14 other people and mainly we’re lobbying. Since there isn’t an official cider license, we technically have a winemakers license, so we’re constantly fighting for things to change. But it’s also networking, helping people, such as sourcing equipment, different apples and ingredients. Along with that we also educate our customers and cider makers, as well as about equity and inclusion. The American Cider Association offers scholarships for BIPOC students on their website.
Lookout: What is the salary range for a cider maker?
Todd: Well, we honestly didn’t give ourselves a living wage until about five years in. While opening our business, my husband was working as a tattoo artist while my sister and I were working at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewery. As an owner, I currently make like $12,000 to $20,000 a year. We are self-funded so any profit is being invested back into our business, but this industry is more of a passion.
The base level if you have skills and work for a company larger than ours would be $50,000. You could double that if you work for big businesses. An entry-level position, you’re working the bar and making minimum wage plus tips. There’s a joke in our industry: How do you make a small fortune? By starting with a large fortune.
Lookout: What is it like being a female business owner?
Todd: Women are definitely still the minority, but with cider it’s getting to be more and more 50/50 because more couples are opening their own businesses. I know people who have had negative experiences, but I grew up with Emily Thomas, owner at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewery. She was a powerhouse and having her as a role model really helped me. If I am exchanging in a deal and someone is saying anything sexist, I either call it out or dismiss it. I am a strong woman and I won’t do business with someone who is outwardly sexist or only interacting with a male salesperson.
Do you guys have any future plans for your business?
Todd: We actually just got our keys for a new space. We are tripling our space and plan to grow into the Bay Area and the Monterey area. We’re a small business and we’re growing slowly. We didn’t take on any debt and that really helped us.
Lookout: What do you do when you’re not working on the business?
Todd: I do enjoy farming and gardening. We currently have a homestead, started from scratch with no power, no building or anything like that. We had a water tank and we knew one of the farmers nearby, so she let us fill our 275-gallon tote from her water well. We built our own solar generator then purchased a really small basic solar panel setup. We’re working off of solar for all of our power and still trucking in water. We’ve been living full-time in a teepee since June, and we’ve cleared an area to put apple trees where we are growing cider apples to use for our business. If I get a chance, I’ll read a book. It’s great because we are open to the public, so I get to see my friends regularly.