Launching business proves to be a test of perseverance and patience

It takes a certain type of person to become an entrepreneur. You need guts, stamina, faith, strength, a vision, and sometimes you also need the patience of Job to make things work. Robert van Waarden has all those qualities in spades, and Red Island Cider is the result of he and his business partner James Van Toever’s perseverance and patience.

After years of being a photographer and writer, travelling the world recording evidence of climate change and environmental impacts, van Waarden returned to his roots in PEI with his young family nearly four years ago. Within the last year, he made a connection with his childhood friend James Van Toever who wanted to return to the Island from Ontario to make cider. Their mutual love of cider, as well as willing and supportive partners, all combined to set their business in motion.

“I grew up around cider, more so than beer or wine. I grew up on a family farm that had an apple tree, we used to go out and use the old cider press and press the apples into juice,” van Waarden reflected. With a chuckle he added, “I’m not saying I was drinking hard cider as a kid, but I grew up around that process. My dad used to ferment it, it was around, and there’s a connection I find with cider and apples to the environmental sustainability side of things, more so than beer.”

James Van Toever and Robert van Waarden co-founded Red Island Cider Photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

Flash forward to this past fall: the business plan was ready; a location in Hartsville, PEI was secured; and everything appeared to be coming along nicely. A hiccup occurred when the duo was getting the appropriate permits in place. Cider production was deemed to be an industrial business, and thus would have required extensive modifications to the sewage system in order for Red Island Cider to begin production.

“It was a great location, it’s on a major route, it was a nice renovated garage, big enough ceilings, big enough space, a great landlords who wanted to work with us. We spent the better part of three months talking with provincial planning how to get the right septic system and permission in there,” van Waarden said of the back and forth conversations with engineers, researching wastewater systems and their environmental impacts, before a decision on what would work for both the business and the government departments was made. Red Island Cider had a few weeks before the ground completely froze to get their septic system in place. Then another hurdle hit them.

“Twenty-four hours later the department of transportation shut the place down.”

Their building had been a commercial business space for many years, then sat empty for some time, and it had been converted back to residential land by the landlords. The department of transportation denied the use of the driveway for commercial use due to sightlines and despite the landlords’ efforts to find a solution, there was no viable one. van Waarden and Van Toever were on the search for a new site and their hopes to get cider produced in time for Christmas were dashed.

Throughout the fall, the pair had been developing their product with the help of BioFoodTech, were busy moving forward with grant applications, and at the end of September, they were awarded a $25,000 grant from the PEI government’s Ignition Fund. This confidence in their plan to produce cider here on PEI was much-needed.

Then came the stunning news in late November that DME Brewing had gone into receivership.

Red Island Cider had placed their order with the business for their brewing equipment months before, purchasing tanks that were already manufactured but they were being stored at the DME site. There were a few tense weeks of wondering if they would see the gear. Finally on December 16, 2018, the equipment was released by the receiver and Red Island Cider took possession of it.

But where to put that equipment? The partners were still on the lookout for a location, and van Waarden had given up on trying to find a rural location in favour of Charlottetown or another larger centre. A spot in Charlottetown looked promising, and a lease agreement was signed for January 1, 2019 so the equipment went into storage.

The dream had been to get their cider on tap in time for Christmas, but the bumps along the way meant that deadline came and went. In early February, Red Island Cider held an industry tasting evening, showcasing their cider to local hospitality businesses and investors. They had a selection of seven ciders for tasting, and the response from the crowd was overwhelmingly positive. “Everybody got to vote on their favourite ciders and we came out with three, four winners that we also internally agree with, which is important. That was really good validation of what we’re doing,” van Waarden said of their soft launch. “They want to sell it and drink it.”

Behind the scenes, however, things were still in limbo with their new location. Again, as the business partners made every effort to follow the rules and regulations in place for a business of their type, some questions arose with building and fire codes. “We didn’t think that [in] getting craft alcohol to the market, the hardest thing would be getting a building,” van Waarden said.

Red Island held an industry tasting in February Photo Credit: Robert van Waarden

After some investigation and some checking about the age of the building, van Waarden was relieved to be told on Valentine’s Day that they were free to move their equipment into the space and start their production officially.
Initially, the cider will be on tap at restaurants and bars across PEI and they will also have a small taproom onsite at their location at 101 Longworth Avenue in Charlottetown. Cider lovers will be able to have a cider, and get one-litre growlers to go. Van Waarden anticipates that the first batch for the public will be ready in the spring (and Salty will be there). Down the road, Red Island Cider hopes to be on the PEI liquor store shelves for customers as well.

Despite the hurdles, van Waarden is quick to acknowledge that Red Island Cider has had its champions from the get-go which have made the journey worthwhile.

The support we’ve gotten from the provincial government, in terms of money, and support from Food Island [Partnership], support from the Startup Zone, and the continued encouragement from anybody we talk to saying ‘I love cider, we want to drink cider, where’s the cider?’ has made it an easy choice to keep going,” van Waarden said.

About Cheryl Young

A “Jill of all trades” describes Cheryl to a T. From operating her own handyperson company, to selling luxury cars, to working as a film and TV crew member, her resume is diverse. But her dream as a kid was to be a journalist and she started down that path many years ago at CBC Charlottetown. Returning to her journalism roots, she’s excited to be editing Salty’s content and occasionally writing herself.

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