Family Business Confidential: Beak and Skiff
Failing fast, innovating and avoiding analysis paralysis
Beak and Skiff’s roots go back more than a century, to 1911. That year Andrew Beak and George Skiff, two farmers and friends in Syracuse, N.Y., planted an apple orchard.
It would take six to seven years for those first trees to bear fruit. “It was a big risk and a waiting game,” says Eddie Brennan, president of Beak and Skiff and a fifth-generation member of the Skiff family.
The gamble paid off. For the next 60 or so years, the families focused on producing apples for grocery stores and selling at farmers’ markets.
Starting in the ’70s, Beak and Skiff went through some incremental changes. It introduced a fresh cider product to use the apples that weren’t suitable for grocery store distribution. The cider was good for just one week, so Beak and Skiff sold it at stores that were a 20-minute drive away. In the ’80s, the company ventured into flash pasteurization with help from Cornell University, boosting the cider’s shelf life to 90 days. Now the families could start selling cider all along the East Coast and introduce more customers to the Beak and Skiff name.
But even with the cider sales on top of a busy apple packing operation, they were still stuck in the commodity business. “Brand didn’t matter too much with fresh apples or cider,” Eddie says.
The pick-your-own trend took off in the mid-’80s, and that allowed Beak and Skiff to differentiate itself. The orchard became a destination where people could go to pick apples and buy pies, donuts and other fall favorites.
To the third generation, selling an experience was a radical departure from the previous business model. “My grandfather always joked, ‘Are people actually going to show up here and pay us to pick our apples?’” Eddie recalls.
More significant changes were in store for the fourth and fifth generations. Eddie’s grandfather had five daughters, and three of the sons-in-law were involved in the business. Eddie’s father wasn’t one of them, and Eddie didn’t see a future in the company for himself either. After all, it was just an apple orchard. “It wasn’t a business that looked like it had a lot of room for growth,” he says. After college, Eddie went to work as a retail buyer at Bloomingdale’s.
Devastating crop failures in the early 2000s made the orchard’s prospects appear even less promising. The company was totally reliant on its annual apple crop, so there was no way to make up for a bad harvest during the off-season. Either Beak and Skiff would have to develop new year-round income streams, or the business was going to fold. The families were faced with losing the 1,000 acres they’d worked hard to hold onto for so long.
That’s when Eddie’s father joined the company and oversaw Beak and Skiff’s new 1911 brand of hard cider. A change in New York law presented them with an opportunity: Because they were using their own fruit, they could qualify for a farm distillery license. They introduced a line of spirits, including vodkas and gins.
The shift was a success, Eddie says: “1911 in a lot of ways saved the family farm.” The shelf life of hard cider is an entire year, so they were getting out of the high-stakes race to sell everything they produced in the fall. Plus, the distillery encouraged customers to spend more time at Beak and Skiff. Before, people might stop by to pick apples for an hour or two. Now that alcohol was on offer, a trip to Beak and Skiff became a half-day or an all-day excursion.
Eddie’s father persuaded him to move to upstate New York and accept a leadership position. There wasn’t any succession plan to guide them, but his father soon put him in charge. “He handed me the reins very, very quickly,” Eddie says. “The business had fallen on such hard times in the previous generation, so it was more of a sink-or-swim mentality.” At age 35, Eddie found himself president, overseeing more than 30 employees.
He now works alongside his cousin Pete Fleckenstein, another descendent of the Skiffs, who runs the company’s growing operation. Eddie’s wife, Marianne Brennan, is in charge of marketing and creative direction. Jackie Beak, a fourth-generation member of the Beak family, handles logistics. And Richard Beak, of the fifth generation, oversees the fresh cider and a cold brew coffee plant.
Eddie saw that the company’s future depended on finding ways to diversify. In 2018, he added a new revenue stream thanks to another change in state policy. Beak and Skiff was accepted into a hemp pilot program, and they planted 10 acres. They built a facility to extract CBD, which they turned into products like balms and tinctures.
Hemp wasn’t an immediate success. Many other family farms got into CBD at the same time, and a supply glut followed in 2019 and 2020. Beak and Skiff suffered losses but stayed the course in the hope that it would be a path to the recreational cannabis market.
They realized that dream this past year, when New York state allowed farms that had participated in the pilot program to apply for adult-use marijuana licenses. Beak and Skiff used the infrastructure it had set up to grow marijuana and launched the Ayrloom brand of vapes, edibles and cannabis-infused beverages.
The pivot has come with some challenges. It required a substantial capital investment, and the company has to contend with the vagaries of the cannabis regulatory environment. As a grower and processor, Beak and Skiff isn’t permitted to run its own dispensaries, and there are currently only about 15 to 20 dispensaries in the state. But despite those constraints, the cannabis brand has allowed Eddie to hire new people and expand the business. Ayrloom now employs about 50, while Beak and Skiff has grown to a workforce of around 200. And now that their operations have diversified, the pivot has helped the families preserve their land, which is their ultimate goal.
Eddie says that there was some debate between family members about making products with marijuana. “There was definitely a stigma attached to cannabis specifically,” he says. But they had consolidated ownership within the fourth and fifth generations, which helped streamline the discussion. And after the success with alcohol, everyone felt confident that they could branch out again.
Another factor that helped them reach an agreement was open communication between family members. “We always say the fifth generation gets along better than any of the other generations, so we’re always very, very proud of that,” Eddie says.
When Eddie reflects on Beak and Skiff’s recent history, he talks about failing fast, innovating and avoiding analysis paralysis — phrases that almost seem better suited to the tech industry than to heirloom apples. But it makes sense, given how the company has reinvented itself to survive. “We’re really a startup, a 110-year-old startup, in that we’ve evolved so much in the last few years that we’re just not the same type of business,” he says. He doesn’t plan to return to the old way of doing things. “If we’re reliant just on what we’ve done in the past and get romantic about how we’ve made money in the past, we've always gotten into trouble.”
The fifth-generation family members have young kids of their own, and although Eddie doesn’t want to pressure them to carry on the business, he hopes they’ll have the opportunity to lead it one day if they choose. Whatever happens, it’s clear that the farm they inherit won’t look the same as it did in previous years. “While we are nostalgic and we love our roots and where we came from, we know we always have to be looking to the future and what’s new and different.”
Sarah Brodsky is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. She’s written for a variety of publications and outlets, including U.S. News & World Report, Buy Side from WSJ, CNET, CompanyWeek and Credit Karma.
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