Ellijay farmer John Reece can see the house he grew up in from the Apple House at his Ellijay business, BJ Reece Orchards. John and his wife Rachel have grown the business his father started with 30 acres into a popular 130-acre agribusiness attraction known for its “world-famous” fried apple pies, so named by their globe-trotting friends.
Most of their sales are retail products sold from the Apple House, including pumpkin rolls, caramel and candied apples, apple cider doughnuts and several flavors of homemade breads. Some of their business is also wholesale sales in Atlanta.
Six months of the year, from July to the end of December, Reece Orchards is booming with visitors. John and Rachel began adding agritourism events to their orchard—wagon and pony rides, U-pick apples, cow milking, pig races, a corn maze, racing zipline, apple cannons, exotic farm animals and more—and saw their business grow exponentially. They decided they needed to expand their orchard acreage and add a building and new equipment, so they went to the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center for help in applying for financing.
“When the Reeces first came to us in February 2014, they were attempting to get a USDA matching grant to make improvements and expand the variety of things they were growing and producing,” says Richard Montanaro, Area Director for the UGA SBDC in Rome office. “They wanted to minimize some of the seasonality of their business.”
Montanaro assisted John in developing a financial plan and projections for his new business plan, which was submitted with the matching grant application. The documentation was finished in August, and the Reeces received a six-figure USDA matching grant.
“We plan to grow to 200 acres in the next four-to-five years,” says Reece. “We also wanted to expand our bakery, and are trying to add new bakery items every year. To do this, we’ve added a new 40 x 100-foot building to the original and added another freezer for pies last year. We started out with chest freezers, then added a walk-in. Now we have three walk-ins and we’re already out of room. We’re trying to expand to keep up with our business.”
As Montanaro came to know the Reeces and learn about their business, he realized there were other services the UGA SBDC could provide to them. “We did a review of their advertising in the competitive marketplace and recommended they put their billboards along a different route, where they would be the first stop on the popular ‘orchard path’ drive into Ellijay. Based on our demographic analysis of traffic counts, we made suggestions to their outdoor advertising strategy that positively impacted their sales.”
Sales at BJ Reece Orchards have grown more than 35 percent in the last two years, and their employment has grown to 15.
“We’re trying to stay open longer in the future,” says Reece. “We’ve already added three employees. Once the business starts growing, and we have new equipment in the kitchen, we’ll have to add more.”
The Reeces continue to work with Montanaro and the SBDC as they expand. “We are now working on a digital marketing analysis for them and, on the finance side, we’re working on some return-on-investment analysis of the capital improvements they’re looking at making.”
“Richard has been really helpful,” says Reece. “We plan on working with him on other things we’re trying to do.”
He expects their business to keep growing with all the agritourism events they continue to host. “We have a lot of students from Atlanta, Cartersville and Dawsonville come with their field trips in September. And we offer food on weekends in September and October. We want families who come visit to stay all day with us. Bring blankets, have picnics and make a family day out of their visit.”
“In my opinion, they’re the perfect clients,” says Montanaro. “They understand their business, are dedicated and hard-working, and they have learned how to use the SBDC and all of our services towards the continuous improvement of their business.”