Signs of Glen and Alex Smyth’s business acumen as purveyors of crabapple jelly can be found in the most unlikely place: the bathroom of their childhood home.There on a blue wall between the sink and shower is a sign advertising “Good apples for $2.00.” It’s written with the steadiest hand that a six-year-old can muster.
Glen, 25, was six, and Alex, 23, was four when they crafted that first marketing campaign to sell the fruit from the prolific crabapple tree their family planted to celebrate the construction of their home on a quiet rural artery in Wellesley, just outside of Kitchener.
The Smyths started building their cream-coloured, stuccoed house in 1992 when their mom, sculptor Ruth Abernethy, was pregnant with Glen. A few years later, Alex arrived, and the two brothers grew up alongside the seedling, eventually harvesting the crop on mornings before school, then trying in earnest to sell the fruits of their labour “not thinking these were crabapples and not like regular apples,” Glen recalled.
The day they made that sign, decorated with red and green apples and a multi-coloured border filled in with marker that’s faded over the years, they kick-started an entrepreneurial endeavour, known today as Appleflats. It’s one that sees the brothers reinstating the crabapple as a fruit worthy of our time and taste buds rather than a mere (and messy) lawn ornament. And they learned early what they were up against when trying to get people to give the fringe fruit a try. Glen and Alex waited for six hours for a customer to take a chance on them and their crabapples that day they posted their hand-drawn sign at the end of their laneway. There were no takers.
For the next several years, they kept the crop for themselves, turning it into jelly for the family to use, or, as teens, practising their tennis swing with the fruit that’s smaller than a golf ball. It was in jelly-making where they showed the most prowess, however, thanks largely to Ruth’s quick thinking for speeding up the process. Rather than boil and mash the crabapples with water and sugar, which is typically how jelly is made, Ruth used an old juicer to press the liquid from the tart orbs before cooking it down. The resulting jelly was less sweet and its flavour was more emphatic than its conventional counterparts.
But even that efficient process got shelved for years as spare time and interest waned. It wasn’t until 2013 when Glen found himself out of a summer job in university that he broke out that old juicer and took up crabapple jelly-making again at Ruth’s behest. With more jelly than the family needed, Glen worked the phones for a buyer. Fate seemed to be smiling upon him, though, because the first restaurant he called, Monforte in Stratford, took everything he had.
“That felt really easy,” he admitted. “It’s normally not that easy to do this.”
The seeds were planted, though. That September, Glen headed back to university in Ottawa with a few jars of his crabapple jelly stashed in his luggage. When his classes wrapped for the day, he took his handiwork for a walk down Wellington Street to all the “hipster cafés” to glean feedback and perhaps some future buyers. The response was positive, he said. The following year, he picked the family tree clean to make more jelly and found three other loaded trees to pad out the harvest.
“It was me and three other college kids I was paying way under minimum wage. We were just hanging out,” Glen recalled. “I thought if this works, we have a business.” Two thousand sold-out jars of jelly later, he had his answer. The following year, he convinced Alex to join him. They ran out of juice after 15 days so they started planting trees.
By 2016, they had 35 trees in the ground. Today they have 250. Given the crabapple hasn’t been more than a hobby crop for much of the past century, finding enough of the right variety was a challenge. There were plenty of ornamental species available but the fruit is small, dry and bitter, and better suited as a boulevard decoration. It took the help of six nurseries to source the right kind of crabapple and “scoop up all the trees we could find along the Eastern Seaboard.”
The Smyths plan to add 100 more trees to their budding crabapple orchard but in the meantime they tap into a network of 75 homeowners with 250 established trees — some pushing 75 years old and producing 1,500 pounds of fruit — in an area that stretches from Collingwood to Peterborough, and Port Stanley to Fort Erie.
All in, they have 650 trees contributing to Appleflats jelly and the company’s individual-sized cocktail mixers, both of which are now made at a commercial facility rather than the family kitchen. They anticipate harvesting 40,000 pounds of pesticide-free fruit this fall, though most of the trees aren’t yet old enough to provide full crops.
They’ll collect the crabapples like olive pickers in the Mediterranean do by shaking or raking branches and collecting fallen fruit on tarps. Problem is, there isn’t a mechanical sorter on this side of the Atlantic to separate the good crabapples from the bad once they’re are harvested. The fruit, Glen explained, is too small for most existing equipment, though they have come up with a makeshift system to separate debris, like leaves and twigs, from the rest of the harvest.
“A lot of our time is spent thinking how do we adjust existing equipment to fit crabapples,” he said. “I understand more now why it’s been forgotten (as a fruit). No one has that whole supply chain and it’s just not that easy. It’s why they’ve disappeared.”
At the pace Appleflats is growing, the brothers might have bigger problems to contend with: “We probably will, at some point, run into a problem with not enough crabapples from those 250 trees” they’re growing, Glen explained.
That’s a genuine concern given their much slicker marketing materials these days, how they’ve branded Appleflats as “North America’s Crabapple Growers” and so far have 250 retailers, including Sobeys and Pusateri’s, selling their products.
Really, though, Appleflats has become more than just a viable business. It represents an effort to show that “not everything cool has to be tech” coming from Kitchener-Waterloo, for one, Glen noted. It’s also part of a larger plan to raise the profile of what he calls a “forgotten fruit” by making it a distinctly Canadian one.
“We have a really unique opportunity to brand the crabapple as a uniquely Canadian thing,” Glen said. “Crabapples have the potential to be one of those things Canada does and sends out to the world rather than being one of those fruits you get that just comes from somewhere.”
Story and photos by Tiffany Mayer
November 4, 2018