Monday, February 9, 2015

Fairbanks couple taps into birch syrup market

Frank Tomaszewski was satisfied operating his electrical business when he happened upon a video about tapping sap from birch trees.

Frank Tomaszewski prepares to process birch sap. (Photo courtesy Sample Alaska)
“Leave it to YouTube to complicate our lives,” he said. “I saw people tapping trees and I said I could do that. I ordered a couple of taps, put them in trees and the sap started flowing. I was hooked from there.”

A few years later, Sample Alaska, the birch syrup company owned by Frank and his wife Harmony, is going strong, selling products in 30 outlets across the state. Birch syrup is included in almost all the products made by the Tomaszewskis and their children. In addition to syrups, there are vinegar infusions, glazes, jams, jellies and teas.

Hot sellers are a birch and coconut hot cocoa mix and drizzles (toppings for ice cream, cakes, breads or meat). The number one seller is birch syrup, but the chokecherry rhubarb vinegar and the apple pie drizzle give the syrup stiff competition.

 Frank and Harmony are thrilled about their family business. “It’s so good and healthy,” Harmony said. “These are great products from out in the woods.

“We’re happy it’s so well received.”

Prior to going commercial, the couple tested products on family and friends with Harmony developing all the recipes. She took Cooperative Extension Service food preservation training and completed the Master Gardener program. “We spent the first two seasons educating people about the vitamin content and how it’s available in our own back yards,” Harmony said. “We showed examples and talked about the process.”

They also talked to maple producers and determined what methods would work with birch. “We had to figure out the best way,” Harmony said. “It’s totally different from maple because of the sugar content.”

The family made a list of ideas and discussed which they should tackle. “There are so many things you can do with birch,” Harmony said. “One of the hardest things is trying to narrow it down.”
While Frank’s favorite part of running the business is being out in nature and breathing the fresh air, Harmony’s is being together as a family. “We work really hard and we make good products,” she said.

The greatest challenge they face is weather. “The tapping season depends on the temperature,” Frank said. And that can vary wildly each spring. “Our first commercial year the tapping season was seven days,” Harmony said. “We were so disappointed.”

Ordinarily, sap flow can occur for 14 to 21 days. Once the flow starts Frank is on the go collecting sap as quickly as possible. When it comes time for cooking days, the Tomaszewskis rent a commercial kitchen. “We work odd schedules,” Harmony said.

One of her goals is to have her own commercial kitchen. Frank’s goals are to get the infrastructure they need, produce a sustainable amount and maintain a stable supply of products.

In addition to tapping sap and harvesting forest products like berries and chaga, Harmony has a large garden and a high tunnel. “We want to be more self-sufficient,” she said. “We’re going to grow our own peppers for our products.” Last fall she planted fruit trees, including saskatoons, apple and cherry trees, plums and seaberries.

When they aren’t immersed in Sample Alaska, the family enjoys church activities, road trips and board games. Frank likes hunting and fishing. They homeschool their children, ages 5 to 16.  The 16-year-old is already talking business classes at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and offering his parents advice. “It’s nice to have him get involved in the business,” Frank said.

In the beginning the family thought the business would keep them hopping for about a month each year but it has turned into a year-round vocation. “It doesn’t really slow down,” Harmony said. “We’re always busy with wholesale shows, the harvest season, the Farmers Market all summer and then holiday bazaars.”

Harmony and Frank work together on marketing and outreach. “We make a good team,” she said.

Sample Alaska products are available in Fairbanks at Alaska Feed, Arctic Traveler and the Great Alaska Bowl Co. They are at the Tanana Valley Farmers Market all summer.

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