What’s in a Name
By Maressa Valliant
You can walk into Bellingham Cider Company at any time during business hours, and you’ll have a knowing thought—this is where the locals go. It’s one of those places that locals bring their friends and family to make a good impression and make sure everyone in a varied group is fed and happy. You wonder—who’s behind this comfortable, yet classy and artistic space? You might guess it’s a slick restaurateur with multiple successful locations in big cities based on the success and popularity alone, or someone from ‘big money.‘ But, that is not the case. What we have here are two self-proclaimed blue-collar workers turned business partners, who dreamed up a concept in the back of an ambulance more than a decade ago and have made it a reality.
When I sat with Bryce and Josh to talk about the journey to Bellingham Cider Company, which is currently in it’s second year of operation, they were not shy about telling me that they really had no idea what they were doing or what their business would become. “Bryce and I don’t know how to do all this stuff. We’ve never run a restaurant or cidery. But, if I take it back to our fire service, we have a lieutenant or a captain that is in charge of us as a crew, and they may not be specialists in certain aspects of paramedic or rescue service, but they know how to lead, and I think we came in knowing how to lead people. We bring in people that know what they are doing and we trust them to do it well, which empowers them and creates a team.” – Josh Serface
And what a team it is! These guys aren’t retired with a lot of time on their hands. On the contrary, on top of running cider production and distribution, and the restaurant, they both still work full-time for the fire service. Not to mention Bryce and his wife Jen (who also manages all of the design, payroll, and bookkeeping) are raising two young children. They gush about their staff, pointing them out to me one by one, stating their name, and how they got connected to each one. They rave about head Chef, Adam Grossman, who has been with them from the beginning as a line cook, but quickly grew to be the innovative, smart leader that the kitchen demanded. They speak in unison with gratitude for Chef Benferd Rollins, who is responsible for the delectable brunch menu. Speaking of Josh Jaramillo, the newest addition to the cider-making staff they quip, “yeah, he is Bryce’s neighbor”—he was a police officer in North Carolina but moved up to Bellingham and had a lot of time on his hands. Through getting to know Josh and Bryce, he started hanging around more and more and helping with projects. Eventually, he became so integral to the business, they figured they should offer him an actual paycheck—even though neither of them has taken one yet themselves.
“When we talked about [starting a] business, we didn’t talk about wealth.“ This shared value is what solidified Bryce’s decision to become business partners with Josh. “It was all about building a staple in a community that we’re proud of, that we love, and that we feel supported by. We do hope that someday cider wholesale will provide us some income, but other than that as far as the restaurant was concerned, it was really about [being] a sustainable business that was fully integrated on all levels with the community and our employees. That was extremely important to us.” Bryce shares, “Josh and I knew that if we ever opened a business together, we would put our people first. We were labor negotiators for fire departments in the unions and in private ambulance.” They believe that if you take care of your employees, and they feel comfortable, supported, autonomous, not micromanaged, and are given tools to feel successful but can also bring their own personality to the job, “the customer is going to feel that.“ This ownership duo prioritizes taking the employees out every other month to do some sort of activity, which always seems to end with a brief speech where Josh may or may not get a little teary-eyed as he expresses his appreciation for their team.
“We chose [the name] Bellingham Cider Co. because we are about Bellingham. It’s not about Everett, or Seattle, it’s about Bellingham.” That’s not to say that they don’t get their fair share of visitors from outside of Whatcom County (apparently they even have a bit of a following in Langley!), “but we really do focus on Whatcom County first.” They do serve Orcas and some places in Skagit, but don’t see themselves extending much further, largely because their cider is made 100% without any sulfites, preservatives, or additives, which requires that it be refrigerated and held at a constant temperature to maintain their standard of freshness and quality.
Head Cider-Maker, Josh Serface has always been a crafty guy. He enjoys making things with his own hands. Cooking and preserving with family was a tradition that he always loved and enjoyed, so naturally, during the craft-brewing boom of the early 2000’s, he began experimenting with home brewing. After several years of brewing beer, and the occasional cider, he started to realize he enjoyed making cider more. “There is just so much more you can do with it, and it doesn’t give you that ‘full’ feeling. I can crank up the ABV, I can do so much more with the flavors, it is just really so much more fun for me to make. When I have nine ciders on tap like I do right now, you can come in and get a whole plethora of different flavors and different mouth-feels. It just makes it more fun to come in and get a whole flight and really see what I can do,” says Serface. Josh recalls timidly sharing some of his homemade cider with their esteemed friend in the local brewing community, Eric Jorgensen (head brewer at North Fork Brewery). Eric confirmed Josh’s passion for making cider when he told him, “You make good beer, but this is the best cider I’ve ever had.” Two years after opening, their friend’s endorsement still holds water. They are currently the only cidery with a full bar, beer & wine offerings, and yet, their own ciders still out-sell all their other beverages 3:1.
‘Fiercely Local’ is the company tagline, and is evidenced on their menu where you will see, especially during peak Northwest produce months, nearly every dish is crafted using ingredients from local farms and food artisans. As we sit together and discuss the upcoming menu for September Eat Local Month, Bryce shares their specials featuring ingredients from Cloud Mountain Farm Center, Raven Breads, Taylor Shellfish, Skiyou Ranch and more. “We didn’t open this place with the intention of having burgers on the menu” says Josh, “but we’ve learned that by serving a delicious, locally sourced burger (literally from bun to bun local), people will recognize the freshness and flavor, and that opens the door for them to order something more adventurous the next time.” The restaurant also currently serves up 7 vegan options on the dinner menu, and 8 on the brunch menu.
One thing they did not anticipate was just how busy the restaurant would be right off the bat. They attribute that to the incredible support of the community which they have deep roots in and connection to both literally and figuratively speaking. The location was an intentional decision on behalf of Bryce and Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao, Artistic Director for Sylvia Center for the Arts, who met back in 2000 when they were cast in a play together. Bryce and Glenn worked together in varying capacities over the years with Idiom theater, and then recently partnered to bring the vision for a retaurant and theater to fruition. To accommodate their growth, the restaurant will be expanding it’s kitchen next month with an outdoor oven, and serving up authentic Italian wood-fired pizzas and other baked specialties.
More kudos to this business for running their restaurant on 100% solar power, just one more indicator that Bellingham Cider Company genuinely wants to be a sustainable and valuable member of the community. “Every other city I’ve lived in, Washington included, I’ve never felt such a strong community pull. I knew if I ever opened a restaurant, I wanted it to be here.” says Bryce.
Bellingham Cider Company is a full-service restaurant and cider house featuring a full bar and patio seating. They are currently open for dinner Tuesday-Sunday, and weekend brunch. Click here for hours and contact information.