Category: Food

Luminary Distilling

I’ve been visiting a lot of Erie County entrepreneurs lately, and Luminary Distilling continues that pattern.

This time, the business started with a hobby – specifically, brewing beer at home.

Joel Normand and his wife, Maria DiSanza, branched out from there, touring distilleries in Pittsburgh and New York state – and became intrigued by the potential for a distillery business in Erie County.

“We said, ‘Why don’t we give it a shot?’” Maria says.

Now they have lots of shots – all from the bottles of house-made spirits lining the bar in their Summit Township storefront.

Luminary Distilling has been open since March, but the process of getting the business going – and learning about distilling – has been several years in the making.

Distilling is a technical process, but there’s also a craft to it, the owners say.

“You can understand the science pretty quickly. It takes time to get the art,” Joel says. “There’s a certain taste and feel to it.”

Joel speaks knowledgably about the distilling process, explaining everything from the first grains of wheat to the smooth finished product. He details the chemistry, the origins, and the varieties – including how different flavors are formed depending on whether it is wheat or wine that is distilled.

Like their products, Joel and Maria each bring different flavors to their company. While Joel’s domain is the distillery, Maria runs the front of the house, managing the day-to-day business.

And that business is popular, drawing customers to sit, sip and socialize. Luminary doesn’t serve food, but customers are welcome to bring their own – or take advantage of visiting food trucks. Board games are available as well.

“It’s a nice little atmosphere,” Maria says, looking around the tasting room, which is warmed by the glow of mini luminaries crisscrossing the ceiling.

Other personal touches enhance the décor, including the bar, which was crafted by a local high school shop teacher, and a wall hanging that was made by one of Joel’s former students.

The decorations aren’t the only thing that’s local – so are the products that they use for distilling. Wheat comes from Troyer’s, wine comes from North East vineyards, and cider comes from Fuhrman’s Cider Mill, Bakery & General Store, right next door.

“We want to be known as Erie’s distillery. We want to be known as something that is truly Erie,” Joel says.

About Luminary Distilling: When the business opened in March, it was the first modern-day craft distillery in the county – thought it was joined soon after by another, this one in Washington Township. Owners Joel Normand and Maria DiSanza take on the bulk of the work at Luminary, though they have both have other jobs – Joel is a teacher in Sharpsville, and Maria works part time as a physical therapist assistant – as well as three kids at home. Someday, they hope Luminary will be successful enough that they can make it their full-time jobs. They started with  just a few spirits and are steadily adding more, including the popular Apple Pie Moonshine. More varieties of gin, whiskey and moonshine are coming out in December.

Why Erie County: The couple lives in Erie, and were looking to open their distillery in the city. However, they found their perfect home in Summit Township, and are thrilled with the location, and their neighbors. People who live in the area have been very supportive, Maria says – that that’s one of the best things about their business. “People stop in as first timers, then they keep coming back. We get to know them and their families,” she says. “We’ve made a lot of friends here.” Luminary also has found benefits in a relationship with VisitErie, which has helped to promote the business.

Challenges of Erie County: As Joel and Maria started their business, they first had to navigate the ins and outs of state and federal regulations in order to get licensed. Once the business began, they were faced with keeping up with production to meet demand. They also have other challenges common to new businesses, including finding money for advertising. Luckily, they have had luck promoting the business on social media – which is both affordable and convenient, they say – and by word of mouth.

Fun fact: Moonshine is just a general term for any distilled and unaged spirit, Joel says. It gets its name from distillers who made their product illegally, often at night by the light of the moon.

Address: 8270 Peach St., Suite 300, Erie, PA 16509 or www.luminarydistilling.com

Hurry Hill Maple Farm

My visit to Hurry Hill Maple Farm, in Franklin Township, came at the tail end of the maple syrup season – a fact that was confirmed by owner Jan Woods.

“Hear that? Those are the peepers,” she said, after we stopped by the sugarhouse. “That means spring is here. The season of mud and snow is over.”

The sugarhouse, a rustic little building tucked away in the trees, is situated down the road from the main building that greets visitors to Hurry Hill Maple Farm.

The main building – a repurposed cattle barn – houses a small shop and a detailed museum. The museum, which highlights the history of syrup making, is designed around the driving force behind Hurry Hill: The 1957 Newbery Award-winning book “Miracles on Maple Hill,” by one-time Edinboro resident Virginia Sorensen.

The book, about a family’s experiences after moving to the countryside and befriending syrup makers, features real-life local figures. Woods, a former school principal, uses Hurry Hill to showcase the book as well as preserve the sugar-making tradition that it details. The end result, Hurry Hill Maple Farm Museum Association, is a blend of history and agriculture.

As part of that preservation, Woods relies on the old ways to tap her trees and make her maple syrup. Silver buckets, some overflowing with clear, waterlike sap, hang beneath spiles from the trees in her maple orchard. There is no network of modern tubes weaving among the trees to collect sap at Hurry Hill. Instead, they do it the way the Chris family did in “Miracles on Maple Hill.”

Besides, Woods says, “No one wants to come take pictures of tubing.”

But savvy uses of technology surface around Hurry Hill, including on a walking trail. Visitors can use their smartphones to scan QR codes on signs, so that they can download information about each location around the property.

It’s just another way that Hurry Hill is weaving together present and past, in order to unite today’s families with history, agriculture and literature.

About Hurry Hill Farm: The operation, like dozens of sugarmakers in the Erie County region, reaches its peak in late winter and early spring. The sap needs several days of the freeze-at-night, thaw-during-the-day cycle to get going, Woods says. But it is open beyond the syrup season. Hurry Hill – including the shop, filled with glowing amber flasks of pure maple syrup and other maple products – is open in spring and fall, and the museum also welcomes groups for private tours.

Why Erie County: Hurry Hill is unique in that it is inextricably tied to its location – not just to Erie County, but to that specific area outside Edinboro that is the real-life Maple Hill. A driving tour, listed on Hurry Hill’s website, even lists locations from the book. In addition, Erie County is square in the maple syrup-making region, which stretches from northeastern U.S. and Canada across the Great Lakes.

Challenges of Erie County: Woods says her biggest challenge might be in getting publicity for Hurry Hill, particularly for the museum. As it highlights the local connection to Pennsylvania’s only Newbery winner, she would like to see a stronger connection to other tourism opportunities in the county. In addition, she is seeing fewer tours of students, as schools are working with limited budgets and greater attention to standardized testing.

Fun fact: Hurry Hill welcomes about 4,000 visitors per year.

Address: 11424 Fry Road, Edinboro, PA 16412 or www.hurryhillfarm.org.

 

Next week: We brush up on our math skills at Larson Texts in Millcreek Township.

Better Baked Foods

During my recent visit to Better Baked Foods in North East, president and COO Joe Pacinelli told us the story behind the company’s claim to fame – the French bread pizza.

Bob Miller, one of the company’s co-founders, used to bake up pizzas on French bread loaves for his family to sell at local carnivals. One year when a carnival rained out, the Millers were left with a pile of pizza loaves – and no place to store them. They ended up freezing them, which led someone to comment that the frozen pizzas would make a good product for school lunches.

That spark of inspiration – along with a healthy dose of entrepreneurial spirit and no small amount of hard work – grew into the Better Baked Foods that we know today. Now, Better Baked Foods operates three facilities, employs about 425 workers, and churns out more than 400,000 French bread pizzas per day.

On the day I visited, I saw neat rows of French bread loaves go through the assembly line, receiving a dollop of sauce before being blanketed in freshly shredded cheese. They then were sent along a giant spiral track into an 18-minute deep freeze. These pizzas were for school lunches, so they weren’t individually wrapped, but instead were boxed up. All along the process, the pizzas were guided, checked, monitored, and packaged by employees.

I also took great interest in touring Better Baked Foods’ test kitchen, where food scientists were trying out new products. To me, the work in the kitchen signals that the entrepreneurial spirit that helped create those first French bread pizzas lives on in the modern-day company. I see the product development process as a sign that Better Baked Foods is dedicated to improving its foods and expanding its value to its customers, guaranteeing a stronger future for the company and for the Erie region.

About Better Baked Foods: The company, founded in 1964, has facilities in the City of Erie and in Westfield, N.Y., as well as in North East. The bread products are baked in Westfield, and the North East facility largely handles the pizza production. The City of Erie site, added just about a decade ago at the former Van de Kamp’s facility, produces some of the company’s other products, including frozen sandwiches and other hand-helds. There’s a good chance you’ve eaten their products – the company makes food for companies including Walmart, Wegmans, Aldi, Schwan’s, Kellogg’s, Pillsbury, Red Baron, and more.

Why Erie County? A simple answer is logistics, Pacinelli says. Access to highways and the ease of truck transit make it easier for Better Baked Foods to get products into the hands of customers. Also, the cost of living is reasonable compared to other metropolitan areas, he says, which means costs stay more manageable for the company as well.

Challenges of Erie County: Companies like Better Baked Foods can find state taxes a challenge, Pacinelli says, especially when taken along with costs for insurance. Another challenge comes from location: While many of the plant’s workers live in North East, not all do – and it can be difficult to find workers willing to make the drive to North East from other areas of the county.

Fun fact: The average length of service for a Better Baked Foods employee is 18 years.

Address: 56 Smedley Street, North East, PA 16428

 

Coming up next week: We’re checking out FishUSA in Fairview Township

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