One of our very own, Boston College Class of 2008 graduate Jake Mazar, has blazed a path in the food and beverage industry as an entrepreneur. Mazar is the co-founder and co-owner of two successful businesses: Artifact Cider Project and Wheelhouse. Artifact Cider Project is a Massachusetts-based hard cider company, which collects apples from local orchards in Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine to make hard cider. Artifact sells canned ciders and kegs, and has recently expanded to include two tap rooms in Cambridge, MA and Florence, MA. Wheelhouse is an Amherst, MA- based catering company. “We take raw ingredients grown by local producers, which in this case is a variety of ingredients, including vegetables, meats, dairy, even grains, sourcing from over 40 different farms, and we turn them into dining experiences for people and catered events,” Mazar explains. Wheelhouse caters ticketed farm events and private events such as weddings.
Mazar’s path to being a food and beverage entrepreneur was nowhere close to traditional. “Life has a lot of twists and turns,” he says before beginning his story. Mazar was a finance and economics major at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. Despite a lacking interest in the subjects, he took the finance road because it was secure, and it reflected his father’s career. His first experience with the food world came during a summer internship after his junior year abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. “I spent that summer in Ghana, doing an internship with smallholder farmers and microfinance research,” Mazar begins. “I was in a relatively remote village in Ghana, working with farmers and with a bank… A lot of my CSOM friends were interning in New York in banking, while I was in a village living in a broken down house that didn’t have electricity and sometimes no running water. This was the first thing that really got me out of the bubble I had grown up in and spent a lot of my high school and college time in. This was a cool experience to get me to think differently about ways of being in the world and what I wanted to do.”
After graduation, Mazar spent some time in the corporate world, working at L.E.K. Consulting in Boston. Enduring 2 years of a desk job, Mazar felt “burnt out from long hours, 80-hour weeks, and staying past midnight at the office consistently.” Mazar shares, “I had gotten everything I could’ve out of that experience and I didn’t feel any moral value in what we were doing.” He then moved on to TechnoServe, an organization funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, through which he returned to sub-saharan Africa to do more work with smallholder farmers, researching soybean farmers in Zambia, Malawi, and South Africa. “I loved it. It was awesome. It was a cool combination of the skills I’d learned in consulting and what I had enjoyed about the internship I had in college,” Mazar recounts. However, he confesses that it was too difficult to be away from his friends and family, so he returned to the United States at the end of his six-month contract. Back in Boston, Mazar worked at EnerNOC, a clean tech company, which he felt combined his interests in the environment and his business background. Unfortunately, a year into the job, Mazar once again found himself feeling “burnt out” and unfulfilled. He bravely decided to leave, spurring a big change in his life.
“This was actually the hardest decision I made during my career. I left the business world and I started vegetable farming. I took an apprenticeship in Martha’s Vineyard and spent a year working on a farm. I was pulling out weeds by hand, doing some harvesting, tractor maintenance, and driving a tractor. Doing the really nitty gritty stuff, and nothing business related,” Mazar reveals. He calls this “a really big departure from the path that he was on,” as his peers and colleagues headed to MBA programs and kept moving up in the business world while he started over on a farm. Mazar confesses, “I had a lot of doubts when I made this decision, but it ended up being one of the best decisions of my life. It put me on a very different trajectory.” He spent the next two years working at a farm in Amherst, MA, where he met his wife Lila and his friend Will Van Heuvelen, who is now his business partner at Wheelhouse. Mazar reflects on his time working in farms, saying, “It was one of the most formative experiences in my life because [I discovered] what I was passionate about and cared about, [I met] these people who were so influential, and [I grew and developed] as a person.”
In 2013, during his third year doing farm work, inspired by Johnny Appleseed and the history of apple cider in our country, Mazar had the idea to start his own cider company. He reached out to his high school friend, Soham Bhatt, an engineer who was passionate about food and beverage, and together they co-founded Artifact Cider Project. Bhatt handles the apple sourcing and production of cider, while Mazar handles the business management side of the enterprise. They rented a small space in Springfield, MA and grew Artifact slowly, while each still maintaining a full-time job as a farmworker and engineer, respectively. They would make cider and bottles during nights and weekends. As the business grew, Mazar and Bhatt transitioned to working at Artifact full-time and expanded the company by moving to a bigger production warehouse in Northampton, MA and hiring full-time employees. “There’s many ways to start companies,” Mazar says, “but we did it in a very slow, bootstrapped, cautious way. We tried to invest as little as we could out front and slowly grew it.” Artifact cider now sells across over 2,000 locations in nine different states, and the business has grown to include twelve full-time employees and ten part-time employees.
In 2014, Mazar and his friend and fellow farm colleague Will Van Heuvelen had the idea to start a food business. They toyed around with the idea of a restaurant, catering business, or food truck, eventually buying a food truck on Craig’s List. Mazar recounts, “We started out super small, scrappy, barebones. We bought an old food trailer and renovated it, turning it into a nicer food trailer and started doing events, and the company has kept growing year after year. Wheelhouse expanded so much that Mazar and Van Heuvelen now own a brick and mortar location in Amherst, MA, in a building which used to be an old restaurant. Wheelhouse caters 75-100 events per year and has seven full-time employees and sixty part-time employees.
Mazar offers some advice for students who are interested in being a food/beverage entrepreneur but may not have a business/finance background as he does, “In my case, since I didn’t know as much about the cider production side of things, I found a business partner who did. I recommend doing the same. My business partners have learned more about the finance side and I have learned more about cider making. Finding people to complement your skills is very important. It doesn’t have to be a co-founder or co-owner, it can be people that you hire to help or teach you. And I’d also say that the business knowledge you need to run a small business is not that complicated. Business tends to be something that’s intimidating to people because of the accounting and the lingo, but it’s definitely something you can teach yourself. There are a lot of resources online. You can learn it. You don’t need to go get a degree.”
Mazar leaves us with a few words of wisdom about big life and career changes. “I felt scared when switching from business to farming. It was a hard decision. The people that knew me best were very supportive and understood why I was making that decision, but there were definitely a lot of people, probably the majority of people, who thought I was crazy and going through a phase and would go back to business school after a couple of years. There was a lot of soul searching involved. The one thing I always like to remind people is you only have to figure out what you want to do for the next year. Just because you take a job it doesn’t mean that that’s what you are going to do forever or that that is who you are. It doesn’t have to define what you’re doing. You can always make changes. Life is so broad and there are so many things you can do. There is no right path. There’s only the path for you. There’s so many options that can work for you and fulfill you and add value to the world. Find what that is for you. Don’t be afraid to keep searching and finding different things. If what you’re doing doesn’t work for you, don’t be afraid to change it!”
All images courtesy of @artifactcider on Instagram.