Sky's the Limit: Curt Alpeter, Laura Sorkin, Eric Sorkin, and Runamok

Curt Alpeter, president and partner, and co-owners Laura and Eric Sorkin. Photo: Carol Sullivan.

by Joyce Marcel, Vermont Business Magazine It's hard to write a story for Vermonters about maple syrup because we already think we know everything.

We know a stand of maple trees is called a sugarbush. We know a shed where sap is boiled is called a sugarhouse. We know when the sap is boiling by the sight of steam clouds rising from the farmer's shed. We know whether we prefer the pure A grade syrup on our pancakes or the darker, thicker, richer B. We know that when you pour maple on snow you get maple taffy, and we organize festivals around that knowledge. We know which of our neighbor's delicious-but-basic product we depend upon to get us through the season before we run out and have to buy supermarket maple. We know all that.

However, it was only a matter of time before maple, like cheese before it, went upscale. So I'm here to tell you that maple syrup isn't just for pancakes anymore.

In 2019, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets asked the Atlantic Corporation to do extensive market research on maple syrup and value-added products to determine market conditions, trends in consumer demand and current distribution channels, and to outline the most advantageous strategies for Vermont maple syrup producers to be competitive in a global market.

The result?

The report said that Vermont producers could benefit from a focus on entering or expanding into new, niche markets targeting a variety of consumer trends.

“The key factor for the economic health of the Vermont maple syrup industry,” the report said, “is to brand and market its products to sustain high-market demand, allowing the key stakeholders to benefit from a market-driven economy rather than in a perilous supply-driven dynamic that typically leads to lower prices.”

By then, Runamok was way ahead of them.

Runamok, of Fairfax, was founded in 2016 by former bulk maple producers Eric Sorkin and his wife, Laura. Together with partner Curt Alpeter, they have taken maple to an entirely new level.

Photo: The Runamok team at their production facility in Fairfax. From left: Co-owners Eric and Laura Sorkin and Curt Alpeter, president and partner. Photo: Carol Sullivan

And along with the raised deliciousness, raised quality, raised variety, raised packaging and raised pricing, the successful company has moved into cocktail mixers, bitters, rich honeys and other specialty foods.

Currently, Runamok employs 100 people. It made the list of “Oprah's Favorite Things” right out of the starting gate in 2016. It reported revenues last year of between $10 million and $20 million.

“Runamok Maple is redefining maple from tree to table,” the company's publicity says, and that isn't hype.

It may startle New Englanders to know that maple syrup — the real stuff that comes from trees, rather than maple-flavored corn syrup — is foreign to a majority of the country.

Runamok is determined to make all of America use real maple in as many new ways as they can think of. To do so, they have become adept at combining maple with a host of unusual flavors.

If you want your maple infused with Makrut lime or loaded up with sparkles, then Runamok is your company. Their ginger root-infused maple could easily become an obsession, but you can also get smoked chili pepper-infused, cinnamon and vanilla-infused, smoked with pecan wood-infused, or coffee-, cardamon-, elderberry- or hibiscus flower-infused. They also make barrel-aged maple, with a choice of bourbon, rum or whiskey barrels.

“There's a lot of maple syrup in Vermont, so we really just wanted to distinguish ourselves,” Laura said. “There are some tried-and-true flavor combinations, like cinnamon and vanilla, and we went with those. Those are still some of our most popular. The bourbon barrel-aged has been done. So, we thought, 'Well, let's throw it in a whiskey barrel and see. Let's throw it in a rum barrel. Let's try it in an apple brandy barrel. And we were just blown away by how complementary maple syrup is to so many different spices and herbs and barrel aging.”

It was Eric's idea to try a lime leaf.

“It's a Thai lime leaf, sometimes called a macerate lime leaf,” Laura said. “I had worked in a Thai restaurant, so I said, 'Eric, that's a terrible idea.' But we tried it, and it's awesome. It's floral, it's delicate, it takes maple syrup to a completely different place. After that, we're like, ‘All right, let's try anything.’”

One of the things they tried — really — was sparkles (pearlescent mica).

“This was also Eric's brainchild,” Laura said. “He had heard about glitter beer and asked, 'What happens if we throw some glitter into the maple syrup?' And again he got pushback. I was an early naysayer. I said, 'Honey, I don't think that's on brand.' Long story short, it's our best seller. It by far outsold everything else during the pandemic. I totally had to eat humble pie, because we got so many parents sending in videos of their kids just absolutely over the moon over the stuff, gleeful and jumping up and down with their pancakes and the sparkles. It was meant to be fun at a miserable time in world history. And it worked. And it's still fun.”

The sparkles brought joy to people, Eric said.

“We're not in the business of saving lives,” he said. “We don't take ourselves too seriously. But that brought joy. It was really rewarding. The country was at a point where we were so fatigued, and so many people had been home for so long. So just having something that was pure frivolous joy felt nice. And we just got a patent on it.”

Of course, there have been flavor failures.

“Don't ever, ever, ever put wasabi in maple syrup,” Laura said. “It's disgusting. And saffron and maple syrup? No, don't do that. However, saffron and honey is delicious. So we still get to use it. But there have been more successes than failures, honestly.”

“We had a heck of a time coming up with a hot pepper maple syrup, although we knew we wanted one,” Eric said. “We probably tried a dozen different peppers. Honestly, I don't even remember how many. Most of them just didn't do anything. And some of them were just downright bad. And then we landed on the merquén, which is a smoked chili pepper blend from Chile. And that is definitely one of the team's favorites.”

The company recently ran a contest to find a new flavor. Over 700 people voted. The winner was pineapple upside down-infused maple, and it will be out soon.

Eli Lesser-Goldsmith, owner of South Burlington's Healthy Living Market and Café — the largest natural food store in the state — believes his store might have been the first to sell Runamok products.

“We're a place where a lot of people look to get their products first,” he said. “So we've had Runamok for years now.”

Lesser-Goldsmith says that Runamok has created its own niche.

“They are a big player, for sure,” he said. “They've definitely created a new category. Before them, there were none of these kinds of infused maples. Runamok started the whole thing. They should be given a lot of credit for really being innovative.”

Runamok is a profitable product for his market, Lesser-Goldsmith said.

“Any product we sell at Healthy Living has to pay its way,” he said. “We don't keep products for any reason other than that they perform. And Runamok has been here for many years, so they're obviously a strong performer. I'm just incredibly proud of that team. I think they're an inspiration to other Vermont startups. They show that Vermont startups can be successful if they're tenacious, if they're persistent. I wish them a ton of success, and I'm proud that Healthy Living has been a part of their story and a part of their growth.”

The Runamok team at their production facility in Fairfax. From left: Curt Alpeter, president and partner, and co-owners Eric and Laura Sorkin. Photo: Carol Sullivan.

Jeff Price, owner of Ten Acre Creative, is Runamok's graphic design partner. He designed the handsome bottles and the literature that comes with each order. He told me that Runamok now has a multitude of imitators.

“A lot of people, maybe 80% of the places that do maple, have some bourbon barrel-infused maple,” Price said. “They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, and you are starting to see a lot of other sugar makers trying what Runamok is doing. People are jumping on the bandwagon and coming up with more than just a bourbon barrel, or more than a few infusions. But what sets Runamok apart is they're thinking about their brand differently. Rather than just putting it in a regular jug, or a jar or a bottle that is 'somewhat mainstream' or 'traditional,' Runamok has a new bottle shape, one that's been iconic for them. It's artwork-focused, it shows a lot of the product and it's identified by a color theme. Within the maple space, I don't know of any other brand that is really doing that.”

A Chance Meeting Proves Fateful

Runamok's story begins in 2000, when Laura and Eric, both environmentalists working as consultants in Washington, DC, decided to push up their retirement plans by about 20 years.

They left the District and office work behind them and moved to a 600-acre farm on the western slope of Mount Mansfield. Their intent was to farm organic vegetables. Although the farming didn't pan out, Laura authored a successful cookbook, “Vegetables: The Ultimate Cookbook,” that is in its second printing.

“It's not a vegetarian cookbook, but a celebration of vegetables and how to cook them,” Laura said. “And it has a little bit of background on my farming them.”

There was a sugarbush on their property, and Eric eventually put in 78,000 taps. (He says he has 118,000 now.)

“From 2009 to 2015, we sold exclusively to the bulk market,” Eric said. “The spot price of maple syrup was initially very favorable, but it was declining annually, leading to smaller margins. We effectively had two choices: grow the size of our operation to maintain our bottom line or look toward vertical integration and go directly to retail. We were most interested in the latter. We saw an opportunity for branding, contemporary design and a focus on culinary innovation that left an opening in an otherwise crowded market. It also engaged us in an entirely new business with much larger opportunities — and risks.”

So Eric and Laura started Runamok in 2016. That year they took their products to the New York Fancy Food Show and were overwhelmed by their reception. They made the list of “Oprah's Favorite Things” and were written up by the Wall Street Journal and the magazines Saveur and Food & Wine. They were off and running.

Within months, they were joined by Alpeter, who had worked in management for both IDX and MyWebGrocer. More to the environmental point, he was also serving as the board chair of Audubon Vermont. It was in this capacity that he first met Eric.

“Audubon was doing a bird-friendly maple sugarbush evaluation,” Alpeter said. “I got called by the biologists who said, 'Hey, if you've never been on one of these evaluations, why don't you come out and check it out?' So I went, and that's where I met Eric. We got talking about business a little bit. He was getting ready to start his business, and I said I was looking to either start something or partner with someone. Long story short, he shared what they were doing. This was about a month after they officially launched. I said 'I love the idea and love what you're doing. And I'd love to help you out.' And so it just went from there. It was a fateful meeting.”

At the time, Alpeter had already left MyWebGrocer to do consulting work and look for his next big opportunity.

“It was a big pivot to go from technology to maple syrup,” he said. “But I was looking to get into something sort of local and Vermont-y, and this obviously fit the bill. I thought it was a great idea. Eric and Laura had just gotten it, and they were looking for some help to scale the business. It was kind of what I was looking for and what they were looking for, so it's nice.”

In terms of dividing up the work, Eric is the CEO and Alpeter is the president, but they share most of the functions in running the company.

Co-owner Laura is the voice of the company and is very involved with social media, content and recipe development.

“I'm the marketing part,” Laura said. “So I do a lot of social media. I write all of the copy for all of our advertising. Anytime there are new labels or a website, I do all of that.

The bulk maple business is separate; it is owned and operated by Eric.

Originally, Laura and Eric self-funded Runamok.

“Commodity maple can be very profitable,” Eric said. “We would pile that money, you know, until we had a relatively modest pile. Then, when we started Runamok and got the great response we had at the Fancy Food Show in 2016, we realized the timing was fortunate for us. So we invested in the business heavily. And we've been investing ever since. We've also taken on some private debt. And this year, we're going to do our first round of equity funding. We haven't started that yet, but probably within the next couple of months we'll be raising some $3 million in an equity round.”

In 2017 the team bought the old Scrabble tile factory in Fairfax, which had been left empty after the Milton Bradley company moved its production to China.

“They used to buy maple locally and use it for the tiles, so in a way, it's been a maple facility for quite some time,” Laura said.

They put in a modern production facility with a roof reinforced for solar, moved into it in 2018 and began. The creative juices are still running strong.

Photo: Runamok's production facility in Fairfax. Photo by Carol Sullivan.

“We're really a specialty food company,” Alpeter said. “We started out in maple, but we've branched into cocktail mixers and into cocktail bitters. We're into honey. We're going to be doing other things outside the sweetener category. We work with culinary innovation, unique ingredients and terrific flavor profiles and put them in a package that is unique and beautiful. That is the core of what we're trying to do.”

It seems as if they are just getting started.

“For Runamok, the sky is the limit,” says their banker, Justin Bourgeois, vice president of commercial lending at Community National Bank. “I have served as their commercial lending officer since early 2017, when their lawyer suggested that we would be a fit for each other. I’m always looking for great local companies that have the potential to grow locally and create great locally sourced products that can create great jobs right here in Vermont. They are perfectly positioned in the marketplace with a standout line of high-quality products, and they are constantly innovating. Unicorn sparkle syrup anyone?”

Bourgeois enjoys the maple flavors, but he believes each product stands on its own.

“Right now, I’m really enjoying their new line of honey, which was an obvious next step for Runamok,” Bourgeois said. “Their innovations of syrup translate nicely to honey. I’ll take a straight Runamok honey in my tea and on my English muffins!”

When I caught up with Eric and Laura, they were sitting in a car parked on a highway in north Florida, where they were trolling for bees with their bee whisperer, Todd Hardie.

Alpeter, who was home in Vermont, set up, monitored and contributed to our Zoom call.

I was curious about the company name.

“When we started, we were just a commodity producer,” Eric said. “We sold all our share to packers. We didn't have any consumer-facing portion of the brand. So the name wasn't very important for our business. We went by Thunder Basin Maple Works — like so many agriculture businesses, we took the name of the spot, ran with it and that was that. But what was remarkable was that people just consistently mixed up the name. Was it Thunder Mountain or Thunder Works? And so when we decided to start a retail brand, we knew we needed a name that people would remember.”

They tried many names.

“We were looking for something that spoke to the wild nature of maple,” Eric said. “And one of the truly unique things about maple syrup is that it is one of the last commercial foodstuffs that's wild-harvested. It's not grown in a field. So we were really looking for a name that spoke to that part of it. We spent a couple of months brainstorming and came up with a bunch of duds. When we came up with Runamok, we ran it by a group of 20 friends and family. They were basically a little focus group. And the reactions were really strong. People loved it or hated it. A slight majority of folks thought it was just a terrible, terrible name for a business. But the reactions were really strong, and that was my signal that it was a good name to choose. People were going to remember it.”

Laura added, “Our business is based somewhat on the weather, and there's a certain amount of chaos that's built into that.”

They still weren't certain of the name when they took their products to the New York Fancy Food show, but the amount of positive attention the name grabbed solidified them behind their unusual brand.

A Shared Passion For Agriculture

Laura Sorkin, 53, was born in New York City and grew up in Connecticut. She has a BA from McGill University, a culinary degree from the French Culinary Institute in New York, and a Master of Environmental Management from Duke University.

“My father died when I was very young,” Laura said. “And my mother went back to Wall Street and became a stockbroker for a little bit. Then she actually switched and created her own company for travel in Africa. So we spent a lot of time traveling in Africa when I was a teenager.”

After graduating from college, Laura wasn't quite sure what she wanted to do, so she took the culinary degree and started working in restaurants in New York City.

“I just absolutely found my passion,” she said. “I worked in several restaurants in New York City for a while. And then it became pretty clear that it's a really brutal lifestyle. So I went back to graduate school in coastal environmental management. And that's when I met Eric.”

Eric Sorkin, 52, grew up in New York City and has a law degree from Columbia Law School. He also has a Master of Studies in Environmental Law from Vermont Law School, as well as a Master of Environmental Management from Duke.

“My mother also died when I was young,” Eric said. “My father worked for IBM, and then later AT&T. He was essentially in sales management. So we lived in New Jersey, and he commuted into the city for quite some time. Then he started his own consulting business. And that's what he did, really well, until he retired.”

Many people with environmental degrees end up working in consulting. That's what drew the couple to Washington.

“But we didn't really care for DC,” Eric said. “It just wasn't a place that we felt connected to. It's a very transactional place with very transient people. They come in for an administration or for a task. They may be great people, but we never really connected with the city.”

Although neither of them grew up on a farm or had worked in agriculture, they shared an untapped passion (no pun intended) for food and agriculture.

“We had always had this idea that we would start a farm upon retirement,” Laura said. “And after a year in DC, we just moved the plan up about 20 years. It's good that we did. If we tried to do it now, I'm pretty sure that we would be too old and feeble.”

Alpeter, 55, was born and raised in Chagrin Falls, OH. He received a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Miami University in Oxford, OH. “I moved to Vermont with my wife shortly after college — and without a job — after falling in love with the state on our honeymoon,” he said. “My wife and I raised two children on a small hobby farm, and we have resided in Vermont for 32 years, largely in Charlotte. I spent the first 25 years of my career with IDX and MyWebGrocer.”

When he left MyWebGrocer, he began consulting.

“I had long desired to either start my own business or help someone start a business from the ground up,” he said. “So when I left MyWebGrocer, I decided now was the time to make that dream a reality. I had that fateful meeting with Eric — regarding bird-friendly maple certification, of all things — and he shared the vision of Runamok. I was hooked. I knew I had found a tremendous opportunity to grow a premium Vermont food brand.”

Alpeter’s interest in the environment stems from his love of the outdoors and a strong desire to give back.

“Living in Vermont, it is hard not to have a deep appreciation for the natural world,” he said. “I am a current board member and past chair of Audubon Vermont and also served on the Charlotte Land Trust and North County Federal Credit Union boards.”

Although they come from different backgrounds, the Sorkins and Alpeter share a strong working partnership.

“At least from my perspective, I really couldn't ask for a better partner,” Eric said. “I feel like we work really well together.”

Respecting The Land

The maple season has just ended; by all reports, it was a good season.

“Last year was a terrible crop throughout the maple-producing region,” Eric said. “So this year looks much more promising. I've talked to some folks who made their best crop ever.”

Runamok buys from just under 50 bulk producers, almost all of them in Vermont.

“Because last year was so bad, we had to buy from one Maine producer,” Eric said. “But aside from that, the vast majority of it comes from Vermont. This year, I think all but that one Maine producer will come from Vermont.”

About three-quarters of Runamok's business is its own branded syrup, all made from Vermont maple, Eric said. Since a producer can only use the word “Vermont” to market maple syrup if it comes from Vermont, the Maine maple is used on private-label work that the company does for other customers.

“Some of our customers require Vermont's name,” Eric said. “But some of them require Maine syrup, which is why we have that.”

Most of Runamok's maple is organically produced. Although it's hard to imagine a sugarbush that's not organic — after all, it consists of trees growing in the woods — there are differences in the way that sugarbushes are managed.

“When you're certified organic for maple production, someone has to come out and verify that you're protecting biodiversity, that you're taking care of soil health and water quality,” Eric said. “That's the thing that we're looking for when we purchase maple syrup.”

Runamok takes its organic designation very seriously.

“On the bird front, we were one of the first to be bird-friendly certified by Audubon,” Laura said. “In fact, for the past two summers they've been doing bird studies up in our woods.”

How could a forest be bird-unfriendly?

“Some sugar bushes cut down anything except for maple,” Laura said. “They don't encourage the biodiversity. We'll do things like leave dead trees unless they're dangerous, because they make for an excellent habitat. So it's basically promoting biodiversity as opposed to just treating the woods strictly as an agricultural area.”

Not unexpectedly, climate change is already a big problem for maple producers.

“We're so very dependent on that freeze-thaw cycle we get in the spring,” Eric said. “And what's so disruptive is the volatility. So even if, on average, our temperatures are where they've been, or even up a little bit, a week of unusually warm weather in the middle of sugaring season can hurt the crop for everybody. And that's been happening more and more. You'll just get these swings between really cold weather and then really warm weather.”

Yield, however, has gone up over the past 10 years, due mainly to improved technology.

“I think anyone who takes on sugaring as their business has to be an optimist at heart,” Eric said. “And I'm optimistic. There will be things that we can't work around, but global climate change is a real challenge to the industry.”

Finding The Right Balance

With her culinary degree, years working in restaurants and a successful cookbook behind her, Laura has spent a lot of time thinking about food, cooking, recipes and, of course, maple.

Some of the recipes on the Runamok website are new, like curried maple cashews with sausage crumbles. Some sound like updates of old favorites, such as the baked ham with a ginger-orange maple glaze. The sophisticated recipes are a far remove from breakfast pancakes. It's not just about using maple as a sweetener, but as a flavor to add to the complexity of a dish. In a way, it's like adding salt to a dish not to make the dish salty, but to amplify the flavors of the other ingredients.

“Secrets revealed, I don't actually have much of a sweet tooth,” Laura said. “However, after working with maple syrup for over a decade, I get why it's so important to have the sweet element in a dish. It's there for balance. And I see a lot more professional chefs, like Yotam Ottolenghi, using maple syrup quite a bit. It provides that extra little bit of balance to bring out the flavors of the other ingredients that you have.”

Maple syrup has a “lovely complexity” to it, Laura said.

Photo: Runamok's products.

“If you're making a sauce, you don't have to worry about reducing,” she said. “It's not like using a granular sugar. I found my cooking is improved a lot by using maple syrup in the savory dishes. In a cocktail, it's a no-brainer. It's already a syrup. And again, it's got that extra complexity that granulated sugar just doesn't have. We've found in cocktails it's been phenomenal. And you know, maple syrup has been used for drinks like a maple old fashioned for a long time. We tried it out with tonics, using maple as the sweetener, and it's phenomenal. In our factory, everybody absolutely loves it. We keep trying to get it out there in the public, how good our maple tonic is.”

Laura cooks all the time, Eric said.

“I used to do crew lunch every Friday when I was farming vegetables,” Laura said. “It was basically a celebration of everything coming out of the ground. But you know, the crew worked so hard, so it became the tradition, and it turned into a crew lunch for the maple crew as well. And it was phenomenal. But we had 10 people, and then we had 12 people, and then we had 16 people. And eventually I was like, OK, I can't do this anymore. I'm not a commercial kitchen.' But yes, I still cook.”

Now that Runamok has gone into producing honey-based products, there will be more recipes.

“That is like a whole new realm of cooking right there,” Laura said.

Keeping The Bees Alive

When I talked to Laura and Eric in their car, they were in northern Florida chasing down Tupelo and orange blossom honey.

“Down here they've got their own problems,” Laura said. “There's something called citrus greening, which is a disease that the citrus groves get. And the crop of orange blossom honey is very, very poor this year. It's hard to get it because the trees are all dying off. You drive past these groves of dying citrus trees, and it's really depressing.”

The weather is also not friendly to bees.

“They had a cold snap when the orange trees were going to bloom, which was completely unexpected,” Eric said. “So the flowers basically died before they opened up, and the bees weren't able to get their nectar. There's a lot of similarity between honey and maple; it's exposure to climate change.”

Bees travel. I didn't know that, but beekeepers move their hives around; they go to Florida for the winter and are moved to California as well as New England.

“I thought we were coming down here to source some honey from Florida,” Laura said. “But in fact, our main supplier, who's up in New York, brings his bees down here to recoup and build up the hives. It's not to harvest honey. It's because they're not going to survive if they stay up in New York for the winter. Even experienced beekeepers are seeing between 40% and 60% of their bees die off in the winter if they stay up in the northern regions. And so they bring them down to the warmer areas to keep the bees alive. They can bring them back out for the apple crops and the watermelon crop. And they'll go out to California for the almond crops.”

Todd Hardie is an experienced beekeeper with widespread contacts in the national beekeeping community. At the height of his beekeeping, he was operating 1,900 hives.

Now he's a grain farmer in Greensboro and has been recruited to work for Runamok's honey division. He was with Laura and Eric in Florida, where, among other things, they got to travel on a barge carrying 60 hives that were being moved closer to the Tupelo trees.

“It's really been a pleasure for me to work with Runamok for the last year, as they build up their program to source quality honey from around our country,” Hardie said. “I've been helping them source honey from Florida, New York, Wyoming and other places. It's exciting because I love working with beekeepers, and I really love bees.”

Raw honey is his passion, Hardie said.

“Runamok has really embraced that with a quality line of really good honey,” Hardie said. “I'm just grateful to have my stamp on that because that's important to me, keeping the honey raw. Then it continues to taste better and keeps the food and the medicine parts of honey, as well as the sweetener.”

The medicine parts?

“Raw honey is medicine,” Hardie said. “It has enzymes that are really good for your moving parts and your body-function systems. It's got a little bit of protein in it, but mostly it has enzymes and some carbohydrates. It's good for topical healing for wounds as well as internally.”

Hardie's work with Runamok is collaborative, he said.

“I find out what they want, and I use my friendships and relationships to find it,” he said. “It's not an easy business. Environmentally, the bees are under a tremendous challenge — worldwide. So only the courageous and brave are doing beekeeping on a scale large enough to have honey for a business.”

For the past 20 years, the country has been losing honeybees at an astonishing rate.

“We're a country addicted to drugs and won't admit it,” Hardie said. “It's called conventional agriculture. Most agriculture uses a huge number of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals to farm. The air is not clean anymore, the waters are not clean. We've made our land and our air and our environment toxic, so the honeybees are having a hard time living.”

That makes Hardie's relationships with beekeepers even more valuable.

“We got Northern fall honey from New York, which is my favorite, number-one honey,” Hardie said. “We got our orange blossom from Florida last year. And we got clover honey from Montana. Those are good honeys, and we're working with great beekeepers.”

This is only the beginning of the bee season now, so no one knows how good this year's production will be.

“It doesn't look like there'll be much of an orange blossom crop,” Hardie said. “Greening is giving the orange trees a hard time in Florida. The insects are carrying a pathogen from tree to tree, so the amount of honey you can get may not be as available as it was 20 years ago. We hope to get a few barrels from one guy we work with. New York is an incredible treasure chest of flowers, so there's good honey in New York. Vermont doesn't have a lot of beekeepers, and the ones we do have are smaller, so we encourage them to sell their honey directly. We need to buy honey in drums to make it work in the marketplace. And we pay the beekeepers very fairly for it. But we have to go to where there's more honey, which is New York and Wyoming and Florida. We're gonna start looking for honey in Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest and California, because there's some incredible honey out there.”

Once you get honey, it doesn't go bad, Hardie said.

“Some honey will keep for up to 4,000 years,” he said. “They found some of it in the tombs in Egypt, and it was still sweet.”

Hardie is happy to be working with Alpeter and the Sorkins on sourcing honey for Runamok.

“They're wonderful people,” Hardie said. “They've allowed me to spend the time to find incredible honey for them. And it's nice that they have a diversification. They're farmers, which really means a lot to me. I love it when the farmer can get a fair price for their crop. And that's what they're doing. It's a lot of hard work and it's not guaranteed success, but they're doing a good job at it. And I love that spirit; they're admirable people for that. They are great to work with because they understand farming and what it takes to make honey.”

Growing The Brand

The three partners were a bit close-mouthed about the company's future.

"At the core, we are building a brand and with our diversification outside of maple syrup,” Curt said. “Our vision is to be one of the most sought after specialty food brands in the country."

Runamok has big plans for its line of honeys.

“Honey is an area that fits well with our manufacturing and what we do,” Eric said. “We're trying to source the best honeys from around the country. And at some point, maybe even from around the world.”

“We've already tried four new monoflorals down here (in Florida) that are going to blow you away for honey,” Laura said.

“Our Beekeepers Cut honey, as an example, is very unique,” Alpeter said. “There's really nothing like it on the market. For the most part, consumers aren't used to it. It's not like squirting honey out of a jar. You're going to scoop it out, and it's going to have a thick, unique texture and a totally unique flavor.”

Marketing Runamok requires educating the public.

“It's like educating people in Oklahoma on the difference between real maple syrup and fake syrup,” Alpeter said. “It's part of being a bit of a pioneer in the space. But we think there's a lot of room there to grow the business and to grow our brand.”

Also in the future: continuing to maintain relationships with brewers and distillers in Vermont. Whistlepig has approached the Runamok team to work on bitters and mixers.

But most of all, the partners want to stay focused on growing the business.

“We've actually tried to put some definition around where we are, and I think the closest we've come is to think of it as a pantry,” Eric said. “We're a specialty food manufacturer, so we're going to stick with specialty food. We work with shelf-stable products. It's unlikely that we're ever going to dabble with anything that's truly perishable or requires refrigeration.”

Flavor experiments will always be encouraged.

“We're going to continue to innovate with honey, mixers, bitters and maple,” Eric said. “That's always what we're going to do. We mentioned our pineapple upside-down maple, and we're going to come out with more of what we hope are permanent flavors. We'll also do more limited releases. We really have fun with the limited releases as well as with our core products. But I don't know if we want to share too much — specifically, share a type of product that we're going to launch.”

The company's plan is to move outside of sweeteners and liquids and “expand into categories where we think there's room for innovation, room for unique flavor profiles and room for better packaging solutions,” Eric said.

“We'll bring to market things that are unusual, that you don't often see,” he added. “That goes to our brand. So any new food product that we get into will hit on those cylinders. We'll always make sure that we're doing something very high-quality, very innovative and with unique flavor profiles and ingredients.”

Photo: The Runamok team at their production facility in Fairfax. From left: Curt Alpeter, president and partner, and co-owners Laura and Eric Sorkin. Photo: Carol Sullivan.

Joyce Marcel is a journalist in southern Vermont. In 2017 she was named the best business magazine profile writer in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publishers. She is married to Randy Holhut, the news editor/acting operations manager of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Brattleboro.