Branching Out

These maple wholesalers have launched a retail shop

by Phyl Newbeck

palmer2016Longtime Jeffersonville sugar farmers Paul and Colleen Palmer have opened a retail store in Jericho, their new home town, and are already thinking about expanding.

There is a section of Vermont 15 in Jericho that is known for its sweetness. On November 30, 2012, maple product wholesalers Colleen and Paul Palmer opened a retail shop, Palmer Lane Maple, next to the Jericho icon Snowflake Chocolates. Less than three years later, their store is considered the place to go in Vermont for maple creemees.

Ironically, the product Palmer Lane Maple is best known for wasn’t part of the couple’s original business plan. During their first month of operation — December — at least 40 people asked if they would sell creemees. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that was a good idea,” Paul says. Since new creemee machines can cost $20,000 to $30,000, the Palmers found a used one on Craigslist. Creemees have become such a popular product that they replaced it with a new machine and have since bought a second one.

The Palmers would love to sell creemees year-round, but it is difficult to get the needed supplies during the winter months. Due to the cost of maintaining the machines, they have decided to sell creemees one weekend a month during the winter and to advertise those weekends on the sandwich board displayed outside the store and on social media.

Born in Burlington and raised in Essex Junction, Paul took a circuitous route to turning his love of maple syrup into a full-time job. “I started sugaring with the Allens in Essex Junction on Route 15,” he says. “Ever since I was 4 years old and allowed to cross the road by myself I was always in their sugarhouse. Being there and smelling pure maple syrup boiling and the wood and the smoke was my dream. It’s something I always wanted to do and I knew that I’d do it in one shape or another.”

He spent a semester at The University of Vermont as an engineering major but dropped out in the hope of discovering his passion. He captained a ferry boat for Lake Champlain Transportation Co. for a decade before poor health intruded. “I spent a few months in the hospital, which gave me time to reflect,” he says.

After his recovery, he continued to work on the ferries in summer while earning a degree in mathematics from Johnson State College. He spent four years teaching at Essex High School before deciding to switch gears once again.

During his years at Johnson State, Paul had rekindled his love for sugaring by building a sugarhouse at his home in Jeffersonville and selling syrup to family and friends. “I enjoyed it,” he says “but it may not even have covered my costs.”

From Essex High School, Paul moved on to IDX where he found a larger audience for his maple syrup. It was also at IDX that he met Colleen, a self-described military brat whose Coast Guard father had moved the family around regularly. Colleen had graduated from UVM with a degree in psychology and moved to Vermont in a former marriage in 1994. She started her career managing medical clinics before joining the staff at IDX.

The Palmers met in 1999 when they found themselves in adjoining cubicles as part of a software support team. Paul recalls being impressed that Colleen seemed to know exactly what he was thinking before he said it. Even before they became romantically involved, when Paul was in the field and called for information, Colleen instinctively knew what he was looking for. They married in 2003.

After their daughters, Olivia and Julia, were born, Colleen spent her days at home with the girls, volunteering in the classroom and spending her evenings working at restaurants. Paul continued to make syrup at their Jeffersonville home, but in 2007 he saw an advertisement for a maple candy business and asked Colleen what she thought. “The clean version of what I said,” she remembers with a smile, is “Are you nuts?”

After some discussion, they met with the seller and before the year was up, they owned a business, a client list, and some outstanding orders. “The first year we surpassed the previous year’s business and kept growing in double digits,” Colleen recalls.

Five years later, Paul saw that the house next to Snowflake Chocolate on the corner of Vermont 15 and Old Pump Road was for sale. For years, candy customers had asked them why they didn’t have a store, and Paul thought this would be a good location. Again, Colleen questioned his sanity but eventually agreed to give it a shot.

“We bought it during Underhill’s Old-Fashioned Harvest Market in 2012,” Colleen remembers. “We set up a tent and sold maple cotton candy with the goal of making enough money to buy two gallons of paint.” Paul is the one who likes setting goals and this one was surpassed. “We made enough for four gallons,” he recalls. Paul resigned from IDX (by then owned by GE), and they formally opened Palmer Lane Maple, named for their Jeffersonville address at the time.

Jericho resident Hannah Deene Wood, one of the Palmers’ regulars, notes that many people say they work out so they can drink beer or wine, but in her case it’s so she can eat maple creemees. Her new infatuation is an iced coffee the Palmers serve with maple ice cream. The store is close enough that Wood can bike there with her kids and she uses the reward of a creemee as an incentive to get them to go out. “It’s really a beautiful spot to meet and have ice cream,” she says. “It’s such a gem and we’re lucky to have it in our community.”

Palmer Lane Maple occupies the front of the building and initially the Palmers continued to live in Jeffersonville while Paul made renovations to the back, but in February of 2015 they were able to move in. Now they are considering expansion, eyeing the barn attached to their house as a possible venue for sales. The Palmers employ as many as seven people in the summer and four in the winter, not counting Olivia, now 14, and Julia, who is about to turn 12, who have been helping since they were very young.

Paul is in charge of the sugar-making operation, which is still based in Jeffersonville. With 1,100 taps, they don’t have enough to supply the entire business so they purchase syrup from sugar makers in Chittenden, Franklin, and Lamoille counties. Paul does all the maintenance, cans the syrup, and takes care of other maple-related products. Colleen is in charge of making candy and maple cream as well as the administrative part of the business plus what she describes as “mom stuff.”

Among the challenges faced by the Palmers is the difficulty in finding and retaining employees with a strong work ethic. High school students are great for serving creemees but they have limited hours during the school year. The vagaries of Vermont weather also pose a problem since the Palmers need good quality maple syrup for their products. Weather affects the company in other ways, as well. Last year’s poor winter meant fewer tourists traveling on Route 15 toward the mountains. “It’s not just ski resorts that suffer,” Colleen says. “There is a trickle-down effect.”

At this point the Palmers are working hard to grow their business with ideas about different product lines including hard ice cream. In the meantime, they have become a major part of the Jericho community. The company’s Facebook page proudly displays a photo of Olympic mountain biker Lea Davison as she stopped for a maple creemee on her way to Rio.

Amanda Voyer, communications coordinator of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association, knew the Palmers through their creemees before she met them professionally when Paul joined the board of directors. “Colleen jokes that I should head up their Creemees Anonymous,” she says “because I’m there three or four times a week.” Voyer appreciates the outreach work the Palmers have done, providing maple syrup to Jericho Elementary School and bringing maple lemonade to Catamount Family Center for mountain bike events. “They’ve made themselves known in the community,” she says.

Paul plays hockey a couple nights a week; Colleen does Zumba and is a Girl Scout leader. “We never wanted the business to consume our lives totally, so sometimes we walk away and let the employees run the place,” says Paul.

After years of wholesale work, Paul and Colleen are finding that they really enjoy the retail market. “Both Colleen and I love to get to know our customers,” Paul says. “One downside to being so busy is we don’t have as much time to get to know everyone.”

The good news is that many of those customers stick around for a while. When they bought the property, the Palmers didn’t put much thought into their front porch but soon they discovered that people liked to sit there eating their creemees and watching the world go by. They have since added several chairs, benches, and a wicker set on the lawn, and on a warm, sunny day, the seating area is often filled.

“I love maple,” Paul says “and I’ve discovered I love retail because I get to go out and talk to people. Seeing their smiles makes it all worthwhile.” •