Joyce and Travis Miller make hickory bark syrup in their rural home in Clarke County, Va. (Dayna Smith/For the Washington Post)
Reporter

Some people create businesses to make a ton of money.

Joyce and Travis Miller, a married couple who live an hour west of Washington in the Shenandoah Valley, run a business because it is an extension of their lives.

Together, they run Falling Bark Farm, which makes hickory syrup.

Joyce, the owner, calls herself “company cheerleader.” Travis is the volunteer.

It’s a successful team.

Bottles of hickory bark syrup bear the labels of various historical sites, that sell the syrup in their gift shops. (Dayna Smith/For the Washington Post)

Falling Bark Hickory Syrup sold 30,000 bottles of its homemade syrup last year, selling in every state in the union. The Millers netted between $50,000 and $100,000 in 2014 on gross sales of $185,000. They are on pace this year to sell more than $200,000 as they head into the prime holiday season.

That may not sound like much to the capitalists at finance houses such as the Carlyle Group, Revolution or New Enterprise Associates. But this contented entrepreneurial couple live close to nature yet dabble enough in finance to make it interesting — to me anyway.

“It doesn’t take much to make us happy,” said Joyce, 63.

Their little project is what is called an NLO in business school classes: Nice Living for the Owner.

The Millers are disarmingly friendly and open, yet their financial smarts crept in during an hour-long phone conversation.

They have played a bit in real estate, buying and selling four homes over the past few decades. They live in a fifth home on four acres in Berryville, Va. They were land flippers before flipping was in vogue, buying a new property in the morning and selling the old one in the afternoon.

“It was a way to lift ourselves,” said Travis, adding that the backup plan was to build a house and live on the land if they could not sell it.

The Millers sell five flavors of their syrup, including whiskey-barrel-aged, brandy-infused, vanilla bean, a combination of brandy and vanilla, and the original.

When I think of hickory syrup, I think pancakes and French toast. But that’s just the beginning. Most people buy the Millers’ product to use on salmon, and the syrup finds its way into cocktails, soda, sweet potato, squash and apple recipes.

About 70 percent of their product is sold to 200 wholesale accounts (restaurants, bars, coffee shops, stores such as Whole Foods, hotels and historical locations), delivered out of the back of the Millers’ 1997 Chevy pickup, which has 312,000 miles on it. About 5 percent of their orders come in through the Millers’ Web site. The rest is sold at food shows and craft events.

The Millers charge about $6 for an eight-ounce bottle of the original syrup that typically retails for around $10, or about what maple syrup might cost.

A nonprofit organization in Crozet, Va., distributes their product to stores, but the Millers also have had inquiries from a wholesaler who is interested in distributing it across the South.

Red Truck Bakery in Marshall, Va., has called about making craft soda with the syrup, and a vinegar maker in Delaplane, Va., recently bought several gallons for its products. They’ve even had an inquiry from an Ohio retailer.

“We make money on everything,” said Travis, who was talking to me in the car after dropping off a load of syrup at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, Va., while Joyce was delivering to various Washington customers, including the kitchen at the Pentagon City Ritz-Carlton.

When the Millers aren’t selling, they are marketing. They have been featured in Garden & Gun magazine, on CNN, National Public Radio and RFD-TV. They have had inquiries from the Fabulous Beekman Boys show on the Cooking Channel and from an Ohio farm store.

They also storm craft and food festivals and fairs throughout the Mid-Atlantic, including Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, North Carolina and the District.

“Every time you are out with people, you don’t know who you are speaking with,” Travis said. “They might be writers, contacts. It’s getting out in front of people, chefs, freelancers.”

Travis tinkered with salt seasonings, sassafras, butters and other homemade mixtures since retiring from Giant grocery store after 30 years.

“Our life was just living off the land.”

For money to augment their pensions and savings, the Millers would make sassafras tea to sell at farmers markets. They gathered and sold morel mushrooms to restaurants, which fetch as much as $35 a pound.

“It pays the bills, kept the lights on,” said Joyce, who was a stay-at-home mom for 25 years. “We had to become creative when the economy fell out. Desperate and creative.”

When they say they love being close to the land, they mean it.

They fished in streams and hunted deer, turkey, rabbit and even squirrel, which usually ended up in a pot pie.

They started exploring the possibilities for hickory bark, which they grabbed from the floor of local forests on land owned by friends and families.

Joyce had done some research and found that it had been used by Native Americans to treat headaches, joint pain, inflammation and cramping. She called the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the agency said it is among the highest plant sources of magnesium.

They mixed a gallon and a half for their first batch over an open flame on their Thermador kitchen range, essentially creating an extract from the roasted bark.

“After we roast the bark, we cook it in water to create a ‘decoction’ from the bark,” Joyce said in an e-mail, describing the liquor-like substance the mixture creates. Once completed, it ages a few days. After filtering, they introduce raw turbinado sugar and heat the combination to 211 degrees in 23-quart pots before bottling.

Their Web site was built free by a 15-year-old they met through friends at a farmers market. The hickory bark is sourced from friends, timber companies, cabinet makers and woodworkers who give it to the Millers.

The whiskey-barrel-aged syrup spends 100 days in barrels that have been emptied of whiskey, and the syrup picks up that flavor. The syrup is then bottled and the casks are returned to Catoctin Creek Distilling Company in Purcellville, which then pours whiskey back into the barrels.

The Millers never stop working. Making 30,000 bottles of syrup in your kitchen is time consuming. “We are always in production,” said Travis. “We have a plan every day on what we expect to accomplish.”

Right now, they are mulling how big they want to get. Taking on one extra employee earning $40,000 would require an additional $100,000 in syrup sales.

“We are at the cusp of trying to figure out whether more is better,” Travis said.

If they don’t plough the money into growth, what are they going to do with it?

“We don’t know yet,” said Joyce. ”We are having too much fun, so I guess we must be doing something right.”