In 1991, Steve and Beth Ann Cygan started Appeeling Fruit, Inc. (AFI) to provide fresh sliced apples to bakeries; and, for eight successful years, with lots of effort, perseverance and humility, AFI prospered. One big problem, however! The apple slices had limited shelf-life – they had to be used by the bakeries almost immediately after delivery. If Steve and Beth Ann could extend the shelf-life of the apples, all sorts of markets would open up. In 1998 they found the answer. They learned that they could extend the self-life of the processed fruit to 21 days by washing it in a unique vitamin C solution after slicing. Through trial-and-error and a few key development partnerships, packaged fresh-processed fruits became a reality. Plato the Greek philosopher was correct: “necessity truly is the mother of invention”.
Once AFI changed the way it processed the apples, consumers, school lunch programs, food distributors and re-packagers began to create demand for the extended-life fruit. However, that demand required AFI to grow substantially by adding equipment, employees, and greater workspace. The initial plan was to expand from 2,500 square-feet of space to more than 20,000 square-feet and fill the new building with 10-12 new employees, new peelers and slicers, and product-wash equipment. AFI also decided to enter the “ready-to-eat” market, a move that required attractive packaging of the fruit. To accomplish this expansion, Steve and Beth Ann needed an infusion of capital. Enter Seedcopa!
Using CCEDC Services
Through his local bank and the Greater Berks Development Fund, Steve heard about Seedcopa and what it could do for emerging small businesses that need expansion capital.
Seedcopa (South Eastern Economic Development Company of Pennsylvania) is the Chester County Economic Development Council’s certified finance arm, created in 1983 to access a broad range of federal, state and local loan programs on behalf of credit-worthy clients. Among the two-dozen available loan programs are SBA 504 and 7A from the U.S. Small Business Administration and a group of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Loan programs that specifically provide low-interest loans for purchasing manufacturing equipment and acquiring production facilities.
Working with Seedcopa’s staff, AFI was able to get an SBA 504 loan where the SBA guaranteed 80 percent of the loan principal and the local bank and Seedcopa arranged for reasonable loan terms.
Steve and Beth Ann put the loan to immediate use. They found a property already fitted-out for food processing and, with some strategic retrofitting, AFI enlarged operations were up-and-running. Today, the company is thriving, with 24 employees in a 24,000 square-feet specialty manufacturing building featuring two separate product lines that can be operated simultaneously. AFI has diversified its product offerings; provides healthy alternatives to everyday snack foods that can be eaten on-the-go; and invests heavily in assuring the safety and quality of its foods. Indeed, food safety is AFI’s top priority. All its products are consistently evaluated and verified during daily quality checks and biologic testing by independent laboratories.
Significantly, AFI’s product line also has grown tremendously to include pre-packaged apple wedges (both sweet and tart) and red seedless grapes that can be found at retail stores such as Wegmans, Turkey Hill and Giant.
Meanwhile, Steve and Beth Ann continue to recognize the value of supporting the local communities in Berks County where many of AFI’s employees live. The company is integrally involved with various nonprofit organizations including the Greater Berks Food Bank’s “Kids Café,” a program designed to encourage healthy eating by bringing fresh produce to children. During 2012 alone, AFI donated over 100,000 pounds of fresh produce to the “Kids Café” program!