“I had no hope for the future of Revel”: How an Ontario cidery’s loyal customers brought it back from the brink

“I had no hope for the future of Revel”: How an Ontario cidery’s loyal customers brought it back from the brink

Owner Tariq Ahmed tells us about almost losing his nine-year-old business and what happened next

Revel Cider owner Tariq Ahmed picks an apple from an apple tree
Photo by Chloë Ellingson

Revel Cider started as a school project—sort of. In 2014, Tariq Ahmed enrolled in an internship at Manorun Organic Farm in Copetown, Ontario, while studying plant science at the University of Guelph. He found an old wine press at the farm, and a spark was lit.

By 2015, he was selling cider across the province. By 2022, he was the darling of the Ontario beverage scene, taking the province’s produce and transforming it into bright wild-fermented bottles that capture a snapshot of Ontario’s growing season. He built a business on experimentation: what if you spontaneously ferment apple cider with cherries, strawberries and a hybrid grape varietal? What if you use rare bittersweet apples, an ancient English fruit? The former catches the aromas of a late-summer berry harvest; the latter, those of simmered pineapples and sweet birch.

Then he hit a wall. On October 2, a month after finishing Revel’s bricks-and-mortar bar and tasting room, Tariq ran out of money. So he admitted defeat and posted an obituary for the cidery on his Instagram page. But the province had other plans: bars, restaurants and Revel devotees banded together to keep the brand afloat. Now, Revel Cider has hope for the future. Here, Tariq tells us how it happened.

Related: “I went viral within the hour”—This Toronto bake shop owner turned to TikTok and her business boomed

A portrait of Tariq Ahmed, owner of Revel Cider
Photo by Chloë Ellingson

When I started Revel, I bootstrapped it the entire way. I launched the business with grants from the University of Guelph and the province, then kept everything running with cash from sales. Things flowed and grew. Then, this past September—nine years after Revel started—we decided to open a bar and taproom, a 3,000-square-foot space with a roll-up garage door, room for 30 people and a disco ball.

Opening the taproom was a big investment—bigger than we could fund with sales—so we took out a substantial loan. It was the first debt we had taken on.

In the months leading up to opening the bar, we hit a post-Covid reverb with the e-commerce boom starting to shrink. Construction was affected too. Contractors were busy, materials were delayed and getting everything open was challenging. We hit hurdle after hurdle. All year, we told ourselves, “Let’s get the bar open. That will help counteract the softening of sales.”

All the waiting on permits, contractors and inspections really took a toll mentally over the past two years. As we put the finishing touches on the space, the stress started transforming into butterflies in my belly.

Revel Cider's bar in Guelph
Photo by Jonathon Barraball

Then we opened. We had back-vintage bottles we had been saving for five years just for this moment. We brought on our dear friend Lindsay Cameron from Kitchener to help us with a cocktail menu and a fantastic food program. It was equal parts terrifying and exciting to think about people seeing this space for real—unveiling this thing we’d tenderly sculpted in private for years.

We made money, but not as much as we had hoped. It just wasn’t enough to make up for the challenges of the rest of the business. In October, we ran out of cash entirely.

Where did the money go? It was the culmination of a few different factors: inflation, the cost of our raw materials—glass bottles, cans and cardboard were almost twice the price compared with a couple of years ago—and interest rates, which everyone is feeling right now. We saw the effects trickle down to our suppliers and customers. And orders waned as more and more restaurants and bars—our biggest customers—went out of business.

There was exactly enough cash in the bank for me to pay severance, so I laid off my team and made sure they were taken care of. I was distraught. There were a lot of tears at the cidery; I felt like I’d let everyone down, and I struggled to come to terms with the idea that what I’d dedicated my entire adult life to was coming to an end. I didn’t think Revel would survive.

Customers inside Revel Cider's Guelph bar
Photo by Jonathon Barraball

I called a few of our bigger licensees that had been buying from us for years—I knew that Revel Cider not existing anymore would leave a hole in their beverage program. So many of them aren’t just customers but also friends. I told them this looked like the end and that it may be their last chance to purchase any of our cider.

I was planning on speaking to the bank, but I wanted to make sure I could get bars, restaurants and our importers one last shipment each, just in case the bank decided to put us into receivership. If that happened, I would have a lot less control over the business. At that point, it wasn’t about saving Revel; it was about getting the last of our bottles out into the world. We owed a lot of money to a lot of people, and I wanted to do my best to pay everyone back.

I was tapped out, both physically and mentally. And there was a sense of relief that things were finally coming to an end. Maybe all the day-to-day stress of trying to make the business work would finally be over. But our customers only wanted to have one conversation with me: What can we do to save Revel?

They all placed huge orders, which gave us a week and a half of runway. It gave us a minute to think, and I felt like the last option we had was to go public.

Bottles of cider line a shelf at Revel Cider
Photo by Jonathon Barraball

I sent out a newsletter to all of our customers and posted a long message on Revel’s Instagram account letting everyone know exactly what was going on. We had product to sell and nothing left to lose. Our customers had funded Revel Cider from the beginning—and right through the dark days of the pandemic—so it was important to keep them in the loop. For me, they’re the ones who made the last nine years happen.

The response to my post was overwhelming. Hundreds of orders started coming in. We received so many messages from customers, bars and restaurants asking what we had left and how they could order more. It was so touching to see that kind of support—that so many folks really wanted Revel Cider to continue to exist.

As soon as I went public, I had about 10 other beverage producers reach out to say that they were in a similar spot. This year has been really tough on the country’s small producers. Four other breweries in our area have gone out of business. It’s an industry-wide challenge at the moment.

A bartender at Revel Cider in Guelph pours a drink
Photo by Jonathon Barraball

Fast forward to eight weeks later, and we’d paid down a lot of what we owed to our suppliers. We haven’t touched our bank debt, and I don’t know if we’ll be able to this year, but Revel Cider will continue in one form or another. We’re keeping the bar but still figuring out what the rest looks like. Maybe we can run a lot leaner to pay down more debt. Maybe we get smaller, sublet our production space and move it all into the bar to cut rent. Maybe we’ll bring on an investor. Right now, I just want to see how December goes.

I’m in a more hopeful place than I was a month ago. Emotionally and physically, trying to save Revel is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done—like running a months-long marathon through the screams of tape guns; the dry, cracked skin from handling hundreds of cardboard boxes; and occasional moments of joy, reading kind emails from customers and meeting them at their doorsteps for deliveries. But at least I can lose myself in the work.

There’s a phrase: “If you want a small business to exist, you have to buy from them.” Things are usually more complex than that, but right now, our supporters are the reason that Revel still exists today. It’s not the end for us—not yet, at least. And I’m cautiously optimistic about the future.

A nighttime shot of the exterior of Revel, a cider bar in Guelph
Photo by Jonathon Barraball