Lehman’s Orchard branches out into beer and pub in Buchanan
Last summer, when Steve Lecklider’s Chicago customers came to him at Lehman’s Farm Market & U-Pick Orchard, he learned a few things.
He learned what they did for a living and why they loved Lehman’s Orchards products. “They’re foodies,” he said. “I had no idea some of them were retired chefs.”
At the Niles orchard, which his family has operated since 1929, they made time for a conversation rather than just the 10-second transaction typical at a metropolitan farmers market.
For 15 years, Lecklider, who now oversees the family business, had taken Lehman’s products to the Chicago markets. There were years that he went five days a week. He’d been at 15 different markets over the years and worked his way up at some of the best markets in the city.
The last few years, he noticed changes. Grocery stores offered more varieties of fruits, something that had always distinguished Lehman’s. “They could do what we were doing,” he said, but they could do it year round.
Lehman’s Orchards was producing and selling more of its amazing jams, jellies and dried fruit, but less fresh fruit in the markets. At the same time, the business was selling more of all of those at the 55-acre orchard in Niles.
More customers were coming to pick their own fruit. In the last several years, U-pick business has grown as Lecklider and his family expanded offerings so that numerous varieties of fruit are available when the orchard and its market are open May to October. For most of that time, it’s not a question of whether Lehman’s will have U-pick, but what is ripe at the time. On a July weekday, 100 people may show up to pick, and on weekends it could be triple that.
Last summer, instead of getting up at 4am and getting home at 7pm, he worked at the orchard and a new venture in Buchanan. “It was nice to use that extra energy to build at home,” he said.
A New Brew
In early 2015, the family purchased a building on the edge of what was the Clark Equipment Company campus, which produced heavy machinery. The building in Buchanan once housed engineers for Clark with 8,000 panes of glass and a stream running underneath. It had a few other tenants along the way, including Carbon Golden Malted Waffles, but is now the home of Lehman’s Orchard Brewery & Farmhouse.
Lecklider and his employees are brewing beer with flourish. Two 30-gallon batches are usually made a day, giving the business six to eight beers at a time.
A brewpub is in the works as well. Lehman’s Farmhouse will offer grilled sandwiches and eventually have a pizza oven. Much of what Lehman’s produces will find its way into the offerings. “We’re doing a lot of value-added products already. I think like a farmer. I think, ‘What else could I use this for?’” Lecklider said.
He’s a former teacher and musician who moved from Minnesota to fix instruments at Woodwind & Brasswind. He started working at the family orchard and eventually took it over. Now ideas spring out of him and result in new processes and products.
He hopes the Farmhouse can have farm-to-table events and guest chefs. He wants the still to produce brandy and eau de vie. On the farm, new European plums are being planted.
The rows of brambles and trees laden with fruit are a gorgeous sight at the orchard. It’s pastoral and picturesque. Now in the nearby town, a new form of beauty is emerging.
Lecklider removed the siding from the building, exposing block. Recycled bowling lanes are being used as counters and tables. Light streams in the banks of windows adjacent to the high ceilings. Soon, there won’t just be bottles of beer and wine from the farm, but taps that dispense them to customers willing to sit for a bit.
In the building, they can make more products and more rapidly. The new space came about in part by the space created by not going to the city with a truckload of products every week. Customers will find their way to this building with its homegrown products and a story.
Lecklider expects to see more of those folks he misses from Chicago. “I think we’re going to probably attract even more of those customers,” he said.