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Mayer Bros. hard cider soured by lawsuit Vermont cidermaker suing ex-employee

Mayer Brothers, which has been making apple cider from area apples since before the Civil War, is getting into the business of hard cider.

"It's the best cider I've ever made," boasted Garrett Mayer, president of McKenzie's Hard Cider, now available in five states, including New York.

McKenzie's is technically a separate company from Mayer Brothers, but the cider is manufactured by the West Seneca business and is made with the Mayer Brothers' famous fresh pressed cider from locally grown apples.

But McKenzie's has run into, shall we say, a worm in the apple.

Green Mountain Beverage, a Vermont-based company which produces Woodchuck hard cider -- the nation's top selling hard cider -- is suing Lenny Ciolek, claiming the Orchard Park man stole trade secrets while working for them during a seven-month stint with the company that ended in mid-March.

"It's a shame," Mayer said of the lawsuit, " I think we have something to be proud of in Western New York."

Part of Mayer's plan for marketing the hard cider involved bringing on Ciolek, who has three decades of experience in the beer supply and distribution industry. He came up with the idea behind McKenzie's.

Mayer Brothers hard cider is actually a return to tradition for the 159-year-old company, which sold hard cider in jugs up until the 1970s when they turned their attention to sweet cider. Mayer Brothers has dabbled in apple-based booze since then, launching a line of apple wine in the '80s and then a hard cider called "Rebel" in the '90s, but with little success.

Mayer thinks he's finally come up with a winning recipe and formula for success to help them get a foothold in the rapidly growing "progressive adult beverage" business -- alcoholic drinks such as Mike's Hard Lemonade. Mayer said that's been increasing by about 20 percent every year recently.

But Green Mountain officials alleged in documents filed in federal court that Ciolek had access to and used trade secrets -- from the company's recipes for its hard ciders to business plants, customer lists, pricing reports and business relationships -- to help him start his new company with Mayer Brothers. In doing so, he violated the terms of a nondisclosure and confidentiality agreement when he started working for the company as a senior sales executive, according to the Vermont company's lawyers.

Ciolek and his attorney, Stephen F. Szymoniak, disputed Green Mountain's accusations.

"This is sour apples," said Ciolek. "I had no intention of going to work for Green Mountain Beverage to learn the cider business."

Ciolek admits that he started talking with Mayer Brothers on an informal basis about McKenzie's while working for Green Mountain.

He told The Buffalo News that he and his wife had been bandying about the idea of starting a beer company called McKenzie's or some version of that name for about five years.

"But we never got around to it," he said.

Then one day Ciolek was at his son's hockey tournament where he ran into another hockey dad, who turned out to be chief financial officer at Mayer Brothers. Ciolek told him he was working for a hard cider company, and they got to talking about hard cider. The Mayer Brothers executive mentioned the company's previous attempts at entering the business and suggested Ciolek meet with the brothers.

Ciolek admitted he did indeed meet with Mayer Brothers, "just like anybody would have conversations with a potential employer," he said.

His lawyer pointed out that Ciolek never signed any kind of a noncompetition clause that would have precluded him from going to another hard cider brewer after leaving his job.

Ciolek denied he was using information about Green Mountain's suppliers and distributors.

"I have known these people for 20 years," he said. "I've vacationed with most of these guys."

Ciolek said he believes Green Mountain is upset with him for leaving because he helped increase their sales. He also thinks they believe he's a threat to their company.

"They're trying to stop us," Ciolek said. "This is America. Why can't you start [a company]? It's a free enterprise."

Ciolek and Mayer both flatly denied that the recipe for their beverages came from information gleaned during Ciolek's stint at Green Mountain.

"Lenny has no idea how to make anything, let alone hard cider," Mayer said.

The recipe came from years of trial and error at Mayer Brothers, Mayer said. "I don't know what they use and frankly, I don't care."

The lawsuit points out that the both Woodchuck and McKenzie's have the exact same nutritional and ingredient lists.

Mayer said that's because government regulations have strict rules about what can go into a hard cider and still be labeled a hard cider.

No trial date has been set.

In the meantime, Mayer Brothers is getting ready to put in a new bottling line at its Transit Road plant to begin bottling McKenzie's. "And we're just about done installing a keg line," Mayer said.

email: mbecker@buffnews.com