Weatherhead School of Management Department of Design & Innovation project assists family-run Rittman Orchards

A family-run business near Doylestown and Rittman in Northeast Ohio is well known for growing and selling a wide variety of apples, as well as other fruits and vegetables. Now, with input from management students at Case Western Reserve University, the Vodraska family is looking to expand its business by making hard cider (which differs from common apple cider due to its alcohol content).

Two teams of students in the Weatherhead School of Management’s Department of Design & Innovation recently helped brothers Matt and Chris Vodraska, who manage Rittman Orchards & Farm Market, prepare to market and distribute the hard cider product.

Working with national and local companies as course projects provides students in the design and innovation department actual hands-on experience that allows them to better understand business processes and strategies.

“The students can have a practical engagement, and there’s something they learn that goes beyond just an academic level,” said Professor Richard Buchanan, who leads Weatherhead School’s Department of Design & Innovation.

The Vodraska brothers’ parents bought Rittman Orchards in 2004. The family began building a hard cider and wine production facility in late April. Matt Vodraska said the company expects to make more hard cider than wine, because the hard cider market is less competitive in Northeast Ohio.

Rittman Orchards often sets up a fresh produce stand in Cleveland’s Shaker Square neighborhood, which is how the brothers came to know Buchanan, a local customer. That connection led to the orchards, located about 50 miles southwest of the university, becoming one of several business management projects for Weatherhead School students.

One group of four students researched the most likely distributors for the Rittman Orchards’ hard cider or wine. Another group examined ways to build new marketing relationships with stores, restaurants and taverns.

Matt Vodraska said he is certain the students’ exposure the Rittman Orchards has helped to teach them about real-world business management, government regulation and the importance of building solid relationships with suppliers, distributors, retailers, restaurants and taverns.

“We had an interesting case,” said student Craig Dicht, whose group considered distribution connections. “We reached out to 18 distributors, and we were able to give Rittman Orchards some recommendations based on that.”

Student J.A. McNamara’s group discovered that Rittman Orchards already has a strong customer base. The challenge, he said, is to maintain that base while finding customers for a new product.

“The personal relationship is a really important part,” McNamara said. The experiential education exercise “makes you confront realities of a business more than just dealing with a case study in abstraction,” he said.