Like many Americans, Matt Raboin was horrified last February when he saw the television footage of the Russian military waging war on Ukraine, chasing people from their homes and into neighboring countries.
“I had this feeling that I wanted to do something to help,” Matt says. “I also realized we have a business and kids, and we can’t just pick up and move to Ukraine. I thought, ‘I know how to cook; maybe I can go cook for refugees or something.’”
Matt, owner of Brix Cider in Mount Horeb, Wis., with his wife, Marie, did a quick Google search and came up with information about the World Central Kitchen, an organization that provides meals in the event of humanitarian, climate and community crises. The WCK was on the ground quickly in neighboring Poland, providing food to Ukrainian refugees fleeing their country by the hundreds of thousands as bombs dropped in their homeland.
Matt signed up for a volunteer opportunity to cook in a kitchen in Poland, bought plane and train tickets, and made plans for a mid-May trip across the pond. He worked in Przemysl, Poland, a city of about 60,000 people about 8.5 miles from the Polish-Ukrainian border, cooking in a central warehouse that provided meals for several refugee sites.
He also spent a couple of days distributing food in one of the refugee camps, so he was able to see the plight of the Ukrainian refugees firsthand. Altogether, he spent a week in Poland.
“The refugee site where I worked was like a big shopping mall full of cots,” he says. “I think they had 1,000 beds. It was intended as a place for short-term stays until the refugees could find longer-term homes.
“I felt for all the people staying there. There were just, cots, cots, cots, everywhere. It was like sleeping in a shopping mall with 100 people in your store. There were a lot of women and children and elderly folks, not many young men.”
Most of Ukraine’s young men have been deployed to fight in the war against Russia.
After Matt signed up to volunteer in Poland, he was contacted by a Ukrainian-born Wisconsinite who asked if he would be willing to carry medical supplies with him to Poland.
“I was told that there was a contact in Poland who could bring the supplies right to the front line,” Raboin says. “I said yes and traveled with 10 large duffle bags full of medical supplies. I just basically had to be the person who had a name attached to them to get them through customs.”
Matt says he used “a lot of hand signals” to communicate with the Ukrainian and Polish refugees he met while serving meals.
“I would learn the words for whatever foods I was serving, and then it would be just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ from the refugees,” he says.
The WCK volunteer crew, which included many Americans, made about 5,000 sandwiches a day in the central kitchen and served up hot meals cafeteria-style at the refugee sites for lunch and dinner.
Poland has taken in about 3 million refugees in the months since the war broke out in Ukraine, which Matt found to be impressive.
“There was a lot of effort to get kids into Polish schools, and there didn’t seem to be any pushback from the Polish people,” he says. “I saw people adapting and being resilient. It was impressive how many people Poland took in and how the World Central Kitchen found a way to feed them all.
“It was really heartwarming to see humanity coming together to help these people out.”
Back in Wisconsin, Matt and Marie have owned Brix Cider since January 2019. It is one of Wisconsin’s only hard cider pubs.
They grow apples on their 25-acre farm and bring in fruit from orchards as close to their restaurant as possible to press into a variety of ciders sold at their cider pub and locally. They have sourced apples from more than 20 Wisconsin orchards for their commercial ciders.
Marie also works full time as a conservation specialist for the Dane County Land and Water Resources Department.
Matt worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, in Malawi, Africa, for two years before he and Marie got homesick and decided to move to southern Wisconsin. They first lived on a farm south of Barneveld before buying their small farm near Mount Horeb about a year and a half ago.
The Raboins wanted to be involved in agriculture, but they knew how difficult and expensive it is to become a farmer if you didn’t grow up on a farm.
“We wanted to do something in agriculture with the understanding that we had access to very little capital,” Marie says. “It was going to have to be something value-added.”
The Raboins were home brewers, had dabbled in cider, and thought cider-making might be something they could pursue on a larger scale.
With the assistance of business coach Tara Johnson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Food Finance Institute, they focused on cider as a product that is “defensibly unique.”
“It made sense to us, and we really liked the idea of sourcing the raw product locally,” Marie says.
They rented winery space in Stoughton for two years, and in 2016 formed Brix Cider as a limited liability company. They eventually settled on a rented space in Mount Horeb owned by Duluth Trading Co. owner Steve Schlecht. The Brix Cider building is a half block south of the Duluth Trading headquarters.
Local apples are pressed into juice, and the juice is fermented into an alcoholic beverage. The Raboins make a wide variety of their own ciders and even bottle some custom ciders for area orchards.
In the fall, they press apples to make into non-alcoholic ciders that are offered at the restaurant.
Their restaurant features a made-from-scratch kitchen with more than half of the menu ingredients sourced directly from area farms. The menu offers something for everyone, including sandwiches, entrees, salads, snacks, pizza and even a kids menu.
Their tasting room features 12 tap lines, which are regularly rotated to bring in ciders from new orchards and unique apple varieties. When they add other ingredients, such as fruit, honey or hops, they source them locally whenever possible.
Like most restaurant owners, the Raboins struggled to keep afloat during the pandemic, finding it especially difficult to maintain a viable workforce. Last year was especially stressful as employees would come and go.
The situation has stabilized somewhat this year, and the Raboins are enjoying a relatively busy summer. Special events such as open mic night, Sunday afternoon music, film screenings featuring agricultural topics and Crash the Kitchen nights have been popular attractions to bring people to the pub.
The Crash the Kitchen events this past winter featured guest chefs to come into their kitchen on a Monday night, use whatever ingredients they could find, and make a three-course meal for people who bought advance tickets for the mystery meal.
“Those Monday night events sold old quickly — it was a good way to get some sales in the winter,” Matt says.
Farmer and farm advocate
In her role with Dane County, Marie is especially encouraging farmers to integrate livestock back into cash-grain operations.
“Separating livestock from cropping systems isn’t working,” she says. “We’ve got to figure out a way to get livestock back on farms. Livestock can help farmers diversify income streams, increase the value of their crops, and make it easier to integrate cover crops into the rotation. We need more biodiversity on farms, and integrating livestock is one way to do that.”
The Raboins have two children, Teddy, 7, and Vera, 4. They raise sheep and hogs on their small farm just south of Mount Horeb.
Massey lives in Barneveld, Wis.