Once Upon a Time… two young mamas, Sarah Schomber and Jeannine Buscher, independently of each other, had been crafting Kombucha at home as a “healthy alternative to sodas for their families and friends.” They didn’t know each other yet but the magic of synchronicity was about to bring them together.
Sarah tells me she and Jeannine had each enrolled their children in the same home school co-op and one of the teachers, having sampled both their crafted brews, told her, “You should talk with this other mom, she also makes Kombucha!” Sarah says her then-husband had prodded her to make a bit more than the family batch and start a little business. Jeannine planned to start selling a bit at a local Farmer’s Market, so when they met, they both said, “Let’s do it together.”
Jeannine called the FDA in North Carolina to find about the regulations for making a product at home to sell to the public. “He told me that as long as the Kombucha wasn’t high risk, we were OK, otherwise we had to use a licensed facility. He put us in contact with a professor at NC State Univ. and he sent us PH strips to test the acidity. As long as it was below a three they were fine. And it was. He also said, ‘I don’t know why you want to do this; it’s not a viable business. But legally, you can do it.’” Of course when he learned they were in Asheville, he concluded it might work here! Now that Kombucha is so mainstream it’s hard to imagine that in 2008 they got that feedback more than once: “It’s not a real business possibility.”
Initially both women saw this as more a hobby than a real business. A way to take this product they enjoyed making and sharing it to a bit larger audience at the Farmer’s Market. Then they met Rosetta of Rosetta’s Kitchen on Lexington Avenue in downtown Asheville. (She now includes a Buchi Bar!) She did a small tasting at her café and told them: “I want this. When can I have it?”
Rosetta pushed them to produce more and then the French Broad Co-op, also in downtown Asheville, asked for it. The feedback from the Farmer’s Market was also good and it made sense to increase their quantity.
I wondered how they did the bottling at the beginning and they both jump in laughing: “We hand bottled it!” When they started selling to Rosetta’s and the Co-op they needed more space and equipment and found Blue Ridge Food Ventures at AB Tech in Enka/Candler. It is an 11,000-square-foot shared-use kitchen and natural products manufacturing facility that offers support in product development, guidance through the maze of government regulations, equipment for bottling and packaging, advice on marketing and label design, and much more (www.blueridgefoodventures.org).
They consider that move to be a “baby step” toward doing something more although it was still rather non-committal since they were only renting month to month and if they had decided it wasn’t working they could stop without many negative consequences.
But then, other local businesses such as Earth Fare started asking for their Kombucha and the excitement built. Then in 2010 there was a “Kombucha crisis” when many national brands were found to have too high an alcohol content. Those brands were pulled from the shelves and Earth Fare told Sarah and Jeannine that they needed more product and quickly.
Serendipitously they had just moved to a 6000 sq. ft. space in Weaverville. “We were only making about 60 gallons a week; with one flavor. We had more space, but not the money to buy equipment like more fermenters. We knew demand was there because every week Earth Fare would call for more; they divided up what we were able to give them among several of their stores.”
Both Jeannine and Sarah agree that moving to Weaverville, and upfitting the space, was the beginning of committing to a real business. And that’s when they faced their biggest challenges: balancing work and life: kids, relationships and a growing business.
Day Care/Schooling: Both women had young kids who were primarily being homeschooled. Because the new facility was located on a 170-acre organic farm the kids were able to play much of the day together. They also hired a tutor who came to them. The age range was a challenge and other families expressed interest so they felt the need to grow. A separate house on the property became available and they moved what now was really a school with three teachers and 25 kids to that space. The school, named Avonlea Learning Community, continued for about three years but the dynamics and challenges led to a decision to close it. As fate would have it (as in all Fairy Tales) a perfect school called Woodson Branch was forming in Madison County and they donated all the furnishings and supplies to it; it was a good alternative at the moment the challenge of moving the brewery to Marshall was happening.
Relationships: Due to the stresses of these early years on their marriage, Sarah’s relationship ended. “It was the blackest time in my life; and not only dealing with it personally but everything was out in the open in the business as well.” I asked her how she dealt with it and she sighed: “Lots of hot baths at night! You know, one foot in front of the other and I tend to be a super optimistic person.” At this point there were about seven full- or part-time people working in the business. “Despite the heartache that always accompanies divorce, in the end we bucked the norm and now live on the same property co-parenting our amazing daughters; it can be done and done well!”
Production: There was no one to talk to early on about scaling the production of Kombucha so they learned by trial and error. “You have living microbes in there… maybe 30 different ones that affect each other; the environment affects them as well. When the alcohol crisis happened we had to send off samples for testing to be sure of our product. Then we had to figure out a way to brew in a compliant way so we invested in a $30,000 piece of equipment to test our Kombucha.” They feel it was worth the expense since it helped them learn how to make a consistent, compliant product.
Money: As in all businesses money was always a challenge. Banks, like the FDA guy in Raleigh early on, didn’t understand Kombucha and wouldn’t loan money to them. But, there was an option: AdvantageWest Economic Development Group filled the gap. Chartered by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1994, AdvantageWest is a non-profit public-private partnership whose primary focus is marketing the North Carolina mountains to corporations seeking to relocate or open a new facility, expand an existing business within the WNC region, and those who might otherwise improve the quality of life for citizens within the region through activities such as filmmaking, entrepreneurship and tourism.
They also took on some small loans from family and friends. The fact that they were able to get loans at decent interest rates enabled them to move forward.
How They Grew
At that point Buchi had about 40 local accounts for their Kombucha. When Whole Foods bought Greenlife (where they were already selling the product) they brought Buchi into some of their other stores. Whole Foods also had a loan program for local producers with very few strings… the main request was that Buchi make an exclusive flavor for them. And they guaranteed to keep the product on their shelves for the life of the loan! Then Ingles came along about a year later, which was a surprise because Kombucha wasn’t in their stores yet. Ingles wanted to get behind local producers and decided to introduce it to a few shops. Now Buchi is in about 100 Ingles stores.
Both women agree that taking on the loans was the second not-so-baby-step of saying “we’re really doing this! People are counting on us for their jobs and to be good stewards of their investment dollars.” Another, big step, was moving to a new, even larger production facility in Marshall, NC, in Madison County. The building was conveniently located just off the Bypass in Marshall. It had been a tomato processing building. They had to fix the roof, put in insulation, and they put on solar panels (the government incentives were about to end so the timing was good) that supply part of their power. There are adjacent spaces for production, warehousing and offices.
As we talked about the changes over the past nine years, I wondered if early on they had any mentors or organizations advising them. “We did take Mountain BizWorks’ Foundation course a bit late in the process. We had already stumbled through a lot of challenges! Mary Lou Surgi from Blue Ridge Food Ventures was a big help in providing contacts and encouragement.”
Another vital part of their growth was that both their husbands chipped in to help with family duties as well as in the business. Jeannine’s husband, Jeff, has become integral using his engineering skills to design the brewery and create systems.
Zane Adams came on board in month eight as their graphic designer and brand designer; he has become an integral part of the business today. “And Hart Squire allowed us to move into the first space in Weaverville with rent based on sales; otherwise we likely wouldn’t have taken the jump to have our own brewery.”
Continued growth is a major goal. But they have a much larger vision. This is taken from their website and is an inspiring objective to reach toward.
Core to our business is the active role we play in building a triple bottom line and community centered business model. We actively support and encourage a healthy work-life balance. We haven’t done the best in living up to this standard over the years, but we are learning and continue to find our way. We resonate with the vision of B Corporations (Benefit Corporations). Our simple yet ambitious goal is to be a part of creating a new sector of the economy, which uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems for the betterment of humanity.
“Learning the right pace of growth and how to make a positive impact on the community/world continues to be a main area of focus.”
And look for the newest product line coming to WNC in January/February: Kefir Soda is a non-dairy probiotic tonic made from heritage kefir cultures. Although Kefir and Kombucha both contain healthful microbes, kefir is a richer source of lactic acid. You could think of kefir as a dynamic drinkable probiotic and Kombucha as more of a digestive aid. A new year and a new way to nurture your self and the soul.
Check out the website for more information, inspiration and ideas: www.drinkbuchi.com