Along with an impressive food culture, Kansas City also has an amazing drink culture. Just name some of the biggies in this town and you immediately see my point: Boulevard Beer, Roasterie Coffee, Shatto Milk just to name a few. I'm proud of 'em. Aren't you?
Before the big guys, were, well big, they were micro . . .nano, even. They were small. Just starting out, trying to get their costs in line, find a space to do their thing, learning how to produce more to keep up with demand and learning how to sell more when production outgrew demand. They hoped, they prayed, they questioned if they had what it took to see this product through to launch and they wondered if they could earn a living from it once it did.
But as Seth Godin, reminded us in his book and on his blog, small is the new big.
Sometimes, the end game in not to be big . . . but to be happy, content, balanced and to be present. Traditional wisdom has told us that to have all of that, and make money and be successful, is impossible. That's why the goal for many starting out is not to have it all, but to have enough . . .just enough so that they can stay closer to what they love about their work, stay closer to their clients, stay closer to their product, stay closer to their personal goals and dreams.
It is always stimulating and inspiring to meet people, on their path to making it big, er . . .small. I love the excitement and enthusiasm these entrepreneurs have when they have a dream they want to share. Those who have that wild look in their eyes of someone on the cusp of driving off into the deep end of commerce, trying to make a living out of something we drink for fun and folly.
I have had the good fortune of meeting and speaking with three talented and passionate beverage entrepreneurs in Kansas City who are just starting out. I have sampled the wares of these men, each of whom are attempting to make a go of it in the beverage business. I am honored to tell you their stories, as they each have very tasty tales to tell. All of them, are planning to keep it small, but for very different reasons.
Mark Gifford, Producer/Wholesaler for Bent Tree Wines - Mark was a Biology and Chemistry teacher for 8 years at Northeast High School. Three days before the school year started this year, Mark received a letter from the school telling him he was no longer needed. Mark was being laid off. Teaching was all that he had known. He had a wife and kids to support and was counting on that salary. A victim of school budget cuts, and a down-turned economy, Mark, like many people in America, had to figure out what to do next to earn a living.
With Mark's understanding of chemistry, he had been dabbling in wine-making at home, and he "always wanted to make wine for a living". Mark thought that perhaps one day he would run a little "country winery out of his home." Suddenly, one day seemed much closer than he realized with the lay-off. So, he decided to apply for the permits and licenses needed to make his unique, fruit-based, wines at his home. Instead of receiving the help and support of his small town neighbors, he found himself battling against time, apathy and town leadership that was suspicious and unsure what to do with this old boy who wants to make wine, and sell it from his home.
Unable to wait any longer for them to make their decision, Mark decided to move his production operation into the city limits and closer to the people who would want to actually purchase his wines. He would bring the wine to the people. The River Market, with the City Market close by, served as an inspiration for his operation of making and selling local wines. After, securing all necessary permits and licenses, Mark found a place to house his new production facility in a basement space in the River Market, which used to operate as an underground gym, and before that housed a technology company. The mainframe room, with it's raised floors and temperature-controlled atmosphere, served as the perfect spot to begin production full-time on his new wines, called Bent Tree Wines, after a picture his mother painted that hangs on one of the few walls that do not tout ridiculous sayings like "We rock the body," and "Hard Bodies."
Mark was introduced to me by my friend, Eddie Crane, owner of The Drop, who has also started his own Marketing/PR company called BigMouth, Inc. You can see Eddie lounging in one of the four folding chairs that serves right now as Bent Tree's Tasting room in the photo above. Eddie is helping Mark with his wine label design, website and overall branding. They are buddies from church, and friends otherwise, so the help is much appreciated.
This is Mark's entire wine making operation at the moment. Each of these white jugs will eventually produce enough to make 4 bottles of Bent Tree Wine. Mark is very limited on the production he is able to achieve, but with loans from family he has new equipment on it's way to up the production of three different flavors of wine he is currently making. They are: Blueberry Pomegranate White Merlot, Jasmine Rice Wine and an Apple Honey wine. After tasting each of them, I can tell you, they really read like very tasty, unique fruit-forward wines. I enjoyed the refreshing, yet nutty Jasmine Rice Wine the best. It is like a lightly sweet sake. Delicious.
They really taste very little like a traditional wine, and more like a sparkling fruity wine spritzer. Don't be fooled by their light and playful palate, these wines are 16-18% alcohol. He buys his fruit locally when he can find it, and plans to source more local ingredients as his operation gets off the ground.
So, with such a small production, but with really unique and powerful flavors (that could potentially be customizable down the road) who is interested in his wines? Well, just based on a little legwork this little wine producer has his wines featured in places like The Drop, Cafe Trio, Classic Cup, bluestem and The Record Bar at the moment. Mark tells me, "they are mixing my wines into cocktails." They are also looking at utilizing them potentially in their dishes, too I suspect. The Bartenders and Chefs are really admiring the flavors and coming up with different ways to play with this new local fruit wine.
Mark tells me, he wants to make a living making and selling wine locally. Right now, big production and distribution are not really of interest, he doesn't have the cash flow to dream that big. Survival is the most important thing on his mind, and what fruit flavors to combine next. "I'm working on a figgy pudding, that I think will be great in the fall."
Mark's new career as a wine-maker has not been without it's up's and down's. When I asked if he had ever produced a wine that was completely undrinkable in his experiments, he told this story of coming downstairs in his home to a terrible, rotten odor in the house. Check it out:
Sean Henry & Benjamin Topel, Co-owners of GetReal Food Company, makers of Soda Vie - I was commanded by Chef Josh Eans and my publisher at Tastebud, Gordon Roe, to go to Blanc Burgers + Bottles on the Plaza and ask to sample the new, all-natural sparkling soda called Soda Vie. The back story of the soda-makers was interesting. One of the guys, Benjamin, starts brewing this soda in his house for fun. He brings it to a neighborhood party, where Sean, a friend, drinks it and pulls Benjamin aside to discuss the potential of this soda. Sean tells Benjamin they need to start a business around this idea of making a soda that you can feel good about drinking. As their website states . . .this is soda, alive and redefined. A business, a company and a partnership is formed.
Chef Josh was the first one to discover these guys as he was looking to add some local soda's to the menu at Blanc. A friendship grew, and after seeing their operation, Chef Josh signed Blanc on as Soda Vie's first multi-unit restaurant client. Although, anyone can purchase their soda's online from their website (they will even deliver to certain zip codes), Blanc Burgers + Bottles is one of the first outposts where you can taste them at retail.
So what's so special about this soda other than it is a local product? Plenty, starting with the way it is made. They call Soda Vie an all-natural soda because they are basically brewing it. Their "nano-brewery" is located in the back of Big City Hot Dogs in Grandview . They are brewing their soda, similar to the process of making beer, but with no alcohol in it. They blend fresh fruit, spices and herbs, and use local when they can get them, and basically mash them together in a fermentation process. They add a natural yeast to the soda that creates the bubbles or fizz in the drink. They rely on the natural sugars in the fruit for most of their sweetness, and then if needed may add a little bit of pure cane sugar. Which basically means at the time of bottling their sodas are still "alive". That is why these soda's must be kept at fridge-like temps at all times after bottling to send the soda into a suspended state. You also need to watch when you open a bottle of these sodas, some can hold much natural gas. Think champagne bottle.
If this all sounds like a high tech process, it's not. All of their soda's are still made completely by hand using recycled bottles and the finest ingredients they can source. Their brewing process is based on centuries old methods that allow them to work with foods and flavors as close to their original, whole state as possible. Friends, Soda Vie is making soda the way it used to be made 300-400 years ago.
So what kind of flavors are they making? I tried all of their current flavors which are Cucumber, Strawberry Lavender, Mojito, Ginger, Thai Basil Clove and their two new ones they are playing with a Celery one and a true Orange soda. Aside from selling these sodas at Blanc, they also have developed a new cocktail menu featuring many of the Soda Vie soda's as a mixer. You can almost pin point the natural pairings . . .cucumber soda with gin, Thai Basil Clove with whiskey, Mojito soda with rum. Yum.
After trying all of the flavors, there were some that I preferred more than others, but you really need to place your expectations about what soda is and what it should taste like out the window when sampling these brewed sodas. I told them to me they tasted more like a tonic or an elixir, (a word I quite like) than a soda. It is a lighter, less sweet and potentially less fizzy experience that what you are used to tasting from our commercially-made, chemical-filled traditional sodas. They are very light and refreshing with just a hint of sourness that comes from the yeast. They might be an acquired taste for some, but for me, I thought they were charming and delicious.
In talking to both Sean and Benjamin about Soda Vie, and their plans for the future, I was impressed with their knowledge and their solid business plan to keep their distribution to just a few select players that they can really work with and grow with over the long haul. They named Blanc, maybe Dean & Deluca who also expressed some interest and Green Acres Market in Briarcliff. The rest they hope to sell direct.
When I asked Sean why, he explained that they have an interest in keeping the operation to the point where they can still personally manage it, but mostly they plan use the majority of the profits raised by selling their local soda to local businesses to help a variety of local charities that are near and dear to their hearts. They sell Soda Vie to help people. A profitable company that uses it's profits to help other charities. Sean feels particularly passionate about this mission for his company, having worked for many years in the corporate world. Sean knew that if he ever went out on his own that he would use his company to give back to others who needed it. He believes this is what is missing in business today. Justice and Charity. Truly a soda with a heavy duty mission, but one that rests in the right hands, as far as I can taste.
Greg Kolsto, Owner/Roaster of Oddly Correct Coffee - Greg's career in coffee, which at this point has taken him around the globe, started with a simple job in 1995 as a barista at Starbucks. From there he went to Chicago, to work at a local micro-roaster which is where he really learned about sourcing and toasting the beans. Krispy Kreme then bought the micro-roasting company specifically to make their branded in-house coffee and he moved to North Carolina with the acquisition. Greg soon found himself sitting in a corporate office at a desk, pushing papers and making decisions about coffee that he never personally was touching with his own hands. He knew that he would soon need to make a change. That's when he met the coffee folks at our local coffee company, Parisi's at a tradeshow. Parisi's was looking for someone to really shake up their coffee line and bring fresh blood and ideas to the flavor profiles and roasts. Greg agreed to come to Kansas City for a few years and help the folks at Parisi's get their coffee operation where it needed to be.
When that tour of duty ended, Greg knew he wanted to get back to the beans and started his own nano-roasting company he named Oddly Correct Coffee. The name implies Greg's passion for creating "coffee to freak out your morning cup." He likes a good standard cup of Joe, his is called "Meat and Taters" and is absolutely the perfect morning cup. Greg also likes playing with the roasts to court the unusual flavors that each type of bean brings. Greg works with a coffee sourcing company to find micro lots of a single coffee bean from far flung locals all over the world. Because of the size of his operation, Greg can purchase smaller single bean lots or unusual beans that the bigger companies cannot utilize because of their large size. This means that Greg gets some very unusual heirloom beans rolling though his roaster and into your cup. Although he has consistent types he always makes for his commercial clients, Greg wants to shake up what's in your cup, with new blends and roasts. Although he could do the sourcing himself, that would take him away from his family too much, another reason why Greg wanted the freedom of owning his own company.
Greg makes no bones about the fact that he wants to keep this business small to allow him to continue to touch the beans as that is the part he loves the most about coffee. He has seen what a big corporate job in coffee does to him, his life and his family. So he is choosing to be selective about who he is approaching as a commercial client. He is looking for coffee outlets that share the same passion for the bean that he does.
As word of Greg and his Oddly Correct coffee has spread, the Filling Station Coffee Garage recently began serving and selling by the bag Greg's coffee exclusively. If you haven't been into the Filling Station Coffee Garage, you must. First of all, it's a local female-owned business, (Go girls go!) and it serves delicious breakfast and lunch sandwiches and quiches that are reasonably priced. With WiFi access, you will see bohemian artists sharing a cup, elbow to elbow with business men and students. Great spot for top notch people watching, noshing and having a cup.
Greg has also decided to branch out into the home delivery business for his coffee. He plans to send the home delivery clients the "Coffee of the Week", so that you can really taste a breadth of different types of coffee. You can check out his website for all of the details of this program, but here are the highlights on how you can get his freakishly good coffee delivered to your doorstep.
The delivery area is as far North as Truman Road, as far South as 47th St, as far East as Forest, and as far West as Rainbow.
All orders placed by midnight on Wednesday, will be processed, roasted, packaged & delivered on Friday morning. For now, it will be delivered in the form of whole bean coffee in 12 oz kraft bags, lovingly letterpressed by Oddly Correct. You can always email Oddly Correct for a pick up time at your convenience.
I went into the Filling Station with Eddie Crane, who was nice enough to introduce me to the staff and buy my first bag of "Meat and Taters" Oddly Correct Coffee, and that's when the barista's at the Filling Station lit up at the mention of the letter-pressed coffee bags that the Oddly Correct coffee comes to them in, each one with a different little drawing on it. A little piece of artwork comes on every bag.
The barista's have become so charmed by these little pieces of art and whimsy that they are collecting the Oddly Correct bags and trading them amongst themselves almost like trading cards. It is fun and they look forward to seeing the next design.
Right now, Greg is placing photos of various customers printed on the bags. These are photos he snapped all over the city.
When I asked Greg about the artwork, he told me that he also enjoys drawing and art, and he started it just as a way to express his creativity. A little piece of him on the bag that contains a whole lot of his love and talent.
I interviewed Greg by phone, and as we were hanging up he said to me, "I'll look forward to having a cup with you soon." I think after knowing his story the pleasure would be all mine.