Owl's Brew's story starts in the most whimsical way possible: a tea party. Jennie Rips and Maria Littlefield were working day jobs in marketing while throwing weekly tea parties for colleagues, friends and family with tea-based cocktails that the duo brewed themselves. While the pair had sipped on tea-infused drinks in upscale New York City bars, there wasn't an option for amateur mixologists who wanted to whip up their own tea-based drinks at home.
Two years ago, they launched Owl's Brew to do just that. The company's tea mixers can be found from Whole Foods and Fairway to behind the bar at a growing number of cocktail joints. Its founders hope that more people will put down their rum and Cokes and pick up drinks like the Owl's Pina, made by mixing the company's Coco-Lada with spiced rum and fresh ginger.
The idea of tea sitting next to margarita mix in the grocery store is still foreign for most shoppers, but Rips and Littlefield aren't worried. The pair talked with Entrepreneur.com about how to sell a product that is first in its market, working with a tiny team and testing all their new cocktails.
Entrepreneur.com: How did you discover tea as a mixer for drinks?
Jennie Rips and Maria Littlefield: There’s a huge disconnect between the terrific and complex cocktails one can find at a bar or restaurant and the ready-to-pour mixes one can find on the shelf. At the same time, while the at-home bar category is flourishing, those fantastic celery bitters that you brought to spruce up your home bar last year are still just sitting on it (who really knows what to do with celery bitters?)
We recognized that there was room for real innovation in this space — giving consumers an easy way to make a craft cocktail at home. We own a tea company, Brew Lab Tea, so it made sense for us to begin experimenting with tea-based cocktails. We soon found that tea paired perfectly with a wide range of spirits, and even beer and wine, and began developing Owl’s Brew. We have to admit that our R&D process was more fun than stressful!
What inspired you to take the leap to quit your day jobs and start a company based on tea that is 'crafted for cocktails'?
We started hosting weekly tea parties, and the response was overwhelming — people loved what we were pouring! We were soon being asked to create custom tea cocktail programs for restaurants, nightclubs, and even movie premieres. We felt that we had an excellent proof of concept, and were at the point where we just had to take a leap of faith. Additionally, we felt we needed to move fast — Owl’s Brew is the first ever tea “crafted for cocktails,” but tea is so on trend that we thought it was important to just go for it. Being first to market is a big win for us (although it creates its own challenges in terms of educating the consumer!)
Where did you get the most advice and guidance when you started Owl's Brew?
Asking for advice and actively cultivating relationships with mentors and advisors is part of our brand’s DNA. We didn’t want to bug people, so we’d usually do as much research as we could, using the resources available to us (the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade website, Cornell University’s Food Program, the Natural Products Field Manual ). After we felt that we had a good handle on what we really couldn’t figure out ourselves, we would identify the key question(s) and bring them to our advisors.
What's your advice for marketing a product – in your case, tea mixers – that is completely new to most potential customers?
It was a major priority for us to have material and collateral that clearly explained the product. For instance, our one-sheeter is literally a series of “lessons” (fun ones!), that help explain Owl’s Brew and how to use it. We also allocated a larger part of our budget towards demos than, for instance, a company with a new potato chip would. Educating the customer and helping them understand that Owl’s Brew is an easy way to bring craft cocktails into their home life is so important to us.
How did you get into Whole Foods and other supermarkets?
When we first launched, we made a list of local New York and Brooklyn markets, and hit the pavement -- gifting our product, and chatting with buyers. We also started exhibiting at trade shows, like Brooklyn Eats and the Fancy Food Show, previous to launch. We've met a lot of our larger buyers (including Whole Foods Market, BevMo, West Elm Market, Williams-Sonoma, and The Fresh Market) at trade shows.
What has been the biggest challenge in getting Owl's Brew to where it is today?
We’re a very small team — until January of this year, we had no employees (we now have two!). One of our challenges was really understanding how we each needed to spend our time in order for the company to run. We were stuck for a while in a space where we both dealt with every problem together — of course there are some problems we still need to address together, but identifying our “mindshare” problem, and being totally open and honest about what we were best (and worst) at, really helped us be about three times as efficient as a team.
As Owl's Brew expands, do you see yourselves pursuing one channel over another?
We’re really excited about both channels. Foodservice is an area we’ve just started to explore, and we think that there is a huge opportunity there to offer easy, versatile craft cocktails that are consistent. However, we started out thinking about the at-home mixologist and entertainer, and that’s who we are out there innovating on behalf of.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs in the food and beverage world?
Be active in your community — your backyard is where you’ll grow your brand. Be organized — you can’t act on opportunities if you aren’t ready to hit the “go” button at any given moment. Finally — seek mentors in your space, and really work hard on nurturing those relationships.
What's next for Owl's Brew?
We're working on some exciting Happy Hour programming this summer in NYC & LA, including a weekly pop-up concept called Owl's Hour where we are offering nickel cocktails, all summer-long. We hope to serve 5,000 cocktails by the end of the summer! We know that this program will lead to bigger things for our brand, which we can't wait to share with our fans.
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