Hello! Who are you and what beverage business did you start?
My name is Melina Lamer and in 2015 I started a health beverage company called Superior Switchel. We botanically brew sparkling, certified organic switchel — a refreshing, ginger and apple cider vinegar beverage from the 17th-century.
This classic elixir is perfect for replacing electrolytes, boosting immunity and supporting digestion, and unlike kombucha, it is absolutely caffeine- and alcohol-free. (Although, it does blend quite nicely with spirits!) Right now, we have three flavors: Lavender Lemon Lift, Orange Maple Splash and Honey Cinnamon Kick.
Superior Switchel is a certified Woman-Owned B-Corp and actively supports U.S. waterway conservation efforts with 1% of our annual sales. You can now find our switchel at over 400 natural retailers nationwide and online via our website or Amazon.
What do your sales look like?
We’ve sold over 130,000 bottles since 2015.
What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Back in college, I had a terrible diet mostly consisting of pizza, french fries, and anxiety so I suffered from chronic heart-burn. I went home to Wisconsin one weekend and was complaining to my grandma about my mostly self-induced acid-reflux.
She asked if I had tried taking apple cider vinegar shots to remedy the situation. I, of course, had not tried that…nor did I want to, but grandma started pouring me a shot and before I knew it…I was choking down vinegar.
Back at college, it wasn’t long before I realized her vinegar trick was actually helping. But, there was no way I could get down vinegar by itself, so I started blending it with my evening ginger-tea and added a little honey to aide in the consumption.
This heartburn-soothing drink ritual became my post-hockey practice/game recovery drink. And eventually, I became known for the concoction. After college, I continued to make the drink, but transitioned into brewing my own ginger tea base to spice it up.
I began working at Whole Foods Market, with the hopes of working up the ladder into a corporate management position. In working on the floor, I started to realize how small the drinking vinegar set was (and remains today).
You have your classic brands, but they’re mostly sold in bulk…not as a ready-to-drink beverage. I thought this was an obvious and necessary move to make vinegar easier to drink, so I started to do some research on drinking vinegars, which led me to the word “shrub” and eventually the word “switchel”.
As soon as I read the definition, I thought, “holy sh*t, this is what I have been making this whole time…switchel. Cool.”
That sort of lit a fire in me because I felt validated. I started brewing more switchel, bottled it in Mason Jars and handed it to friends, family, and co-workers, who eventually persuaded me to sell it at a local, Minnesota farmers market.
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I was accepted into the market and hit the ground running — I created a company name, applied for an LLC, had a friend design a logo and labels, launched a Kickstarter campaign and brought home a 30 lb box of fresh yellow ginger from the Whole Foods Produce Department.
Thanks to the farmers market, I was approached by two co-ops that first year. One thing led to another, and it was like a snowball effect.
Take us through the process of developing, testing, and producing your first batch of switchel.
In college, it was easy. I just mixed together a little ginger herbal tea, honey, and a shot of apple cider vinegar. But when it was time to create a better product, one that I could sell — I started to brew the switchel in a big soup pot in my apartment’s alleyway kitchen.
In year two, I was selling enough product at the farmers market, that I had outgrown the Pickle Bill (which allowed me to produce out of my home kitchen). Because of this, I had to find a shared community kitchen space where I could rent a certain number of hours for weekly production.
This became rather expensive, so I had to approach more local retailers to bring in our products and scale up our production once-again. We (my girlfriend and I) continued to work full-time jobs during the day and brew at night in this community kitchen for two years. In November of 2017, we started to sell pallets of product and quickly outgrew the rented space. This forced us to either build our own manufacturing facility or find a co-packer.
I had seen too many episodes of Shark Tank to think that building my own manufacturing facility was a wise choice, and I didn’t have the time nor financial backing to support that endeavor.
Instead, I decided to turn production over to a co-packing facility that I trusted. Moving to a co-packer created a few obstacles, however, such as scaling production, re-formulating, re-packaging, becoming certified organic, etc.
It felt like starting over, but that’s what needed to happen to get to our next growth stage. In order to assist with this process, I hired an outsourced beverage production management team called BevSource.
They helped me find a suitable co-packer, new ingredient suppliers and packaging manufacturers. All of this took about ten months to come to fruition, but when we finally nailed down everything, it was such a relief. In just a few years, we had moved from a mug to a pot to a brew kettle and then to a whole bottling line!
Describe the process of launching the Superior Switchel.
We started the business with my own personal finances ($111k) and a small Kickstarter ($1,250). Then in our second year of business, I made a home delivery for an online sale, and when I rang the doorbell, the family asked if I’d like to come inside.
They wanted to learn more about the business, and after doing so, they asked if they could invest $20k in the company. Two years later, that same family ended up investing again in our friends and family investment round, which raised a total of $244,500. In 2018, we placed second in the MN Cup competition, which is held annually for start-up businesses in Minnesota.
The second place prize was $5k, and then I was awarded “Best Pitch” at that event, so I took home another $500. My company was then selected to work with a large food marketing firm in the Twin Cities, which provided us with services valued at $45k.
Luckily, I haven’t taken on any bank loans or credit card debt, and I’m hoping to keep it that way! If there comes a time that we have to do another round of financing, we’ll look to our current investor group and then outside investors, as well as possibly a larger Kickstarter campaign.
As a one-woman show, fundraising (including Kickstarter campaigns) is difficult, as it becomes a full-time job. It’s not for the faint of heart and can become all-consuming, but if you need it to help scale the business, there’s really nothing more important on the schedule.
You want to fundraise before you need the capital, so you have to be thinking about it in advance. My advice would be to personally fund as much of the business as you can before looking for investors. When/if you do bring on investors, look for strategics — people who can bring more than their cash. You want people who can add value to the money they’re investing, whether through their contacts or business expertise.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
For our direct-to-consumer sales via our website, we offer free-shipping in the Twin Cities Metro (where our business is based). I’ve found that this has gained a majority of our local customers and provided repeat purchases.
Whereas, our online customers in other parts of Minnesota or the U.S. tend to order off Amazon Prime because there they receive free shipping. Thanks to Amazon, customers are starting to expect this service, but unfortunately, it’s unrealistic and unsustainable for the majority of us smaller businesses.
Speaking of Amazon, if you’re going to be selling your product(s) online, you need to include Amazon as a sales channel. The amount of eyeballs their pages are receiving far outnumber those visiting your own website, so take advantage of it. And more importantly, take the time to figure out how best to sell on Amazon.
Don’t be afraid to invest in their advertising campaigns, as this will significantly increase your sales. Hire an Amazon consultant or marketing agency if you have to, but don’t put this task on the backburner because your Amazon efforts will pay off dramatically.
A few other big marketing tools of ours include: Google Ads, PR, social media, Facebook/Instagram sponsored ads, our website blog, our email newsletter, and events – tons of events and tons of free samples. That last one is our bread and butter.
Related Reading: How Startup Weekend Helped Me Launch a Healthy Cookie Business
With a product like ours, consumers want to try it before they invest in it. In fact, most of our marketing efforts are spent connecting with food brands, organizations or events to include our product in their swag bags, retreats, gyms, or private auctions.
I do not reach out to anyone about swag bags because we have too many reach out to us! I do have to pick and choose which opportunities best represent our customer base, our mission, and our location in order to not go over budget.
By location, I mean I’m less inclined to donate to organizations that are out of state because that would require heavy shipping costs. I also have to consider if we have retail locations in those areas, because if we do not, the chances of someone seeing our product a second or third time are unlikely, which ultimately means they won’t be reminded to purchase.
If we’re in a pinch, I will utilize a website called Parsnip, which is a free platform that helps brands to connect with similar brands for Instagram giveaways and events.
Swag Bag ROI?
It’s difficult to determine an ROI on this form of marketing, especially when you’re not there to personally table at the event and collect email addresses. What has worked, however, is offering a unique gift coupon (we just create cheap “business cards” on VistaPrint that include an event specific discount code for our website), along with a bottle for the swag bag or giveaway.
This has helped us to track a percentage of our online sales back to this type of marketing effort, as well as which specific events, companies, etc., provided the best return, so we can connect with them again in the following year.
All it takes is one new customer to get their hands on your product, fall in love, and reach out. From that, you might get an investor, an evangelist, or an invite to an upcoming local event.
Word of mouth and grassroots marketing can go a LONG way, so milk it for all its worth before you hire a big fancy marketing agency or PR firm and blow your budget.
What does the future look like?
I’m actually looking to either sell the business entirely (100% of my equity) or hire a business partner to manage the day-to-day. I’ve been running Superior Switchel for five years now, and it’s been an exhilarating ride.
I’m happy with where I’ve gotten the business, but it’s time to build out the team and see what’s next. If anyone is interested in learning more about the opportunity, please feel free to contact me directly – email@example.com
Have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Pirateship is awesome for shipping discounted packages through USPS. Instead of giving me a sales rep, they gave me this website.
It’s completely free and super user friendly. Don’t forget to order the free Priority mail boxes from USPS.
What resource couldn’t you live without?
Uline shipping supplies are something I could not live without. Biodegradable packing peanuts, bubble wrap, cardboard carriers, box cutters, packing tape, labels, fragile stickers, tape gun, packing paper, EVERYTHING you need…all in one place.
It’s like Amazon for behind the scene operations. Super helpful, especially when you get a Uline rep who can give you discounts on your favorite items.
What are your favorite podcasts and books?
Some of my favorite podcasts include:
- Brand Builder
- Great Women of Business
- How I Built This with Guy Raz
- How They’re Here
- Inc. Uncensored
- It’s All About Her
- Startup Hustle
- StartUp Podcast
- Taste Radio
- The Pitch
- Unfinished Biz with Robin and Wayne
Some of my favorite books include:
- Good Food, Great Business
- Raising Dough: The Complete Guide to Financing a Socially Responsible Food Business
- Ben & Jerry’s: The Inside Scoop: How Two Real Guys Built a Business with a Social Conscience and a Sense of Humor
When I was making deliveries or brewing in the kitchen, my education came from listening to Podcasts.
Like any good millennial, the other half of my research was done on Google. Don’t know how to write a business plan? Google it. Don’t know how to find investors? Google it. Don’t know where to buy glass or cardboard. Google it. I Googled my way through everything because I didn’t have a business partner nor an MBA to fall back on.
The best resource, however, is your local food network. Join a food startup group BEFORE you start and you’ll save yourself some precious time and money. You’ll also have instant feedback, resources, mentors, and friends to support you in your journey.
Advice for other beverage entrepreneurs starting out?
Being an entrepreneur is a 24-hr job. If you don’t know how to turn off work, it will become all-consuming.
Take time for yourself. Your health is paramount, because without you, there is no company.
It takes time to build something great, so take that time. I think we all feel the pressure to move fast, as if our competitors are at our heels.
But remember that fast is slow, and slow is smooth. In other words, it can be more advantageous to move carefully and intentionally, thereby learning from our competitor’s hasty and often expensive mistakes.