Uncle Waithley's Recipe For Growth: Community, Story and Scotch Bonnet Bite

MediaPost: I don’t know what “scotch bonnet bite” is exactly, but Uncle Waithley's Beverage Company has me convinced that I probably want it in my ginger beer. The small batch brew company has a wonderfully authentic and cool backstory. There was an Uncle Waithley, and he lived 100. And it took an equally unique path to growth. The company is using crowdfunding to build equity, even as Uncle Waithley starts appearing at retail and restaurant outlets like select Whole Foods and Manhattan watering holes. You can listen to the entire podcast at this link.



The small batch beverage world has suddenly gotten as popular as it is cluttered. So how can a cool new brand, with a great and authentic tale breakthrough in this crowded and costly retail environment? Uncle Waithley's extended family joined this week’s Brand Insider. Karl Williams, the Founder, and CEO was previously at Procter & Gamble and Pepsi, but then spent a number of years as a mixologist and bar entrepreneur. Monica Freeman-Greene is VP of Organizational Strategy. And Michael McConnell, who is Director of Marketing and Culture. 

Karl, I understand the brand roots are in your grandfather's ginger farming. 

Karl Williams: Uncle Waithley was my grandfather, lived to be 100, and was a ginger farmer. And he had a passion for healthy living and taking care of himself and natural beverages. I learned to make natural beverages at home, making these interesting concoctions in the house. It's funny, Uncle Waithley's was probably born before I even knew it was born, because I was learning those flavor ideas at home. But the short story is we were looking for a ginger beer that would really support our own program. When you went into the Caribbean stores to buy ginger beer, there weren't a lot of fresh natural products. There were things that were sugary and artificial, and that bothered me as a Caribbean person. Secondly, the other ginger beers lacked this very fresh ginger taste. So, it just made sense that in this case we would set out to try to create our own ginger beer. Initially, it was something that we just carried at [the bar]. 

And then we found people really, really loved it. 

MP: How are you experiencing the retail environment as a profitable channel? 

Monica Freeman-Greene: It's definitely challenging. One of the things that we know about our brand is that marketing is great, but one of the most successful strategies we found in retail is sampling. So, when people taste the product, they buy it. And sampling was very easy to do obviously at Whole Foods. As we grew, it got a little harder and more costly. So now, being at 56 stores, it's a challenge in terms of, how do we reach enough of those markets that make our numbers look good from a retail perspective and then being able to afford it at the same time. Part of that is where our fundraising comes in. But it is definitely expensive. We've been fortunate that we've been able to break into the retail market without things like slotting fees and stuff like that at this time. So, we're not so focused on that. But it's the sampling and then of course, getting a greater reach. But for a small brand, it is very hard, and that's why, when people start these brands, if they're not making it to scale, they're really going to hurt financially.

MP: It's a great segue to talk about brand building, because when I go into Whole Foods now, and I go down the soda aisle, I'm overwhelmed by the number of craft and small batch options here. So, Mike, how do you build a brand in this environment? How do you differentiate? 

Mike McConnell: I think we had a few advantages here. So, Karl is an amazing storyteller. He has a bar called 67 Orange in Harlem and that bar has a great community, and it has a great story. And we had a community-centric approach to it, and just really focused on a hyper local strategy. So, in a Caribbean based brand, there's a lot of stories there and it's not that we're bathed in the spirit of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. We embrace the entire Caribbean. And a lot of people when they think about Caribbean they just think about Bob Marley and Jamaica. But The Caribbean is a unique cultural landscape; it’s 13 sovereign nations, over 700 islands, and each one of those islands that are inhabited are different from the other. So, what we did is we focused on making sure that our messaging represented the whole of the Caribbean. And we found that everybody had a respect, love, and affinity for Caribbean culture. 

So, we made sure to support local events. Monica and the team are always looking out on how we can support events happening in our community. And we started in Harlem like I said, because Karl has a bar there, and just really, a lot of sampling a lot of supporting the community, and a lot of storytelling and making sure that our messaging was authentic, because in Caribbean culture you can't fake it. You see a lot of almost caricature style marketing when it comes to Caribbean-based brands, and it's not authentic. So, we made sure to take our time to focus on community storytelling. And that's one of the best approaches for us. And starting at Harlem was phenomenal, because that was sort of our test market and the feedback from the community really helped us shape and mold a strategy that we've taken to other markets. So, support the people who are creating the culture, make sure everybody tastes it and make sure that the messaging is there, and we embrace the food, the dancing, the music, all of it. And that's been the way we've been able to be received so well by the day every market that we roll into.

MP: How do you think about the D2C channel in terms of the larger retail strategy. 

Karl Williams: We will always have a D2C through e-commerce part of our business. That's always going to be part of our play. We want to be able to have that one-to-one conversation and be able to provide the product in that way. But the way to scale for us is through primarily two channels, and that's grocery and on-premises at bars and restaurants. And so, we didn't talk a lot about that part of it. But that on-premises piece of it is a big part of it, because one bartender can reach 1,000 people. They can reach so many people, and so when we can connect into that community, we have a great way of really spreading the brand message and so we do a lot of communication with that group as well. 

MP: Another way that a lot of companies like your scale is product development. And, as you said, you were raised on experimenting with a lot of recipes. So, I'm sure that you've got loads of product ideas. But it begs the question, at what point do you start expanding the portfolio? 

Karl Williams: I mean the name of the company is Uncle Waithley’s Beverages. So, you can imagine there's going to be other beverages. Our start of idea is mixologist crafted Caribbean flavor, and so that sort of overarching idea will guide what we do in the future in terms of brand development. So, this line, Uncle Waithley's fancy brew is really about this ginger beer with the scotch bonnet. And so scotch bonnet is there because it lengthens the heat, the ginger bite. It really makes that sort of nice long warming effect. That’s one reason. The second is because it is distinctly Caribbean. It's used ubiquitously in Caribbean cooking across most of the islands. And so, when people taste the product, it automatically has its Caribbean taste. You may not even know why, but it's Caribbean. And then it has these vegetable notes, and these vegetables play so well when mixed with spirits. So, we use a unique pepper and a special pepper and one that really makes our beverage stand out. So that base of ginger and scotch, that's our core, but we're going to be adding flavors on that as well. This initial one is just the ginger scotch bonnet. We're going to have a couple of flavors that we'll add on there. We're hoping to have the next flavor out in December for holiday time. 

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