Source from the right companies. It can be easy to buy cheap. It certainly helps your margins, but at the end of the day, who are your hard-earned business dollars supporting? For me, this is a huge issue. I want to support local whenever I can, but when I can’t, I want to find companies whose missions align with ours. As an herbal company, finding suppliers that source their botanicals ethically is of utmost importance. While selling a premium product, we also need the highest quality ingredients we can find. Thinking through every aspect of what your ingredients say about you and your company is a great practice. I’ve often thought about if someone saw shipments arriving to my facility, what would they say or think? Every aspect of your business will support another business or industry, so source from the right ones for you and your business.
As part of our series called “5 Things You Need to Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kaleena Goldsworthy-Warnock, founder and CEO of The Bitter Bottle, a modern apothecary for cocktail solutions. Her team creates small-batch herbal bitters and tinctures, and conscious cocktails. In addition to founding The Bitter Bottle, Kaleena recently helped launch Proof Incubator where she leverages her insights to help food and beverage entrepreneurs succeed, in particular with her knowledge of the consumer goods industry.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I was raised in upstate New York and grew up in the music industry. I received a BA in music business and voice and set out to become a full time touring musician. As it happens, I had to take on a lot of odd jobs to allow time to play music and perform. Those jobs included working at seasonal kiosks in the mall, working at a Christmas tree farm, being a health insurance company’s mascot, working at a garden center, and other “fun” positions. But, I had always promised my parents I’d never bartend. Shortly after making that promise, I decided I needed a fresh start in a new industry and found myself moving down to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to be a part of opening a bar — and you guessed it, bartending.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
I started bartending when I was 27 years old, which felt incredibly late compared to my peers behind the stick. I had myself convinced that the only way I could keep up with them was by learning everything I could about the industry — memorizing every drink recipe, understanding the distillation and creation process of gin, and so much more. All of this intensive schooling led me to fall completely in love with the historic cocktail culture and the ingredients behind what I was making drinks with. I was particularly taken with the fact that many of the spirits that lined the back bar found their roots in traditional herbalism. This led me to begin studying herbalism, which, in turn, led me to volunteer at a local urban farm. I began to question why so many companies in the beverage industry weren’t sourcing locally or why they were using artificial ingredients. All of these passions aligned and I decided I would start my own bitters company using the techniques of modern herbalism to pay respect to our industry’s past, while creating flavors and products that could stand the test of time and curate the drinks of the future. And that’s how The Bitter Bottle was born.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh man. When I first went to bottle my aromatic bitters, I found it peculiar that my cinnamon tincture was very thick and syrupy. I knew I had done it right — it tasted good — and I had spent so many years plagued with self-doubt. I told myself to get over it, get out of my own way, and just bottle the bitters. I took my finished product to the bar I had moved to Chattanooga to manage so the general manager could try them. He shook the bottle into some soda water and I watched the bitters completely fall apart. It looked like soda water and silly string. I was baffled, mortified, and so completely defeated. It turns out, there are certain molecules in the type of cinnamon I was working with that aren’t soluble in water, hence the silly string effect. I was able to fix the problem, but not before dumping out the hundreds of bottles my ego insisted on. I learned to test everything twice in every setting. I now test my new products in hot water, cold water, sparkling water…you get the point. It might seem excessive, but I won’t allow a mistake like that to happen again!
What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I think the most common mistake I see people make is not setting themselves up for success from the start. And that typically means paying attention to all of the more mundane, “businesss-y” aspects of owning a business. Ensuring you have the right facility to produce your product, that you have insurance, that you’re appropriately registered as an actual business; all of these things matter. I think you can get started and find your footing without taking a lot of these big steps, but once you start to take off, it’s hard to go back and find the time to make sure your bases are covered. While it can be better to ask for forgiveness than permission a lot of times, food safety is not an area you want to test that out.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
I would recommend they truly evaluate what their product is and what it’s going to take to produce it on a large scale. This means thinking through the scaling steps like looking into wholesale suppliers, packaging, graphic design, and more. You need to understand the true cost of your products and how long (truly how long) it takes you to produce them. Also, ask yourself, “is it worth it?” Is this something you’re going to get sick of really fast? Really thinking through every aspect of the business and if you can find yourself completely entangled in it is extremely important. Because once you start, you will quickly find yourself completely consumed with it.
Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?
JUST GO FOR IT! I feel like I spent a lot of time in the “good idea” phase before taking the leap to do it. Why? Because it is terrifying taking that step! It means you have to follow through, not just to all the people you told about your concept, but also to yourself. I think our human fear of failure — and more narrowed down to letting ourselves down — hinders us more than we realize. All that being said, once you stake that first step and start creating, you’ll find it’s a lot less intimidating, and every step after that is, thankfully, less daunting.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
I think if you have the financial runway to test out your concept with a consultant, and you think the information you will acquire from that relationship will truly be valuable, go for it. For a lot of solopreneurs, you have no one to bounce ideas off of. Talking to someone with experience can shed a light on a lot of aspects of your business you may not have previously considered. That being said, if you lack the financial runway to hire a consultant, or don’t have the option to, I would urge small business owners to reach out to their local small business development center and seek assistance there first. That is something I did and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
I think that both have their pros and cons. It really depends on the scope of your business as well as your larger goals for the company. If you want to start a pie shop and cater to your community, bootstrapping can get you pretty far. If you’re planning to be the new dairy replacement and seeking placement in major grocery stores, bootstrapping isn’t going to cut it. I think your ownership plans can also play into how you finance your venture. If you’re looking to grow fast and sell, investment money allows you to do that quickly and with more ease. What I’ve found with bootstrapping, is that after some time, you may find your ceiling for capacity and growth. While venture capital may seem like an uncomfortable conversation for some bootstrapping companies, it doesn’t have to be. You just have to find the right relationship and I think it can afford you quite a bit of opportunity for growth in a faster time frame.
Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?
When it comes to sourcing raw ingredients, doing your research is so very important. As a business, The Bitter Bottle wants to invest in other companies that have shared beliefs and values. Understanding things like how they source the ingredients and where they put their attention is important. We feel the same way about finding retailers. We want our products to be in shops that find our customers or introduce us to new customers, but that reflects our overall mission as a company.
Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Have a product that stands out visually and otherwise
You may make the best gourmet cookies in the entire world and have a killer story to back it up, but if you’re not there to convey that message in person, you need your packaging to do that for you. Finding the right designer can be a process, but you should invest in the right person the first time. And yes, the right person is probably more expensive. Branding and marketing is something that literally sells and moves your brand. Work with talented people to position your product in a phenomenal way. Then, once you’ve visually attracted your customer, your product will do the rest of the work. I can speak from personal experience on this. Our initial product label was very plain and basic. It was beautiful, but it blended in with all of the other craft cocktail products on the shelf. I took my product to a friend and industry mentor and asked him what he thought. He told me that while they looked great, the bottle left out my story. By looking at the bottle he couldn’t see that it was created in Chattanooga by a woman who worked tirelessly to create Tennessee’s first bitters. Right after he said that, I knew I could not figure out how to do that on my own, so I called in a professional (Gabrielle Blades of Blades Creative) to assist me in doing just that. I could not be more proud of our design now, from our bottles down to our boxes and stickers, and people take notice!
2. Do what you do really, really well
It’s not enough to just make a product. You need to know your competitor’s products inside and out. You need to know what needs your product serves and what you need to excel. Don’t let your quality wane. First time customers are great, but your repeat customers will keep your business alive. The only way you can make sure you’re on the right track is to get honest feedback. You need to grow a thick skin and listen to what other people say to you. It can be hard taking critiques on your creation, but it is something that is necessary to succeed.
3. Think through and curate the entire customer experience
If you plan on shipping your products or having wholesale accounts, what does the entire customer experience look like? Consider the importance of shipping materials and how professional they look when they arrive at your customer’s door. We also went through this at The Bitter Bottle. When we launched our e-commerce site, we did so in the middle of the pandemic. We dove in and figured it out as we went along; began shipping in unbranded boxes with bubble wrap and air mailers, and recycled paper from the other bulk orders we had placed. After putting together the first few boxes, I looked at our beautiful bottles that were getting buried in generic plastic and covered with bland paper and realized that all of this — this entire e-commerce operation — was allowing my company to look incredibly amateur after spending years to avoid that same issue. We quickly turned it around, began working on fitted, branded boxes, and were able to eliminate the wasteful wraps and additional plastic. Since then, we’ve created a fun, beautiful branded experience from start to finish.
4. Source from the right companies.
It can be easy to buy cheap. It certainly helps your margins, but at the end of the day, who are your hard-earned business dollars supporting? For me, this is a huge issue. I want to support local whenever I can, but when I can’t, I want to find companies whose missions align with ours. As an herbal company, finding suppliers that source their botanicals ethically is of utmost importance. While selling a premium product, we also need the highest quality ingredients we can find. Thinking through every aspect of what your ingredients say about you and your company is a great practice. I’ve often thought about if someone saw shipments arriving to my facility, what would they say or think? Every aspect of your business will support another business or industry, so source from the right ones for you and your business.
5. Develop and retain a great marketing team
Similar to the first statement I made about having a product that stands out, assemble a team that can tell that story for you. Marketing is hugely important (as all of you already know). But what many small business owners don’t realize, as I didn’t, is that when you are so closely tied to and entwined in a company, it can be hard to take a step back and concisely sum up what your company is (and offers) in a voice that your customers can understand and immediately want to support. I know that if we have a one on one conversation, you’ll be able to understand the passion behind The Bitter Bottle, but I am not the person to create an advertisement or even a brief social media post to get people clicking on our website. There are people who specialize in product creation and there are people who specialize in promotion. FIND THOSE PEOPLE. It will not only save you a lot of headaches and do so much more for your business, it will allow you to focus on the things you do well and keep those creative juices flowing.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
I think one of the best ways to create a product that people really love and enjoy is to create a product for yourself and your peers. If your friends, peers, and co-workers find what you’re creating to be valuable, or it improves their lives, their work, their efficiency, then you’re on to something. To create an emotional attachment to a product, you have to dig a little deeper. People feel tied to products when they feel tied to a story, to a person. Knowing that the product has a soul and a mission can create lifetime customers. You have to start somewhere, though, and you may not be the ‘full package’ right out of the gate. Start with something you’re passionate about that gets others excited. From there, the story will write itself.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I have been so fortunate to find mentorship and guidance every step of the way creating The Bitter Bottle. The food and beverage industry, specifically the alcohol industry, can be a difficult one to step into and innovate. As I was building my business, I set a goal that whenever I would be able to give back to the startup and entrepreneurial community, I would. I wanted to become a person people could turn to when they were trying to achieve their dreams and starting their own company. So far, I have been able to keep that promise by giving my time to speak to cohorts I once attended, and taking meetings (more frequently pre-Covid) with people who just want to discuss their business idea and bounce ideas around. I love directing people to find the resources that can help them take the next step, and there are so many!
Another thing The Bitter Bottle focuses on is giving back to causes and industries we truly believe in. We frequently work with various non-profits in our area to raise money for local agriculture and adult learning, as these are important to us, but also help build our community. That’s what we want to do as a small business; help build our community. It can be difficult for businesses to align themselves with certain causes or movements when the fear of getting involved in politics has the potential to ostracize you from potential (or existing) customers. Despite that, we’ve always enjoyed being a human-being run company. There are certain causes we openly have donated to (like BLM) because even as a small business, these actions are important for us to show the world who we are and what we stand for.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
It sounds like a Miss America answer, but I would want to inspire a movement of compassion. Especially this year, we have seen and known loss, grief, and pain in ways many of us have never experienced before. From industries and businesses closing, to unemployment, to dealing with fear and the loss or sickness of our friends and family. We, as people with spending power, have the ability to spend that money where we can actively do good; where our money can do better. By finding companies that invest in things we care about — that source with intention — or that are local, we can support causes while getting the things we desire and need. If we all could practice a bit more compassion, patience, and empathy, and think beyond our increased need for immediacy and instant gratification, I think we could honestly change the world and we would see more businesses prioritize missions with the intention to do good beyond profits.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
My entire adult life has centered around listening to business podcasts and learning as much as I can from others’ experiences. There are truly so many people I would love to speak with. I think currently, one of the people who has inspired me greatly is Neri Oxman. Her brilliance and creativity — the way she inspires and assembles teams of like-minded people — and her ability to take great risks to create things that are not only visually beautiful, but also have the potential to change the world is just absolutely awe-inspiring. It’s been a long time since I’ve gone down a rabbit hole of someone’s work and been left not only speechless, but that the world is full of possibilities if you shift your perspective and think differently.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.