Recipe — For me, this needed to be top quality and have award-winning potential. I spent two years developing two recipes, and at the end started over from scratch, with a feeling it was missing a tiny something. Now, I could not be happier with the end result.
Packaging — I had a solid idea of what I wanted, and over the course of a year, I fell in love with a label that was different than what initial thought was a must-have. I took a bit of a risk out of my comfort zone, but again at the end, it is the clear choice. I have no regrets!
As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sonya Vega Auvray.
For Entrepreneur and Doña Vega Founder Sonya Vega Auvray, creating a modern take on mezcal began simply as a passion project. Auvray’s love of mezcal was sparked by her Mexican friends and family who introduced her to the fascinating world of this stellar agave-based liquor. While Auvray was obsessed with the bold taste, she found that many versions were too smoky or intense. During her free time, the former PR executive and founder of The Wetherly Group was determined to create the perfect mezcal, traveling throughout the Oaxaca region of Mexico to research and finesse her blend. The result? An amazing full-time career and Doña Vega mezcal. The brand is currently offered in upscale restaurants and retailers in Aspen, Los Angeles, New York, and Miami. Auvray’s current and creative blend honors the bold tradition and unique flavors of this centuries-old spirit with a modern twist.
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”?
Iwas born and raised in Tucson, Arizona. Although American, my grandparents are Mexican and I was raised with strong Mexican influence. We have quite a small, tight knit family. Both my parents were always present and supportive.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
Following my 17-year career as a PR executive in New York City, I had been thinking about what might be next. After being introduced to mezcal from my Mexican friends and family, I started noticing the spirit popping up everywhere. A year of thinking and entertaining the idea of starting my own brand, I watched mezcal grow and finally get added as a signature cocktail in restaurants across the U.S. Then I noticed it more and more, and that was it — I thought “ah ha, this is it, my next journey.” My love of mezcal was sparked.
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?
I’m a planner and had most of my strategy mapped out with timelines, activations, buyers, etc. but then the Covid-19 lockdown happened. While quarantining with my family, I found myself having these creative ideas that needed to be executed by a team of 1. I ended up with a home printer, printing and cutting labels to apply on bottles for restaurants, packing boxes, visiting the Post Office and FedEx daily. I’m all about being able to do entry level strategies, but didn’t think I would be having so many hats during lockdown months.
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’m new to the food and beverage world and still learning the ins and outs myself. However, I have found that successful branding and packaging can make all the difference. My background is in fashion, art, and creative spaces, so I immediately prioritized the consumer-facing side of my brand.
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?
Sampling, concept research, and timelines. Brand building and the actual product are equally important, and should be done simultaneously. You don’t realize how many changes and tweaks you will go through.
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?
It’s a combination of risk and sacrifice, and you have to be willing to accept that. For me, it’s being confident in your product, and that there is space in your market where you have an opportunity to stand out.
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?
It all depends what oneself brings to the table, what resources they need help with. Recognizing your strengths and skills set, then outsourcing the gaps can lead to collaboration, new ideas, and a smoother start up.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
Personally, I needed to be confident the brand would move forward, and therefore didn’t want to accept funding until I had both concept and sales in place. Once I had proof of concept, I sought capital.
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 looking for my producer, I took several trips and researched many producers to test recipes. As I narrowed the options, I went for the quality (of course), but the family I settled on had a bit of American mentality, and could see the bigger picture to grow with me as a true partner.
For retailers, I had known all along which retailers I wanted to align myself with. As I grew my business, I would stay in touch and share the growth progress so they felt part of the process. My goal was to secure orders from top 20 recognized key restaurants and bars, per city. I did the heavy lifting of introduction and then onboarded a sales team to expand into liquor stores.
In terms of distribution, it’s difficult as a new brand to launch with the big ones, and smaller distributors may not be as profitable. There is a fine line in hoping the mid-size distributors will understand the potential of your brand and want to be a true partner. Currently, I’m working with a platform for self distribution which was intended Day 1 — wanting to understand the back end before moving to a distributor.
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.)
- Concept — Why does my product have a chance? I had been thinking about a variety of spirits, yet a few I wanted to find that white space in a saturated industry. Mezcal was on the list, and knowing there was a lot of room for growth and recognition, this was it!
2. Recipe — For me, this needed to be top quality and have award-winning potential. I spent two years developing two recipes, and at the end started over from scratch, with a feeling it was missing a tiny something. Now, I could not be happier with the end result.
3. Packaging — I had a solid idea of what I wanted, and over the course of a year, I fell in love with a label that was different than what initial thought was a must-have. I took a bit of a risk out of my comfort zone, but again at the end, it is the clear choice. I have no regrets!
4. Market Research — Prior to the large production order, I spent six months sitting with Beverage Directors to get their thoughts, opinions, and suggestions on the actual spirit. Secondly, I hosted private tastings with a heavy target on non-mezcal drinkers — not with the intention of converting them, but to see if they had the same reaction to other mezcals they had tried. I needed to know there was an appreciation from those groups that would be open to better understanding this unique spirit.
5. Sales Strategy — After all is said and done in building a brand, the bottom line, the measure of success, is sales! With the unprecedented and unanticipated Covid-19 roadblock, I had to quickly pivot my original strategy. Because I have a lean start-up team, I was able to course-correct quickly and handled door-to-door sales myself. I was fortunate to secure key restaurants and other establishments prior to the pandemic, therefore gained a bit of momentum, and was able to use those accounts to get attraction and sales from new retailers.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
From my career in PR, I can tell you the magic is in branding, marketing, and getting your product into the hands of the right influencers and tastemakers within your industry. As I mentioned, it’s also about being confident in your product, and finding space in your market where you have an opportunity to stand out.
With Doña Vega, I created something that I knew had room for growth, but I also did this for me. I wanted to challenge myself to bring my past 17-year career together with my newly founded passion for mezcal and education on Mexican tradition to build a product and brand I’m personally proud of to share with others.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Throughout my travels, research, and recipe-testing process, I fell in love with Oaxaca — the place, the people, the spirit. I have great respect for the time-honored tradition of mezcal production, and we employ the same palenques process that has been around for centuries. I hope that by sharing the stories of our fifth-generation, female-led production team and our organic and artisanal practices with American mezcal consumers, we’re educating them about this incredibly creative, bold, and progressive culture and having fun while doing it.
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.
The spirits industry is male-dominated, so I’d love to see more female-founded brands, women in Beverage Director roles and in leadership across sales, distribution, and marketing.
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.
I have been a longtime fan of Eva Longoria and would love to have a cocktail with her! I so appreciate how she advocates for herself within a male-dominated industry and her activism to give more Latina women a platform to do the same.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.