This college-athlete-turned-foodpreneur took a recipe inspired by her grandma, encouragement from her peers, and her passion for sustainability and water conservation to found and grow her pioneering switchel brand, Superior Switchel, from local farmers marker to national distribution, and why she’s deciding to sell it after a five year run.
Growing up did you have an interest in the food and beverage industry?
Not in particular. It was always a dream of mine to be a park ranger and involved in natural resource protection. This is what I studied in college, and I actually worked a year with the Food Corps. So I guess food has always been a passion, but from the sustainability and conservation side of it all, not really as a business.
So, where did you get the inspiration for Superior Switchel?
While in college I was looking for a healthier alternative to Gatorade and other sports drinks. My grandma recommended I try apple cider vinegar and ginger, so I started developing recipes with those ingredients and making my brews for my teammates and I.
Can you tell us a little more about what exactly “switchel” is?
Switchel is a mix of water, ginger, apple cider vinegar and unrefined sweeteners like honey or maple syrup.
When did you decide to make it a business?
Straight out of college I got a job working for Whole Foods, which was great because I got to learn a lot about CPG and the natural foods industry. My original goal was to climb the ladder into a management role, but quickly found out that what I enjoyed most was engaging and working face-to-face with people. I didn’t see myself stuck behind a desk all day. This is what led me to pursue Superior Switchel full time.
What were the early days of business like?
I started selling at my local farmers market and it caught on pretty quickly. We were selling out and by the end of the first year I sold in to two Minneapolis Co-ops. We outgrew the state’s “Pickle Bill” and had to look for a commercial kitchen to produce, which led to us needing to sell into additional retailers to afford. By the end of year two we were in 20 retailers. After five years of business we’re available in 43 states nationwide.
Manufacturing: in-house or co-man?
I started producing our products in a college dorm, which grew to the community kitchen and later to a commercial kitchen. Once we launched nationally we moved our production to a co-manufacturer.
Any insights on what to look for when working with a co-man?
When looking for a co-manufacturer it was important for me to hold the rights to my switchel recipe. Some co-mans make and sell their own flavors, which I didn’t want. Some other key things to look for when selecting a partner: minimum run size/quantities, frequency of production, who supplies materials (ingredients, packaging, etc.), what are the storage requirements and capabilities (and for how long?). Above all else, make sure they are easy to work with!
What hardships, if any, have you had to face?
I wouldn’t really call it a hardship, but something I’m sure all founders can relate to is the process of raising capital. It is a very daunting and humbling experience finding money! I started Superior Switchel solo, without a business partner, which was a pain I brought upon myself.
Let’s talk about the team. What does company culture at Superior Switchel look like?
The Superior Switchel team is outsourced, so sadly there isn’t much of a “culture.” The day-to-day of business is run primarily by myself. I work with brokers and creatives when needed and have a small group of mentors and advisers.
You DID ultimately find the money to grow the brand. What was this like?
Turning to investors was crucial in order for us to launch new packaging and secure national distribution. But the more money you raise, the more money becomes the focus of your work. It makes you think. Where can we cut costs while staying true to the original mission? Do we need to be at X trade show? Do we really want to continue to have (expensive) certifications? Sourcing ingredients, production runs, etc.
As a founder, how do you find balance?
While the business occupies much of my time, I think it is so important to set aside time for yourself each day, even if it’s just an hour of silence or time outside. My release is through exercise (Crossfit), meditation and spending time with friends. As a solo founder, the days can be a little lonely, so when I’m not working I try to spend as much time with friends as possible.
Plans for the future?
Right now I am in the process of selling the company. I want business to continue to grow, and to do that we need more funding, and I’m not the person to go about doing so.
What led you to this decision?
While it is very exciting that Superior Switchel has grown to what it is today, it’s become less of a passion project. Money, fundraising, looking for investors. That was never my passion. I had to really dig deep and rethink my original vision and goals for starting the company: environmental impact, sustainability, working with people. That’s where I see myself and where I want to be.
Stay true to your passions.
Any advice for other early stage food entrepreneurs?
Recognize what drove you to develop your product in the first place. More likely than not, it wasn’t to become a millionaire. Stay true to your passions, and if that means handing off the company, so be it.