Tea is once again one of America’s favorite beverages. But it’s not your grandmother’s soothing brew that’s heating up the nation’s cash registers. Instead, it’s the more exotic teas that have captured consumers’ palates.
Just ask Ethan and Kate Zuckerman, founders of Virginia-based Blue Ridge Bucha, a kombucha manufacturing and distribution company. Kombucha, a fermented tea, is not some new concoction — it originated in Eurasia about 2,000 years ago. Ethan describes Blue Ridge Bucha as, “cold, carbonated, tangy and sweet. It’s infused with organic and Fair Trade berries, herbs and roots.”
Blue Ridge Bucha’s website says its beverages are certified organic and made in Virginia from pure Blue Ridge Mountain water. Every part of the process, the company says, “from brewing to bottling to flavoring — is done completely by hand.”
Kombucha is a probiotic beverage full of amino acids and active enzymes that is thought to aid the digestive system, especially when enjoyed after a meal.
The business was born in 2010, when the couple says they “started selling kombucha shares out of the back of an old Honda Civic.” They invested, “$4,000 of our own money — and countless hours of work — to get the business off the ground.”
The Path to Success
In the beginning, Ethan says, Blue Ridge Bucha locally distributed six-packs of kombucha in refillable bottles. They’d then collect the bottles, wash them and reuse them. A year later in 2011, Ethan explains, they “went in a more commercial direction,” selling the beverage “in kegs, to bars, restaurants and independent grocery stores.” Kate says Ethan, who has a background in building and sustainable systems, “built almost every piece of equipment himself.”
Sustainability is at the core of the business. The couple says they founded the company, not just to make “delicious, handcrafted kombucha,” but with a mission of distributing their beverages in “refillable bottles.” This helps them live their motto, “Big Flavor, Small Footprint.”
How SCORE Helped
When the Zuckermans ran into cash flow issues, they sought guidance from SCORE mentor Steve Cooper. Kate had worked with Steve when starting a nonprofit several years ago, and says, “When our business started running into problems with distribution and cash flow, I turned to Steve for solid advice.”
Cooper says when he first met with Ethan and Kate, they “talked about developing a spreadsheet showing actual numbers and forecasts for future” sales, which says Ethan was great to be “able to see the metrics.”
“SCORE,” Kate says, “is an amazing resource for small business owners. Steve has been a source of advice and support as we’ve weathered various challenges.” In fact, Kate says, “After working with Steve, our sales and [the size of] our team have doubled.”
Blue Ridge Bucha Today
Blue Ridge Bucha can be found in more than 80 locations in Virginia, Maryland, Washington, D.C. and North Carolina.
To date, the company has “saved 750,000 bottles” according to its website, and Kate says, “In one year we’re going to hit one-million bottles saved.” And she adds, customers have told her that bringing the bottles back has helped them “remember to bring bags [when they go to the store] and turn lights off.”
Blue Ridge Bucha is on such a positive path that Cooper says, “Within 5 to 10 years, I would not be surprised if they’re one of the largest companies on the East Coast making kombucha.”
Blue Ridge Bucha is the 2018 SCORE Award winner for Outstanding American Manufacturing Small Business, presented by Sam's Club.
Paying it Forward
Kate advises that those considering starting their own businesses only take the plunge “if you are passionate about what you do and are clear about why you want to make it into a business.”
She says, “Although running your own business may provide you with certain freedoms — like scheduling flexibility — it also comes with great responsibilities to your team, your customers, and others.”
However, Kate adds, “If you do decide to go for it, SCORE is a great organization and we recommend connecting with your local SCORE office and taking advantage of their workshops and mentorship opportunities.”
In fact, SCORE and Cooper had such an impact on the pair that Kate says, “When we retire, we’d love to be able to provide that kind of guidance for people going on an entrepreneurial journey.”