Q&A with Wild Kombucha, Baltimore-based, Cause-Driven Kombucha Brand

/ / Businesss, People

Baltimore-based Wild Kombucha has grown massively since their founding almost five years ago, increasing sales 466 percent in the last three years. The founders hard work and the drink’s delicious flavor helped propel the brand into 1,000 stores in eight states and Washington D.C.

At Natural Products Expo East, Wild Kombucha’s three co-founders point to another factor in their success: the city of Baltimore.

“A big piece was telling people we’re a local kombucha company, it’s Baltimore made,” says Sergio Malarin. “People here are super focused on local, they really love it. A lot of the initial accounts we worked with didn’t even bat an eye about bringing us in. Eddie’s Market, Charmington’s, One World Café, all the healthier, vegan and vegetarian independently-owned grocery stores and cafes, they brought us in and started selling us, fast.”

Co-founders Malarin, Adam Bufano and Sid Sharma are all first-generation Americans raised in Baltimore. The trio (Bufano and Malarin are step-brothers – Sharms is a childhood friend) take great pride in their hometown, praising the locals as a factor in Wild Kombucha’s success. They started selling under the Wild Kombucha label in February 2015 as a side gig, brewing in the evenings after their day jobs. They officially left their former careers for Wild Kombucha in August 2016, the day Whole Foods agreed to sell Wild Kombucha.

Today, Wild Kombucha employs 21 people and is brewing 10,000 bottles and 50 kegs of kombucha each week. They’ve moved to a 13,000-square-foot brewery and taproom in Baltimore. They will release their new flavor — a CBD kombucha flavor — in October.

“We’ve focused on how to educate the community around us on the health benefits of kombucha,” says Bufano. “So many people come to our demo tables and say ‘I don’t like kombucha, but then they try ours and they buy a bottle because it’s very approachable.”

Below is a Q&A with Bufano, Malarin and Sharma, who spoke with The Fermentation Association at their booth during Expo East.

Q: How did you start Wild Kombucha?

Bufano: Sergio and I are stepbrothers. Our family brewed kombucha when we were younger; our parents taught us when we were like 10 years old. And then I continued to brew from then basically until now, perfecting the recipe every time. I started selling it to my friends and then, at a certain point, I was trading it for rent. I was selling it to Hopkins students (John Hopkins University of Medicine). I had this big group of Hopkins students that would come to my house, grab a six-pack and bring me the empty bottles, I’d sanitize and refill them. And then I reached a point where I had to start charging people a little bit more to make it an actual business. That’s when Sergio and I hooked up and came up with a plan to expand and make it a little more legit. Sid is a childhood friend of ours, so we brought him on, too.

Q: You started with your parent’s kombucha recipe. Where did this kombucha recipe originate from?

Malarin: Our parents learned about fermented foods was from this woman, Sally Fallon, who wrote this famous book called “Nourishing Traditions.” She is a best-selling author, and my mom actually became one of her top volunteers and became friends with her. 

Bufano: So we would make like sauerkraut, kefir…

Malarin: Water kefir, milk kefir, sourdough…

Bufano: And it went beyond fermentation. Our fridge was pretty crazy.

Q: Sounds like your parents were very health.

Malarin: Yes. They were super into fermented foods.

Bufano: And this was in the ‘90s, before it was cool.

Q: Where did your kombucha recipe originate from?

Bufano: My parents learned from Sally Fallon how to make it, but they really made it their own. I used their recipe, which wasn’t very good at that point, and improved it.

Q: What makes Wild Kombucha unique?
Malarin
: It’s a lot more approachable than other kombuchas. So the taste, but also the package. Our mission is to make kombucha approachable and available to everyone. So not necessarily the Whole Foods crowd, we want this something the average joe in Baltimore can grab.

Sharma: It has a fresher flavor profile. So because of that, we also have lower sugar, so really the fruit comes out so you don’t need to add sugar after the fact.

Malarin: What really differentiates us as a company is we are one of the few cause-driven kombucha companies. We donate 1% of our sales to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation – that’s what makes us Wild Kombucha.

Q: Why did you decide on the Chesepeake Bay Foundation?

Malarin: Since we were kids, we’ve gone swimming on the Eastern Shore. For us, it’s super important. It’s where we live, it’s a huge ecosystem. We really feel our community goes beyond the people in it, it extends to the ecosystem and the wildlife as well.

Sharma: We want to put resources back into the place where we’re using the resources.

Malarin: For us it’s very important to be more than a bottom line. We want to be a business that gives back in many, many ways in the community. We are located in Northwest Baltimore, which is a bit of a food dessert. We opened a taproom out there and we’ve been hosting yoga classes there, we’ll do a speaker series soon. We want the community to be able to participate and be a part of wwat we’re doing.

Q: Tell me how important that was to be in Baltimore. You moved a few years ago from Baltimore to the suburbs, and now you’ve moved back to Baltimore.

Bufano: We tried to stay in Baltimore at that time, but in order for us to push ourselves forward, the only option for us was to move to this space that we found in the Timonium area outside of Baltimore. Just moving back into Baltimore was a huge thing for us. We’d been looking for a space for a while, anticipating our move back. We feel a connection here, we want to support the city. A lot of businesses are moving out of Baltimore, so Baltimore really needs support right now.

Q: Why does Baltimore need the support of local businesses like Wild Kombucha?

Malarin: Baltimore is getting a lot of negative attention in the media. From Freddie Gray and all the craziness that came out of that as well as just the stuff Trump has been saying, and there’s been a big focus on the violence. A lot of other big cities have a lot of negative things too, but you don’t hear people saying those things about, like Chicago. People say the sausages are good in Chicago, the jazz and blues music are good, but there are a lot of murders in Chicago, too. The media doesn’t focus solely on the negative in other cities like in Baltimore.

Sharma: There’s this unfortunate migration out of the city. And there’s a wealth gap, this poverty gap that exists within Baltimore. By employing people in the city, we’re able to make a difference there. By putting local products into the economy, we keep the dollars inside Baltimore as well. It’s about helping the people around us, helping the people who have supported us and allowed us to grow, and paying it forward.

Q: Your sales have skyrocketed since your start in 2015. How do you think you’ve grown so much?

Malarin: A lot of hands-on work on our part. We very much went out and met people and talked to people and shook hands and pounded the pavement and made real connections instead of going through a broker. We didn’t cut corners. Another reason is our product is delicious and approachable. And finally, the last reason is kombucha in general, it’s the fastest growing sector of the non-alcoholic beverage industry, so we’ve been very fortunate that we’ve gotten to ride that wave a little bit. We don’t have a lot of natural competition where we are. Kombucha is still a lot of west coast companies, and shipping is really expensive across the country. So we’ve been able to compete very directly in terms of price point with these multi-million dollar companies that are backed by Coca Cola and Pepsi.

Q: That’s impressive you can compete with the big brands.

Bufano: We started selling under the Wild Kombucha label in 2015. We were in Whole Foods in August 2016.  

Malarin: We were selling at the side of a juice shop, initially. We didn’t have any starting capital. We were a bunch of 24 year olds, so no bank wanted to give us loans. We found a way to get around a lot of the licensing from the health department. We went to an active juice shop that had all the licensing, and we were able to circumvent all those costs by operating through a sublease from them. We initially rented a space that was tiny.

Bufano: We were making enough kombucha that we couldn’t fit it in the fridges we had, so we actually had to sell them when they finished fermenting, on the same day, since it needs to be refrigerated. So when the fermentation day was done, we’d immediately have to put the kombucha in our cars and drive it around to stores.

Q: Most new food brands I talk to have to start at a farmer’s market to get their name out there. You guys were able to get Wild Kombucha into local stores very quickly.

Bufano: We didn’t really go the farmers market route. We area in some now, but it’s really been in the last year that we started doing the farmers market thing because we felt like we weren’t connected as much as we liked to be to the community, we felt we took a step back in the wrong direction after a certain point. that’s why we started the farmers market program so we could be back in it.

Q: Your production and offices are on the same site; you’re not using a copacker. Why was that important to you, to have everything on site?

Bufano: Company culture to us is really important. Creating a team of people that all have a common goal that we’re all working towards, you really feel more unstoppable in that sense. If you separate people – we noticed this with some of our offsite sales people that were in Philly – we felt disconnected. We always had trouble making them feel like they were a part of the team. We wanted to make them feel a part of the team as much as possible. We want to keep everyone as close as possible. A lot of our demo team actually works out of our facility and we pay for them to travel farther away to do demos and come back to the Baltimore office.

Malarin: With the copacking, or lack thereof, we produce everything in house. It’s been really important because, initially for us, it was very important to have full control of the product. Learning how to scale up and how to control it. At the end of the day, if you’re not making your own product, you’re just the middle man. We saw that go into effect in very negative ways for people that we’re friends with, people at other local companies. Once the copacker realized they were doing well, they’d raise their prices.

Bufano: Just relying on someone like that for your whole company and your whole product, that’s too big of a risk for us. Quality control is super important to us. We are right there all the time, making sure everything is how we like it.

Q: That enables you to be out on the production floor, too, monitoring brewing.

Bufano: Oh yes, I am right there. Watching the mother kombucha, singing to the cultures.

Q: How did you get funding to start Wild Kombucha?

Bufano: It was about $5,000 a person that we just put in.

Malarin: Shortly after, we signed a lease for a new space, but we did not have the money for it. We needed like $30,000 in the beginning. So we entered a business competition and the top prize was $30,000. So we signed the lease, then we went to the business competition and we won. It was called the Shore Hatchery at the Salisbury University Perdue School of Business, it’s a one-minute timed pitch, “Shark Tank” style. But they don’t take any equity, they just give you money, a grant. The most you can get it $45,000, but the most you can get at one time is $30,000. So we came and got the other $15,000 during the next competition.

Bufano: If that didn’t happen, we would have had to pull out of that lease. We would been a very different company.

Q: What would be your advice to other entrepreneurs wanting to start a fermentation brand.

Malarin: Don’t do it alone.

Bufano: I’d agree. Having the three of us was so amazing. If one of us was having a tough time, we could lean on the other person. You really feel lonely if you do something alone especially up to this caliber, you sacrifice your social life. Have a partner, give them some equity, do it together.

Q: Where do you see the future of the fermentation industry?

Malarin: It’s only going up. Soda sales have been tanking for a better part of the decade, if not longer, and there’s a lot of things coming in to fill the void. This whole expo is a testament to that.

Bufano: The awareness for kombucha seems to be growing faster than the industry is growing, the market share doesn’t seem to be getting smaller even with more companies popping up. More people are getting educated about kombucha.

Malarin: A lot of the other kombucha companies on the market help us, if they’re doing it the right way. Because they educate people on it, then those people, when they come into our area, they’re much more likely to try our product.

Bufano: It’s between 5 and 10 percent of the U.S. population that doesn’t know what kombucha is.

Sergio: Very few people know about it still, so there’s a lot of room for growth.

Q: What challenges do you think fermented drink producers and kombucha producers face?

Bufano: It might not be as big as an issue anymore, but just educating the government agencies about what kombucha is, that’s been a huge hurdle for us. Especially in smaller cities if you’re the first fermented beverage company that opens there. Educating them about it, especially the health department, that was huge for us. You have to create a whole other category for yourself.

Malarin: It will be nice too when there’s more regulation on labeling kombucha. Right now, people throw kombucha on whatever they want and it’s not kombucha at all. Its misleading and it’s confusing to people.

Bufano: We look forward to the day that kombucha is labeled correctly, so you can see what is authentic kombucha and what isn’t.

Q: What strengths do you think kombucha producers bring to the industry?

Malarin: I feel like a lot of kombucha producers in one way or another are very tied to the communities they produce in. Much more than these huge conglomerates, so I think it brings this much more dynamic side to business that a lot of these huge corporations just can’t have. It’s changing the whole way business is done, reverting to something a little more personal.

Bufano: What I’ve seen from other kombucha companies, they treat their employees really well, at least what we’ve seen so far. I think that’s kind of been a norm in the industry, which is pretty cool.