How a Corporate Lawyer Became a KC Syrup Maker, Cocktail ChemistDavid Cawthon
So often we hear about people who decided to leave their day job to work for themselves. Maybe it’s a passion project, a hobby or a side hustle you’ve thought about expanding or pursuing full-time. Cheryl Bisbee did just that and left her corporate job at H&R Block to focus on her own line of gourmet syrups that can take that boring drink and crank the flavor up to 11.
It hasn’t been easy, but she also didn’t go it alone. She got her free Personal Action Plan from KCSourceLink to help her take the next steps for her business. Here’s how she’s navigated the obstacles when things got sticky and the lessons she’s learned that can help any entrepreneur:
Cheryl Bisbee is in the business of sweetening your favorite adult beverages. She makes syrups … some that smell and taste like a bouquet. Why? Well, if you know a little about making cocktails, you know you often have to whip up those weird (but yummy) boozy sweeteners yourself, and it can be difficult.
Depending on the drink recipe, syrup ingredients can be tough to find—who has rose water on hand … let alone actual roses? Hibiscus? Hibi-what-cus?
Dear amateur cocktail chemist, Cheryl sees you’re in pain, and she’s got the anecdote. After working 23 years as a corporate lawyer, Cheryl left her job and started Boozy Botanicals, which as the name implies, often melds floral tastes with other spices in a variety of organic syrups.
To start, she threw in a few ingredients from her past (a passion for cooking, wanting to run her own business, a love for throwing parties, knowing what tastes good) and cooked up a delicious business with the support of Kansas City’s entrepreneurial community.[[CTA]]
But not even three years into her journey, the successes and the struggles have been a rollercoaster, and Cheryl says there are tough lessons you can only learn by doing.
The Recipe for a Business
When Cheryl was doing some syrup alchemy in her home kitchen in Kansas City, she says she added ingredients she thought would work well, strange flavors (aside from the fruit syrups that already proliferate the market) that were still approachable. Fresh flowers? Yep. Fresh herbs? You bet. All locally sourced with no preservatives.
Yummy syrup in hand, she needed to find a sweet spot in the marketplace. Step one? Start drinking (err, “doing market research.”) Unlike the U.S. coasts, Cheryl says syrup companies aren’t really common across the Midwest. She visited the coastal Meccas to taste the competition and evaluated their prices to figure out her own. She quickly noticed she couldn’t compete with the big national (and international) names, but she knew she could offer something more than just generic vanilla or fruit syrups.
Bingo. She found the gap her business could fill.
After she tinkered with some syrup ideas and settled on a few, she was ready to take her operation to the next level … but first had to make sure her business was compliant. OK, it’s not the most exciting thing, but it’s a vital part of the process for any food operation and can help avoid future business hangovers.
She sent samples to Kansas State University, where they made sure she got off the ground with testing and processing. Her syrups had to be shelf stable, meaning the pH level had to be just right so they would last on the shelf. Then, there was the process of sterilizing the bottles, which meant getting each one above 180 degrees. She even took some canning classes.
After she was ready to expand her business beyond her home kitchen, she says a local spot in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, let her cook up her concoctions in its kitchen to meet those U.S. Food and Drug Administration requirements and inspections. But there was another looming issue.
“Once you have a great food product, how are you going to get it to people, especially when it’s kind of weird?” Cheryl says. “Everybody knows what jams and jellies are. Everyone knows what barbecue sauce is. But not everyone understands syrups.”
Educating Retailers and Consumers
Consumer education is part of Cheryl’s marketing plan, so she’s personally taken her knowledge straight to customers. She’s done a slew of tastings and samplings that show consumers how her syrups can spice up a boring cocktail and how customers can use her syrups in their own boozy concoctions or in other things, like teas, desserts and more. “It’s all about consumer awareness,” she says.
And after she does her spiels at retailers, she says some tell her she’s ahead of the curve in the region.
“Some of my biggest clients at first were some small gift boutique shops, like Urban Provisions and Made in KC stores,” she says.
But she has aspirations to grow bigger to the point where more distributors will pick up her syrups. And that’s why makers should carefully research to ensure their product is at the right price point. If you don’t, it could be a dire blow to your business.
Calculating Her Craft and Finding the Right Price
Pricing your product requires careful thought and planning. Cost of goods sold, your margin, retailers’ margins and distributors’ cuts (which usually come out of the maker’s pocket). It’s a delicate balance, especially if you later find out you have to raise prices … retailers won’t like that.
So how else can you do it without cutting into your profits? You can’t. And because of careful planning and foresight, Cheryl says she was able to eventually cut her prices for the consumer to get more bottles into more buyers’ hands.
Even still, there’s a stage where all those considerations can make growth pretty tough for makers in the food industry.
“You’re in a weird spot,” Cheryl says. “In the beginning when you’re hand crafting everything, you’re paying so much for your ingredients because you’re not buying in bulk.”
Wholesale stores like Costco might offer some price savings on ingredients, but Cheryl says it’s not a lot. She says her operation has reached a strange middle ground, where she’s still navigating the gap until she can buy ingredients and supplies in bigger amounts. She says she’ll have to continue to overspend on those costs until she can scale. She also says packaging is a big hurdle; as her operation grows, she’s looking beyond just the 12.7-ounce bottles for home bars to larger 750ml bottles for pros in the food service industry.
These pricing questions are only the beginning of a long list of ingredients to make her business grow:
“How many syrups do we need on retailers’ shelves?” Cheryl asks. “How are you going to differentiate yours from the others next to it? The syrups must last. A consumer might buy your product a year after it’s on the shelf. Can that small business stay in business long enough until people are buying the brand?”
Creative Outreach, Online and In-Person
When it comes to selling products, it’s not just what’s on the shelf, but also what’s online. Social media has also been a free service that Cheryl says is vital to her business growth: cocktail pictures and Instagram are a perfect pairing. But she didn’t magically inherit prowess on those platforms overnight. It was something she had to teach herself.
And beyond that, Cheryl says she jumps on any opportunity that comes her way.
“I tend to say ‘yes’ to many collaborations or events,” she says. “I’ve given the syrup away. I love doing charitable events or coming up with cocktails for fancy parties or VIPs for a fundraiser.”
It’s at events like those that Cheryl will help the bartender or caterer come up with a signature cocktail using her syrup, hopefully converting new customers — not just those who consume the drinks, but also those who make them.
It’s Not Just What You Do; It’s Where You Do It
She says she does whatever she can do to get her product in front of potential consumers. And she says doing what she does in Kansas City has its perks.
“This town is so supportive of our local startups and our local businesses,” Cheryl says. “This is a great environment to have started in. People are very open to trying KC products in Kansas City.”
And that community network also translates to resources in KC that have helped her business.
“Along the way, people have referred me to people who have just become angels in my life,” she says. “My label designer is one of those angels. A small startup woman-owned company called KC DigiCAL prints my labels. She met me at one of my tastings.”
On top of those connections, Made in KC helped Cheryl get her gift box squared away. (You can find her products at their stores.) Once she chose what three bottles were in the set, she had to figure out how to get the product into boxes. That’s when she turned to Ability KC, which helps children and adults with disabilities. One of its many services, it employs people with disabilities to help mix or package items for local entrepreneurs like Cheryl. She says she plans to use the service again.
“Sometimes entrepreneurs aren’t good about reaching out, but once we do, we find support,” she says.
Growing into the Future
That support has helped her move her business forward. Three years ago, she was still mulling over labels for her bottle. Now, she’s gearing up to celebrate three years of business in late summer. While she still does have a home office and some stock in the basement, most of it is offsite at a place called Maser Industries in Lenexa, Kansas, which handles the bottling and distribution.
And she has goals. She wants her sales in St. Louis to exceed that of Kansas City. And she’s heading to Denver and hoping to make inroads in what could be the next state where her products are sold.
No matter where her business goals take her or her products, that entrepreneurial spirit will keep fueling her dreams.
“I always had it in the back of my mind I was going to do this because even as a lawyer, I sought out things that were more entrepreneurial than actually practicing law,” she says. “I think I’ve always had it in my blood.”
Where will your entrepreneurial dreams take you? Well, you’ll need real action and a plan to get there. KCSourceLink can craft your personalized action plan to get your business off the ground or help it reach the next stage.