Entrepreneur: After graduating from Virginia Tech, Leslie Crews started brewing kombucha—the probiotic tea drink believed by many to have health benefits related to digestion and mood—in the spare bedroom of her Virginia Beach townhouse.
“Aha” moment: Crews, a onetime bartender, brewed various flavors of the fermented beverage for herself. When she showed up at parties with bottles of her concoctions, friends fell in love and started placing orders. “I decided it was time to get out of the spare bedroom and set up a legitimate business,” recalls Crews, who left her job as a government contractor in 2010 to start Kombuchick.
Popping the top: With $1,500 from her savings account, Crews rented space in a commercial kitchen, purchased bottles and ingredients, and started selling Kombuchick at Norfolk’s Five Points Community Farm Market. Her sophisticated flavors—chai stout, chai light, jasmine light, hibiscus haze—attracted a lot of attention.
“People treated it like a bar, hanging out and asking me to pop a bottle while we talked. We even had people starting tabs and leaving gratuities,” Crews says. Eventually she embraced the idea and turned the booth into Kombuchick Bar, serving pints of kombucha and kombucha-based nonalcoholic cocktails.
In 2013 a friend invited Crews to serve her kombucha mocktails at a corporate event. That led her to launch a catering division of the business to serve kombucha at weddings and other events.
Brewing support: As Kombuchick gained a following in Norfolk, Crews was featured in the local press. The attention led to multiple entrepreneurship awards, including the 2013 SCORE Foundation Outstanding Young Entrepreneur Award. “I didn’t realize that starting a business would lead to an avalanche of awesome,” Crews exclaims.
Local retailers started contacting her about stocking Kombuchick in coffee shops and organic markets, and she raced to keep up with demand. Instead of taking loans or partnering with investors, Crews relied on cash infusions from fans.
“I had friends and customers handing me $50 or $100 to keep the business going, [and] customers who believed in the brand purchased equipment like a fermenting tank,” she explains.
Healthy business: As Kombuchick’s popularity grew, so did sales. Crews says revenue in the first quarter of 2014 was triple that of the last half of 2013 (she declined to provide specifics or more recent numbers).
A bottle of Kombuchick sells for $4; mocktails cost $5 at Kombuchick Bar and private events.
Toasting the future: Kombuchick manufactures 300 bottles of kombucha per week—a fraction of what’s needed to meet the demand from retailers and direct-to-consumer sales through Kombuchick
Bar at the farmers market. Crews bottles her beverages by hand.
“The business has been built on bootstrapping and grassroots marketing, and now it’s time to take it to the next level,” she says. “I know the demand is there, but it’s going to take funding to keep the momentum going and accommodate vendors who want to carry our product.”
To expand her business, Crews plans to move into a larger production facility and purchase automated bottling equipment. She is pursuing grants for $56,000 in the hope of increasing production this year to 5,000 bottles
What’s next: Kombuchick will be sold through local and regional mid-Atlantic health-food stores, markets and cafes
in 2015. Crews is also researching opportunities to franchise Kombuchick Bar.