Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! We are the Simple Goodness Sisters, real-life sisters Belinda Kelly (4 years younger, the bartender) and Venise Cunningham (the older sister and the farmer.) We are a lifestyle beverage brand focused on bringing the world a Happier Hour, from garden to glass.
The products we make are “farm to bar” mixers and accessories for drink making and entertaining, made with edible flowers and herbs we grow on our sustainable cocktail farm. The products are completely natural, without additives or chemicals for the best taste and product possible. Our mission is to help people celebrate their lives and build community around a round of drinks. We believe everyone should get an invite to Happier Hour, so we market our drink syrups for cocktails and alcohol free cocktails alike, and have customers buying them for dessert, breakfast, and ice cream toppings as well.
The first product we launched were our simple syrups. The syrups launched in three flavors in Fall 2018 (Rhubarb Vanilla Bean, Marionberry Mint, and Huckleberry Spruce Tip), followed by 3 additional flavors in Spring 2019 (Lemon Herb, Berry Sage, and Blueberry Lavender), and edible flower salts and sugars for rimming in Fall 2019. During that time we pushed our ability to grow, harvest, and package in a major way, growing at a rate of 4 times our original production, with quite a learning experience along the way. We both come from a technical background in corporate Seattle, so organic farming, food production, and entrepreneurship are all areas we’re learning by doing, and Google!
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
In 2015 Belinda left a job at Microsoft University Recruiting that required a lot of travel and wouldn’t work for her other new job title of “mom.” She took a work from home position on the same team at a much lower pay level (yes, that sucked) and decided to explore her interest in entrepreneurship. With 4 hours daily saved by not commuting, she had the time to work on an idea she’d had for a mobile bar business.
Having been responsible for hundreds of events over her 6 years at Microsoft, she saw a gap in the catering world of Seattle and thought a mobile bar company that raised the bar on drink quality, presentation, and service would be well received by tech companies and the greater events industry. While never a bartender, she had enough experience in the service industry and enough hutzpah to begin studying cocktails voraciously and apply for a business license. She decided to up the ante (and the effort!) further with a farm to bar, craft beverage program supported by her sister Venise’s farm and others in the rural community of Enumclaw, WA, their HQ.
At that time, Simple Goodness Farm was a garlic and goats (mostly) hobby farm for Venise and her growing family (the sisters had their first babies within two weeks of one another.) Venise worked in HR at the real estate startup Redfin and commuted downtown daily while also managing the herd and fields in her free time.
Simple Goodness Sisters was just the title of a family-focused blog they wrote together to chronicle their days of mothering, gardening, canning food, and early adventures in farming. Belinda convinced Venise to give her some rows in the garden for herbs and edible flowers and started renovating a 1957 travel trailer in January 2016. The mobile bar launched in May and at the very first event, which was open to the public and at which her team served over 1,000 guests, the response for one particular drink stood out. The Genevieve, a gin, lemon, and rhubarb vanilla bean cocktail was the clear favorite, and clients couldn’t stop asking about the Rhubarb Vanilla Bean syrup in it.
In the intervening two years between the first event in May 2016 and the launch of Simple Goodness Sisters in Fall 2018, clients asked constantly how to recreate the fresh, delicious drinks from the bar’s menu at home. The mixers and garnishes were all farm-fresh and mostly sourced from Venise’s farm. Belinda had created unique flavor combinations that made drink recipes sing and showcased the best flavors of the Pacific Northwest, but when she explained that the magic was in the small batch, homemade mixers made with ingredients freshly picked from Venise’s farm, people’s eyes widened, and then glazed over, and it became very clear they would not be making the effort to DIY.
Venise, who’d transitioned from Redfin to a multi-titled hustling career of real estate and agricultural non-profit work, prompted her that one day they needed to bottle the mixers and meet the growing demand. At the same time, Belinda had begun to take more and more space in the garden with her ingredients until the Simple Goodness Farm was transformed completely into the first and only cocktail farm in the United States (as far as we know). The production far outpaced the demand from catering events and to waste anything she’d worked tirelessly to grow was demoralizing for Farmer Venise. The decision to produce the syrups on a bigger scale and bottle them for shelf stability to meet client demand was an easy one, while the path to learn how to do so took longer.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Creating a shelf-stable food product legally and safely, and with the fresh ingredients and ethos, they saw for their new company was no small task. Belinda was bogged down with her first business, which had grown rapidly by the summer of 2017, and babies at home. Venise had a new baby on the way, two other jobs and a farm to manage. We were determined to see it through and started asking questions, while dedicating $2,000 each from our personal savings to making our first product.
By studying the website of the FDA (which regulates food safety for retail products) and the WSDA (the Washington State Department of Agriculture, which regulate’s farm’s wholesale value-added products) it was determined that the product would need to be produced in an approved facility, meet recipe demands for safety, and be tested by an approved testing facility.
Much research was done regarding how to make a syrup shelf-stable. Google got a good work out and many calls were placed to learn that to avoid using additives that would affect the flavor, the recipe needed to be able to rely on the acidity of the ingredients themselves to meet the required PH for an acidified food. Venise sourced endlessly for a food co-packer willing to take on a small initial run of the product. Many local facilities would not package anything under a 100-gallon minimum batch size, with big price tags to match the big yields. Next the recipes needed to be tested and approved, a process that took months.
You don’t need to launch with a perfect version, there’s always room for revision. Launch with version 1, and know that you will have the chance to iterate and put out a V3 someday.
In the meantime, packaging was sourced. The vision for a recyclable, high-quality packaging that could stand proudly among the fancy liquor bottles on shelves was a tall, pricey order in the small, initial run quantities sought. A logo and label design were done by our cousin Sage, after more research on what a label must legally include. Liquor bottles of high quality, made in the USA glass and caps and shrink wrap tops were bought.
With each new thing crossed off the to-do list, we became a little more confident, and then three more new challenges would pop up. The initial three syrup flavors were intended to be made in counts of 500 bottles each, but onsite at the processing facility we realized some major recipe calculation errors had been made, and our actual yields were adjusted accordingly. We were just happy to have a trailer full of product to take home and unload and try to sell.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We’d drummed up as much excitement as we could for our first launch on our blog’s social media (having since spent hours upon hours transitioning its focus) and sought out every partnership, free press opportunity, and mentoring we could get. We emailed every newspaper, blog, podcast, radio show, magazine, and friend of our grandma to tell them about what we’d made. We launched the syrups officially at Proof, a distilling festival in Seattle in August 2018 where we rented a booth and sold syrups to the audience, while also hosting a talk on “How to Drink Garden to Glass” and networking with industry members.
We launched our online retail store, which we’d built ourselves through Big Commerce, in September. We took photos on our iPhones with white cardboard backgrounds and wrote our own descriptions. By then we’d each built our own websites from Square and WordPress and using Big Commerce was easier with the WordPress platform. We still use the same website today, though we’ve added to the product line considerably!
We pushed sales via the website and social media exclusively at first, and by the holidays, 2018, begun to get interest from wholesalers to carry the line. We sold mixed boxes of bottles to a few local coffee shops and distilleries, but sales online were promising enough for us to begin planning for our next rounds of bottling. By February, we’d sold out of one flavor and the others were soon to go as well. Up to this point we’d paid for no advertising outside of our Proof launch table, not even a boosted post on Facebook.
We decided to use the money we’d made from the first syrups to finance more rounds, and set an arbitrary goal to grow production by 3 times. Since our product was somewhat seasonal we needed to pounce on production, spring was coming soon. We also wanted to explore making our product easier to produce year-round, since it was reliant on very seasonal ingredients. We decided to make more of each of the three initial flavors, as well as launch three new ones that would have a greater focus on the cold-hardy herbs sourced from our own farm. This would give us greater cost margins but also allow us to produce syrups nearly year-round, if we sourced local frozen berries. The last thing we wanted was to make a product that required us to guess how many bottles we’d need 9 months in advance and when we were buying only fresh fruit in season, that was the case. The flavor and quality of some flavors went down when using frozen fruits, but in others quality was consistent and those flavors were the ones we rolled out.
Our packaging changed at this time as well, as we attempted to reduce costs for a workable profit margin. Our ingredient cost for our syrup, since we use whole fruits and spices and herbs, which is basically unheard of, is high and that can’t change significantly, so packaging and production costs needed to. We got the advice from industry peers that packaging should be under $1, which meant we needed to reduce our costs by almost half. The packaging would need to be bought in large quantities this time around, and we moved from a super pretty, tactile linen label that we’d love to a far more practical, wipeable coated paper.
Our production also needed to move to a more local company with lower costs. Finding this company and establishing a relationship with them was key, but teaching them our process and recipe was not without challenges. We make our syrup completely counter to the way it is commonly done in the food and beverage industry, which is usually with powders or concentrates, high fructose syrup, and citric acid. We stayed on-site for each of the following production days to lower staff costs but also to dial it in together. Our recipe is tedious and messy, and our relationship and patience with one another as we each learn the best way to make it has been key.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Today our challenge is to move forward with our online retail with as much vigor as we can, while also learning as we go the wholesale food business. We have the lofty goal of outsmarting the traditional food system to bring greater profits. Marketing will be extremely key to our success. Before we talk about marketing strategy though, we’ll need to explain why we decided to market directly to the consumer in the first place.
From the start, we’ve taken a unique view of distribution because we learned quickly how little the farmer + producer would keep off the profits in the traditional food system. A farmer makes next to nothing on sales of raw ingredients once land costs, water, labor, and materials are considered. A value-added product is one way a farmer can make a greater profit margin off of their land, by turning their raw product into something else exciting and useful, in our case, cocktails!
Traditionally a farmer sells ingredients at a wholesale price to a produce distributor. Then a food business buys the ingredients from the produce distributor and pays a co-packer to make the product. The food business then pays a distributor to distribute the product, then gives away even more profit margin to the final wholesaler. The farmer makes next to nothing in this system and the business owner also makes very little, only about the same chunk of money that the distributor and wholesaler make, once costs are accounted for. In addition, the business owner might pay higher costs by paying a food broker to help gain traction/accounts with distributors for a greater distribution footprint, ie, more stores in more places. We would like to succeed in using as few middlemen as possible, and we’ll use technology to do this.
To work as hard as we do to get such a small piece of the pie sounds really unappealing to us (indeed I am sure it does to everyone) and would necessitate having big-time investment money and huge, fast growth to draw any profits from the business. A small-time food business just does not make dollars and cents. A huge volume of sales and extensive distribution is the only way to profit... at least traditionally. Our aim is to use social media to share our story because we know our story sets us apart in our market and leads to sales. Then we aim to convert that “listener” to an engaged consumer. Direct to consumer sales via social media has been hugely successful in almost every category, though less often with food.
Our strategy is to maintain the majority of sales through our own website by using SEO, Facebook and Instagram ads, and a robust, lifestyle-focused social media strategy. We recognize that we do not only sell a food product, we sell the hope that so many share to get back to the land, grow their own food, and connect with one another.
We’re focused this season on paying for Google ads, Facebook and Instagram ads, and Instagram boosted posts to drive these online direct sales. We’ve begun to invest in website SEO with a marketing firm, Intellitonic, who will improve the backend of our site for better web rankings. Our site is well established, having been a blog for so many years previously, but when we converted it to our sales site we never did the full clean up of old posts and unrelated data that is still ranking us for keywords like “signs your goat is in labor” so that’s a big priority this year. We’ll be investing in a website “remodel” rather than a “rebranding.”
For Google and social media ads we have designed a few different ads, each slightly different than the next, with slightly different targets than one another, to see which keywords and which audiences perform best, for future ads. We’ve also been filming short videos that are focused on how you might enjoy our products “in the wild:’ outdoors around a fire pit, at a garden party, etc.
Paying for ads will be a considerable expense, but our bet is that over a year, this expense will still be far less than what we would have lost in margin. Maintaining authenticity throughout this shift is also extremely important to us because we know that while we could buy followers, you cannot buy engaged followers. We have a very high level of engagement with our social media followers and they truly buy into what we choose to share with them from our lives. We want to continue this relationship online while we grow. For this reason, we continue to send out a monthly newsletter, give hosting and recipe tips on our blog and on social, and share stories of the drinks we make after a fun day on the farm with the kids.
Wholesale is an entirely separate ballgame for us, and one we’re focusing on less for all of the reasons described above. We need to be distributed enough to help grow our brand (essentially we look at the wholesale market as a way to make sales while also “paying” for customer acquisition through our loss of margin, because the store helps us market,) but not so widely distributed that all of our time and attention is focused on trying to convince distributors to bring us on and cranking out huge volumes of product for very small profits.
Working with a handful of well-matched distributors for these accounts is an aim of ours because driving boxes all over kingdom come is not something we can do. We have believed from the start that if we just focus on telling our story and making a unique, quality product that businesses who share our ethos and customer base will come to us. And that has proven to be true, we are currently taking new accounts (we recently launched locally in New Seasons Markets and PCC, our first grocery chains) and are in talks with a couple of distributors.
Finally, PR is one of the most important parts of the business right now, because until people hear our story, our product is not fully understood. The fact that our syrups are naturally made with whole fruits and no additives is special, but the most unique part of our product is that the ingredients are mostly sourced directly from our farm, or other small family farms in our area. We can trace each ingredient except sugar back to a farmhouse, a family, a field, and that is huge for us and for our customers.
We were featured this past year on a FarmHer episode on national TV on the RFDTV channel, on our local evening news, and in the pantry section of Sunset magazinebecause of our commitment to tirelessly pursuing PR. We’ve also been on podcasts like Drink & Farm, The Forgotton Art, Mom Wants More, and the radio show Seattle Kitchen. We’ll continue to share this story in every avenue possible, including “How to Grow Cocktails” classes and workshops, “ask the expert” media opportunities, etc.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We are technically profitable already, but to us that is a sign that we haven’t grown quickly enough. We’re able to sell syrups and use the profits to continue to make more, pay for advertising, etc, but our overhead costs are currently low to the point of unrealistic, and we draw no pay from the business for our labor or time.
We know customer acquisition cost as we push forward our Direct To Consumer online strategy will be high, and that much attention to our media presence will be needed to retain those customers and lead to more sales. Ad costs and return on ad spend are not numbers we have yet, but that we will be tracking closely.
In about one year we’ve reduced our cost of goods by 250%, increasing our gross margin, quadrupled our production, increased our social media followers by 140%, and project our profit to increase by about (because of the combination of 4 x higher sales and 2.5 x less cost) about 6 times.
We have plans to expand into our own production space for some of our smaller, easier to self package products and to allow us to do smaller specialty runs of limited additional seasonal flavors, which will draw back customers to our site by keeping the inventory fresh. We will continue to co-pack larger production runs of our flagship flavors. We’ve certified our kitchen and will be investing in equipment and labor for this project.
One thing we’d like to work through is to eradicate our food waste footprint, and our own kitchen will allow us to do so by repurposing the syrup “leftovers” which are, essentially, jam, shrub, cider or beer flavorings, and bitters. We can reduce costs and waste simultaneously while launching new products. We love the idea of “killing two birds with one stone” and creating two products out of one harvest. Because we grow much of our own ingredients, eliminating our food waste isn’t just about the food that gets thrown away, but also the blood, sweat and tears that went into producing the ingredients.
We aim to expand wholesale to gain traction in the market and new customers, but overall after 3 years our goal is for only 30% of our business to be wholesale, with the other 70% of sales being direct to consumer.
Building our email list and continuing to establish ourselves in the media as expert entertainers and female farmers of the world’s first cocktails farm will be key to our retail success.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
One of the biggest things we’ve learned is to pursue opportunities that come your way before you feel like you have the tools or knowledge to do so. We tend to jump in, research, and get started, without letting fear or a lack of confidence in an area derail us. We’re pursuing this business at the right time when a focus on natural foods, farm to table eating, and craft cocktails are all at a high and we can’t afford to let our doubts slow us down. We haven’t been technically qualified to start either of these businesses, but we have, with success. We also live by the credo done is better than perfect. You don’t need to launch with a perfect version- there’s always room for revision. Launch with version 1, and know that you will have the chance to iterate and put out a V3 someday.
Starting a business with a co-founder has challenges but having done a first business alone, I’d pick a partnership anyday. The potential for tension, and the need to have clear, thoughtful communication are challenges but the benefit of having another voice, opinion, skillset, and 24 hours in the day far outweighs those challenges. As sisters, we have the benefit of knowing one another better than almost any other person on earth, and we’ve practiced communicating for 30 years. This is mostly helpful, because we can cut through the usual politeness and get down to the root of the matter, and we have a foundation of love for one another that allows us to rebound very quickly from disputes but to keep everyone focused and happy sometimes we have to remind ourselves to add some of that formality and politeness back in!
Ultimately our product is about forging community and connection through drinks and we’ve run our business that way as well, seeking partnerships and community wherever possible. It’s possible to see these efforts as derailments or money suckers or distractions. However, when we’ve given away our time, knowledge and product it has nearly always come back to us in a meaningful and profitable way, helping to bolster our young business.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use Square to process payments at onsite events and for wholesale invoices. It was easy and inexpensive to start and we like the easy to use readers we can connect to our phones so we have stuck with it.
Big Commerce for our online retail. We chose it because it offered the most affordable basic plan and it’s easy to navigate. Our website is through WordPress. This is what we used to start our blog way back when and we haven’t yet strayed, though it is not the easiest platform to get to know for a beginner, it allows for a lot of customization and potential for you to add your own code, lots of widgets, etc.
We use Gmail for our communications and Google drive, sheets, etc for working on projects with great mutual access and visibility.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I am addicted to the Cherry Bombe, a women in food podcast, and we recently attended the Seattle Jubilee for an in-person conference of inspiration, teaching, and networking.
I also listen to podcasts like StartUp (chronicles a start-up in year one), Second Life (all about women who pursue entrepreneurial dreams as a second pivot in their careers), Farmher (to learn from other women in agriculture), and Rooted in the Valley (about farming in America) for inspiration.
We also spend a lot of time reading on the Washington State Liquor Control Board website, WSDA and FDA websites! Getting comfortable with technical reading has been critical.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Don’t wait to start, don’t be afraid to ask questions, be kind to yourself in the process, and know before you start whether the lifestyle required for your business is feasible for yourself and your family. Be realistic because if you have a family at home, entrepreneurship becomes something every member is involved in and must continue to believe in. Think about what sets you apart and tell that story.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re looking to hire two interns currently: one person remotely or local, for focus on PR and social media reach out and other research work that takes up a lot of our time but is so valuable. The second would be seasonal for help with farming. They’d learn and work alongside us in the greenhouse, the field, and the market events we do to learn about how to grow, harvest, and sell product. To have driven, technically proficient, and enthusiastic individuals to join our team would be a HUGE help! The positions would be unpaid to start with potential for longer-term paid work, and we’re hugely excited about investing in these individuals as well, to really inspire the next generation of founders and entrepreneurs and agriculture/food warriors!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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