Bill Dessel, cofounder of Keel vodka and owner of Billy’s Restaurant in Barrington, RI, shares what he’s learned about the spirits business.
As a restaurant owner for the past five years, I figured that it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to branch out and launch my own vodka company. Although bringing a new spirit to the market is an exciting proposition, it requires a combination of sleepless nights, dogged determination, nerves of steel and the unfailing belief that your product is going to influence consumers, retailers and restaurants to keep those orders coming.
I often describe the first year launching Keel vodka as the scenery you experience in a car driving 90 miles per hour–an exciting blur of color and emotion, but never enough time to slow down and truly appreciate it. Now that I have a few miles in my rearview mirror, I wanted to share 10 things that I’ve learned so far on this incredible journey.
1) When it comes to your brand, YOU must own it. This holds true for both the restaurant and liquor business. You can have as many consultants, professionals and friends supporting you, but no one will ever care about your brand as much as you do.
Understanding that fact and taking ownership from the beginning will avoid any confusion as to who’s in charge of your brand’s destiny. Although my partners and I are blessed with a wonderful team of advisors and professionals in their respective industries, it’s our voices and decisions that make or break our brand.
2) Don’t try to get funding out of the gate. We decided–and were fortunate enough–to be able to self-fund our brand for the first year. This gave us time to learn more about our markets, how consumers differentiated us from other vodka brands, what events and appearances resonated most with our audience and were worth the time and effort, and conduct market research that gave us insight into the hearts and minds of our consumers.
3) Different markets, different rules. Selling vodka in Rhode Island, our home state, is quite different than marketing it in Florida, New York or even San Francisco. As the owner of a single restaurant, I only had one state to worry about, but as our vodka begins its expansion into new states, we’re finding that there are different rules or ways to do business depending on where you are in the country.
For example, we can do tastings at liquor stores in Massachusetts but not in Rhode Island. So be sure to educate yourself about how it’s done in a particular state before you think about expanding your brand there.
4) Learn to let go of some of your original vision for a new reality. Sometimes, the initial vision you have for your brand isn’t the same as how customers perceive it. When we created Keel, we had a sailing theme in mind, our bottle is a sailboat, the word Keel is spelled out in nautical flags and the images we had in our minds were of sand, sun and sailing–people who maintain an active lifestyle.
Our market research indicated that while we were right with customers when it came to the active lifestyle part, our vision was off on the sailing piece, as few respondents were influenced by the nautical tie to the brand. So be open to changing direction or adjusting your course if hard data proves your initial concept needs to be adjusted.
5) Ask loved ones to embrace your vision and the time it takes to get there. One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced this year is balancing work and family life, which is ironic when you consider our tag line is “Stay Balanced.” My work day starts around noon and ends when the bars close.
I’ve learned to do things in the morning like schedule doctor’s appointments or school meetings and our families have made sacrifices along with us because they believe in our work and the product. If you are considering launching a spirit, have a frank discussion with your family before you do so that they are aware of the incredible time commitment it takes to do it right.
It’s also important to have business partners who share the same vision and values that you do. In my case, Keel’s cofounder Tom McGowan helps maintain balance.
6) Having a celebrity partner or spokesperson is not a guarantee that your brand will succeed. We are fortunate that Keel’s third partner is former NFL offensive lineman and three-time Super Bowl champion Matt Light of the New England Patriots. His name recognition and commitment to the brand has given us significant leverage in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but when we leave our hometown borders, it’s not as important.
What is important, though, is that Matt is an engineering graduate from Purdue, has a remarkable business mind and uses his NFL team-focused training to push forward and get the job done.
7) Never underestimate the power of your network. The colleagues, suppliers, friends, family members and network of people who have helped us along the way is astounding. We spend a lot of time sharing information about Keel and our plans, answering questions and doing everything we can to keep the brand “top of mind.”
I’ve used my restaurant Billy’s to showcase Keel, test drive new cocktails and concepts, and the liquor store owners close to my restaurant have benefitted from carrying our brand because we’re always coming up with new and creative ways to promote it. They, in turn, share our success with their network and these relationships have enabled us to take advantage of some incredible opportunities, such as pouring our vodka at a Mark Wahlberg movie premiere as a result of those connections.
8) View your brand through a restaurant or retail store owner’s lens. This was the most eye-opening for me as a restaurant owner, because I used to be that guy who always said “no” to new brands or special drink menus. Then I was on the other side, working with our distributor to convince restaurant owners that having a customized drink menu will make them more money.
Understanding your customers’ problems or concerns will make you more nimble when it comes to overcoming objections. The key to success with on- and off-premise retailers is that it’s not about you and your brand. It’s about their problems and how your product can help them increase sales or gain new customers.
9) Incentivize the distribution channels. Distributors have a thankless job–going from place to place stocking, ordering and promoting products to on- and off-premise retailers who are often skeptical of or skittish about new brands. You can’t be everywhere so you need a distributor who really gets your brand and is enthusiastic about promoting it.
Still, you have to do your part to incentivize your distributor’s team to keep your brand top of mind. Contests, promotions or other incentives and regular, consistent communications about what’s being said about your brand is crucial.
10) Turn critics into customers. Even if you have the best product on the market, there are going to be naysayers, haters or others who, no matter what you say, will never embrace what you’re selling. Our philosophy is “one and done.” We give it a shot to try and change their mind and if that doesn’t work, we move on. Don’t get hung up on your critics–they’re probably jealous that they didn’t have the idea first.
I often joke that we’re like a garage band whose first single just started playing on the radio. We’re enjoying our success but realize that we’ve got a long way to go before we hit the Top 40. For those of you who are thinking about starting the journey, I raise my glass to you.
Bill Dessel is owner of Billy’s Restaurant in Barrington, RI, and co-owner, along with Tom McGowan and former NFL offensive lineman Matt Light, are owners of Keel vodka, which launched in Rhode Island and Massachusetts in 2013 and is making its national debut this year. For more information, visit www.keelvodka.com