The Humm Kombucha story can be traced back to a friendship that was formed over some hard hit tennis balls, and discussions around kitchen tables.
Those discussions, occurring during a time when the recession was hitting Central Oregon especially hard, led to the launch of a consumer brand that has seen explosive growth in an ever expanding category. They are looking to be trailblazers in the kombucha market – a market that is growing at a 25% yearly clip and is estimated to hit $1.8 Billion by 2020.
But that growth has never led them away from from those early roots. Friendship, family, community, and having fun are elements that remain at their core, even as the wild ride is picking up speed.
Bringing a family recipe to market
Bend or Bozeman?
Humm Kombucha Cofounder and CEO Jamie Danek and her family were looking to enroll their son in an Outward Bound program, and they had narrowed their city choices down to two. Jamie had run a successful recruiting business on the east coast, and her husband was a contractor. The recession hit and the economy in and around Bend started to decline. The contracting work evaporated and the number of other opportunities was waning.
It was around this time that Jamie had a chance encounter with Michelle Mitchell on a local tennis court. Both of them were beginners, but that didn’t stifle their competitiveness, and after a day of hitting hard shots back and forth they sat down and became fast friends.
During one of their many discussions they tried some of Michelle’s mother in law’s kombucha, which was not especially tasty. Michelle’s husband then tried brewing his own kombucha, and while marginally better than his mom, it still left a bit to be desired. Michelle then tried her hand at brewing up her own kombucha – and they were onto something.
Michelle started to brew more and more kombucha. She and Jamie realized that they felt really good while they were drinking the kombucha and decided they wanted to bring the health benefits of the beverage to a larger audience so that more people could experience the same feeling. They started going door to door and putting up posters around Bend, which created the initial sales pipeline for what was then called Kombucha Mama.
Around this time retail locations started to inquire how they could get Kombucha Mama on their shelves. But without any wholesale program set up, they could not seize on those early opportunities. Jamie and Michelle made the leap and hired a brewer. This helped to increase production, but kombucha takes a long time to brew, and thus, they had an ever growing waitlist for delivery.
But they saw the potential and kept hustling – growing the business step by step and day by day, while taking no salaries for years.
The early focus from a flavor standpoint was the Original, a mate based kombucha. It was well received and allowed Kombucha Mama to get early recognition and brand loyalty. Flush with this early traction they started experimenting with new flavors by pumping fresh fruit and vegetable juices into the kombucha. Jamie and Michelle would go to the local farmer’s markets and get ingredients, then head back and work on new flavors.
As the product line evolved, they decided to put the kombucha on tap, which was a first. They sold kegs to local coffee shops and allowed them to pump in the juices they wanted.
They had an ever increasing sales pipeline and increased brand awareness. It was time to bring kombucha to the masses.
Brewing up a growth strategy
The production and operations required for kombucha are capital intensive. They were self financed for 4 years and then did a convertible note to raise additional funds and expand the production to keep up with the sales demands.
In addition to the capital, Jamie and Michelle had a keen awareness that they needed to hire the right people. Kombucha was a fairly new category in the beverage world at the time and thus, not only did they have to oversee operational concerns that any craft beverage company would encounter, but they also had to lead with education to consumers. If there was to be mass appeal there had to be mass awareness and understanding as well.
Much of that understanding is around the health benefits of kombucha. The beverage can help balance your ph, contains a high percentage of your daily Vitamin B12, improve digestion (probiotic), improve joint mobility (glucosamines), and strengthen your immune system by being packed full of antioxidants. But being a keystone player and driving home that education in a new market takes time, which is something Jamie and Michelle realized but never dwelled on. It was simple in their minds – kombucha makes you feel great, and so more people should be drinking it.
And with a goal to be on the shelf of every grocery store, they started wondering if Kombucha Mama was the name that not only created new brand awareness on the shelves, but more importantly conveyed what they had been experiencing and seeing as the company grew. There was a sense of happiness and energy around the drink. People drank it and became a part of the tribe – a movement. They would hum a tune and enjoy the day. Thus, Humm Kombucha was launched. It’s a brand name that captured how they felt about the product, and how they wanted the brand to relate to the masses. It was a name that resonated with a large and diverse group of new customers.
And so it was with a new brand that they expanded sales and started working with Cascade Couriers to deliver in Bend and Eugene, and at the 4 year mark signed on with a distributor who took a chance on them. In addition to the distribution expansion, they opened up a taproom at their facility. Jamie saw this as a place where personal interaction could take place.
“ The taproom was unique and allowed the team to create true brand experiences with the products. It was a place where brand evangelists would come, and then who in turn helped to promote it to a larger crowd.”
That larger crowd is where Humm, and kombucha in general, is headed. The vertical is still young and on the precipice of huge growth. Up to this point the focus of many kombucha brands has been more towards the health stores and natural food groceries, while the big potential is to bring kombucha and Humm to a more broad consumer base.
That’s where Jamie and Michelle have been aiming. They’ve done deals with WinCo, Safeway, and 7-Eleven, and also brought Humm to Seahawks Stadium (CenturyLink Field). The NFL and kombucha seems like an unlikely pairing, but it’s led to interest from other NFL teams around the country. They also recently added a nationwide deal with Target to their sales pipeline.
Humm has expanded their facility from 5,000 sq. ft. to 30,000 sq. ft. and will be hiring an additional 30 people to meet the growth opportunities head on. This new expansion will allow them to quadruple their brewing production, but they are leaving their taproom and retail location at its current location. This is where the brand interacts with the community – a community that has and continues to mean so much to Humm.
They started the business during the recession without really knowing anybody, and the community welcomed and supported their venture with open arms.
“ Bend is unique and has a strong sense of place. People want to live here and it’s led to a happy population, one that truly gets the idea of community. Everyone is willing to help out or answer questions,” explains Jamie.
This ideal of community and giving back is ingrained in both Jamie and Michelle. They are always willing to lend an ear, or offer up some feedback to other founders and support organizations, including working with EDCO’s (Economic Development for Central Oregon) food and beverage industry cluster initiative.
Being a keystone brand in a rapidly growing industry has put the team at Humm Kombucha on a wild ride, but they would not have it any other way. They will continue to hum with happiness and bring that thirst for adventure to a wider and wider audience.