The official launch of HumbleMaker Coffee was in 2016. With a strong message and a great concept, the brand is here to stay. Today, I have the pleasure of talking with Chris Smith one of the Co-Founders, at Humblemaker Coffee Co.
Bryan and I have known each other since the early 2000s when we worked together on a startup eyewear brand where he served as creative director and I ran global sales and have been great friends ever since. Bryan stumbled into the cold brew business in 2011 and helped to launch the boutique craft coffee brand, Seaworth Coffee, which had some tangible success back when the cold brew category was just starting to take off.
During this same period, I worked in GM and CFO roles in the fashion lifestyle space with several emerging brands, but always had that entrepreneurial itch to build another brand from the ground up. Being that I was such a huge fan of cold brew along with Bryan’s creative instincts, I suggested that we start a new project that reflected our shared passions for coffee, surfing, music and the outdoors – while leaving a positive legacy that our young sons would be proud of one day.
Neither of us had a deep knowledge of the food & beverage space but felt that we could leverage our combined experience to create a successful lifestyle coffee brand. We started concepting the brand in late 2016 and brought it to market in early 2017 with our original two 7-oz. bottled cold brew products: the Little Victory and our hemp-based Bright White under the brand name Humblemaker.
We often get asked how we came up with the name Humblemaker. For us, it has two meanings. The first is very literal in that we are “humble makers” of product, of creative, of coffee shop retail experiences…this stems from both of our parents raising us to be humble in life. The second is we saw it as a positive play off the old term “widowmaker” – a life experience that shakes you to your core. We wanted to ask the question: What’s your Humblemaker? Or what are the things in this life that make you feel humble and grateful.
For us it might be watching a sunrise illuminate the desert for the first time or surfing off the coast of Maine in mind-numbing 34-degree water. It could be the day you get married, the day a child is born, or, in Bryan’s case, it could be the moment you understand that both of your children might be on the autism spectrum. It’s why we donate 10% of our profits to programs with children with ASD through our Ten For Autism non-profit.
As the brand and our resources grew, we wanted to share this concept with people and encourage others to tell their story with the hope of creating a community of like-minded individuals who appreciate great coffee and life’s simple pleasures.
We always had the idea to do a cold brew shot, but did not develop it until the summer of 2018, mainly due to lack of money : ) We always wondered why no one in the cold brew market was doing shots. When we traveled to other countries and cultures, especially in Europe, hot espresso shots were so prevalent in cafes and coffee shops. Funny story actually…when we first launched, we threw the idea of a shot out to a few local distributors and all of them said they were having a hard time selling juice shots and that cold brew shots were a terrible idea! As we all now know, juice shots have done very well since then and the shot category as a whole is a very exciting space to be in, and now the shot serving size is our most sought-after product. A lesson in trusting your gut, I suppose.
The idea to bring function into our shots was totally random. Last year, I attended Founder Made – a trade conference aimed at bringing future-minded, innovative brands and retailers together, with the sole purpose of meeting investors. While I was walking the show the first morning, a total stranger stopped me in the aisle and asked me if I was in the coffee business. He said he could help us add functional ingredients like vitamins and other wellness supplements to our coffee product. Later that afternoon we had a few drinks at the reception discussing how we could work together to incorporate the supplements into our bottled cold brew shots that were in development, and a partnership was born. This felt like the breakthrough differentiator we had been looking for, and I called Bryan right away. We both loved the idea and immediately started developing our new SKU’s to each have a unique functional benefit. After MANY rounds of testing and sampling, we settled on three new functional shot products to launch.
Each of our new functional cold brew shots is infused with various vitamins and minerals for targeted functions that we recently introduced at the New Beverage Showdown at BevNet with incredible support and response from the industry. The Boomtowne is our original, simply-black, triple-strength cold brew shot, with a complex multivitamin to support overall daily health. Inspired by Mexican coffees enjoyed on our surf trips to Baja, the La Fonda is brewed with pure organic cinnamon and cacao that has 20x the Antioxidants of green tea to help boost immunity. We also developed our version of Turkish coffee called the Black Sea brewed with real cardamom and clove packed with L-Theanine and Ginseng for enhanced memory and clarity.
We wanted our shots to serve people who are living an active lifestyle, whether that’s dropping the kids at school before heading to the gym or yoga class or putting in a day in the ocean or on the slopes or maybe even both in the same day, which we sometimes do here in California! They are packaged in a super convenient, wide-mouth, 2-ounce ready-to-drink bottle that’s meant to be consumed full strength, poured over ice or added to your favorite beverage. I love adding a La Fonda to my juice smoothies, too!
Creating a brand is very hard to do and being relatively new to the food and beverage industry we have certainly faced our challenges along the way! It was much harder for us than we’ve been accustomed to due to not having a rolodex of contacts for what we needed, not knowing the right vendors to work with or which partners to choose and trust. It was also difficult to develop products, packaging options and support our retail partners in the early going with limited resources.
Also, for me personally, learning the beverage industry lingo and metrics that retailers and distributors were speaking was definitely a learning curve. In my previous life I had been working with the likes of Nordstrom, Urban Outfitters, Barney’s, etc., and while the fundamentals and business objectives are the same, the terminology is much different. This has been a “Humblemaker” for me, but I’m learning the jargon. : )
All of that said, the single biggest challenge for us was not having the initial capital in place to execute our plan perfectly. We were confident that we could create a brand and products that had a great story behind it that people would want to use and share. It was frustrating knowing what we want to do but not being able to put strategies and ideas in motion as fast as we wanted to. Fortunately, we recently found a few visionary investors that believed in our plan, our mission and shared our vision, which has allowed us to start executing on some of those objectives. We’re excited to watch it all come to life now…2020 should be a breakout year for us.
As I mentioned earlier, Bryan has a very real, personal connection to the autism community. He has been an inspiration to watch in how he has so successfully juggled being an engaged dad, caretaker, business partner and creative machine. We decided that we wanted to take the opportunity we had to leverage this brand and business to have a really positive impact on those living with autism…especially kids, teenagers and young adults. We even have a few of the original members of the TOMS Shoes team as investors and advisors, and, as most know, they really set the bar for how to use business to make social impact. So we’ve determined that autism is our cause and we can use the success of Humblemaker to make a real difference.
As for Ten for Autism, it is a 501c3 non-profit created by Humblemaker to encourage for-profit businesses to donate up to 10% of their annual net profits to enable children with autism the opportunity to experience surfing, music, and the great outdoors. We structured it similar to Patagonia’s 1% for the Planet so that other businesses can join and donate up to 10% of their profits or create training and job opportunities for teenagers and young adults that are on the spectrum.
The organization is designed to raise funds that are distributed directly to a network of autism-based nonprofits and to Humblemaker-sponsored events developed for children on the autism spectrum. These specially tailored events are therapy-based, giving children living with autism the ability to experience a new world: discover the ocean & nature, enjoy music, and interact with peers of “typical” development. These unique peer interactions not only foster positive role modeling for children with autism, but simultaneously build self-confidence and encourage leadership skills with the “typical” children that participate.
So far with very limited resources we’ve been able to support other events hosted by A Walk On Water and plan to get involved with The A.skate Foundation. We’ve also been able to work with a student program through Los Alamitos High, a local high school near our shop in Seal Beach, where students come in a few days a week to learn how the shop operates. We show them everything ranging from folding boxes to making lattes on the espresso bar. It’s beautiful to be able to see their confidence grow from week to week and know that they are part of the Humblemaker crew.
We’ve had good fortune the last 12 months starting with finding and opening our first brick & mortar shop on Main Street in Seal Beach, being selected to the Kroger Innovation Summit, being picked up by great retailers like Erewhon, Rainbow Acres and Co-Opportunity locally here in LA as well as being selected as a semifinalist in the New Beverage Showdown at BevNet. Most recently, we just closed our Pre-Seed round and have a handshake deal on our second location coming soon to the LA area, but I’d have to say our biggest achievement so far has been the opportunity to work with Sprouts on a national level so early in our lifecycle. Thank you for believing in us, Sprouts!
Now that we have the proper resources in place, it will be to grow our wholesale business and support our retailers with marketing initiatives, launch our coffee subscription program through our new website (launching soon), and open that second cafe location in LA this summer. I know that’s more than one, but they are all as equally important to us and the plans we have to grow this year. I guess you could sum them all up as a goal to greatly expand awareness and influence this year.
We knew this was a different space from our background in the lifestyle-fashion world and knew it was going to present challenges just like any other business we’ve been involved with, but I didn’t fully grasp how much capital is needed to truly compete in the beverage industry. I would have told myself that we’re going to need a bigger boat and to fill it all with working capital. I’m half kidding, but I think the advice would be to surround myself with some industry vets earlier in the process to accelerate building the network, partners and relationships. We have that in place now, and we’re starting to cook. It’s exciting to watch it evolve.
For more information visit Humblemaker’s website.