It started with a creative spark after trying kombucha tea. Robert Johnson has always been creative with a few Amazon best-selling books already under his belt. After trying to shake a soda habit, Johnson found this bubbly drink and decided to start-up something new in northeast Indiana.
We caught up with Johnson to ask him all about this beverage and his growing business, Crossroads Kombucha, which is expanding in the coming months into a new space in Fort Wayne.
So…what exactly is kombucha?
Kombucha is non-alcoholic, fermented tea. That fermentation process makes it a health beverage. Within each bottle is about two billion probiotics, so a lot of people drink it for health reasons.
What made you decide to open a business in northeast Indiana?
Back when I was just a consumer of kombucha, I’d go to the store to find new brands and flavors I hadn’t tried yet. It didn’t take long for me to realize almost every brand was imported from either California or Oregon. I thought it was a shame, as Fort Wayne has such a great appreciation for local products, farmers and businesses. The idea to create Crossroads Kombucha – a great tasting, locally produced fermented tea company – hit me in early 2016, and I tried really hard to get it up and running before anyone else latched onto the idea, which would have happened sooner or later.
If someone is trying kombucha for the first time, what flavors do you recommend?
Newcomers tend to gravitate towards the fruity flavors – mango + strawberry is a good one – strawberry + basil is another good first choice.
What would you say is the most unique flavor Crossroads Kombucha offers?
We do cinnamon peach, which really literally tastes like peach pie. It has that very unique flavor for a drink. That’s one of my favorites. We’re about to launch lavender grape, which is also a unique combination of two flavors in one.
Could you describe who is on your team?
There’s really three of us – myself, my wife Yvonne and then our operations manager, Tom Brookshire. He’s really the business mind behind Crossroads. I’m the functional mind behind it.
What is the biggest challenge you have worked to overcome in starting your business?
The greatest challenge by far has been meeting demand. We bypassed the standard farmers market route and went straight to retail in April 2016. Demand was so strong that we added 6 locations within the first two months as a business. Then, as word of mouth began to spread, we realized we had bitten off a bit more than we could chew. It wasn’t uncommon for bottles to disappear from shelves within hours (a problem we still deal with!), which set us back pretty bad for months, as it was the same story in each location. Just when we thought we were getting a handle on things and decided to add another location, word of mouth had spread again and we were back to struggling to fulfill demand. It’s a problem that sometimes plagues us still, but we can usually get shelves filled within a day of being empty.
Could you describe what you are doing during a typical business day?
This is going to change in January as we bring more people on who are going to be more involved in the labor side, which will free me up to do more business things – reaching out, traveling and visiting locations.
Currently, in a normal business day, the first thing I usually do would be getting the bottling out of the way, because that could take up to two and half to three hours – six days out of every nine days.
Then we do flavoring for new batches, so that might take an hour and a half or so. And then if we have any deliveries, those would come after that. Typically along with the deliveries I’m touching base with locations. Then usually all of the miscellaneous paperwork and invoicing – all those little fun things come in the afternoon.
How has the reception been so far to your products?
It was a hit from the start. Whenever we started selling them, I initially sold to friends and coworkers through Facebook. The first two and half hours we sold 60 bottles. That was the initial realizations that this could be big. [We] pitched to stores – they all said yes. They can’t keep them on the shelf, even a year and half later. I could fill up a store and within hours, they’ll be out. It’s been phenominal – that’s why we’ve decided to take the next step and expand.
How do you prepare to make a pitch to stores to sell your product?
I think we did it right from the start, which was figure out the brand. Figure out the logo. Make the product, make the bottle look like it’s not local. Make it look like it would fit in beside any other national brand. When we brought bottles in to pitch to stores, just the look alone sold them. Then they tasted it and they were doubly sold. Nailing that look, because that’s what’s going to draw a customer.
I had a friend who helped me out with the design. He created the logo and label design. He helped with some marketing materials and advice, but other than that it was really me from the beginning. We brought on other people about a year and half later.
What person has helped you the most in your journey?
I’ve had a lot of influential people guide, instruct and encourage me along the way. If I had to choose just one, it would easily be my wife. Back when we were first getting started, she prodded me on and gave me the confidence to continue forward to make this a “real” business that would soon become a career. Earlier this year, I had a serious accident that could have easily derailed Crossroads for good. Instead, she stepped into the gap and took control of the day-to-day work that I couldn’t do for about two months. She was and is a godsend!
Where are you hoping to be “X” amount of years from now?
My partner has mapped out a five or ten year plan, and 2018 is going to be a big jump for us. We are already in negotiations with two chain retailers that will put us in ten states by early 2018. I believe our track for 2019 is to be in 30 to 35 states.
We’re currently in the middle of our build-out on our new location that’s near Coliseum (Boulevard) and Lima (Road). That’s a 3,000 square foot facility. That will allow us to from the start multiply our output by ten times and then we’re going to ramp up month-to-month to meet demand as we expand out of Indiana. [In] 2018, we plan to hire between six to ten people.
What is some advice you would have for new entrepreneurs?
Surround yourself with encouragers and people who believe in you. The life of an entrepreneur – especially in the early stages – is stressful and tiring. Most people aren’t going to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. If you give the critics the loudest, most common voice in your life, you’re likely to give up before the magic happens.
For more information on Crossroads Kombucha, please visit their Facebook page.