As the owners of Springfield’s first locally based kombucha company, Spring Branch Kombucha, Jessica and Chris Ollis are frequently asked a key question: What exactly is kombucha?
“It happens any time we are out sampling in public or any time our retail booth at the farmer’s market is open,” Jessica Ollis said. “ . . . At least once every hour, someone would ask me, “What is kombucha?’ Or even people who like it would bring a friend and say, ‘Can you tell them what kombucha is?’”
The Ollises enthusiastically embrace that question and the opportunity it gives them to market their product — a fermented drink that falls under the umbrella of so-called functional beverages. Functional beverages are marketed to deliver certain health benefits.
Kombucha is a brewed beverage derived from a living organism called the SCOBY, also known as the mother. SCOBY is an acronym for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. Most commonly, the SCOBY is fermented in tea.
The result is a fizzy, tart beverage touted for both its antioxidants and probiotic properties, including supporting gut health.
The Ollises, as well as other kombucha companies in Missouri, have tapped into a fast-growing market in the state and around the world.
According to a Grand View Research report released in February, the global kombucha market was worth $1.67 billion in 2019 and expected to reach a market size of $7.05 billion by 2027.
The research firm said explosive growth in the industry is attributed to consumers’ increasing consciousness around healthy food and beverages, as well as their interest in maintaining healthy lifestyles.
That rings true for the Ollises.
“For us, it’s a healthy choice that is easy to make,” Jessica said. “It’s delicious, and I think people are looking for grab-and-go items that they can pull off the shelf and know that they’re putting something nutritious into their bodies.”
The right idea at the right time
The Ollises are relatively new to kombucha-making. About four years ago, Chris Ollis said he was brewing beer when he came across a book on how to brew kombucha. He made the switch, believing kombucha would be a healthier alternative to beer.
The couple came to selling kombucha from the banking industry — Chris remains a portfolio manager in addition to his work with Spring Branch Kombucha — and they said they had long been interested in the idea of owning their own small business.
“We never had the right idea at the right time,” Jessica Ollis said.
They decided to take the first step toward starting a kombucha business after Chris received Jessica’s full blessing.
“I wasn’t a huge fan of kombucha,” she said. “I drank it every once in a while for the health benefits, if I wanted something sort of fizzy and fruity that I knew would be good for me.”
At that time, however, she liked only one flavor from one brand.
“Just watching Chris going through the brewing process, I was like, ‘That’s great you’re doing that. I’m glad you’re enjoying it. Please keep it away from me,” she said.
Then Chris asked her to sample one of his brews: a blueberry-thyme flavor. To her surprise, she liked it, and she said she supported the endeavor.
After researching state regulations for manufacturing, they realized they needed to build a commercial production facility. They picked a location on the city’s west side.
Chris said building their own facility was a leap of faith akin to making a baseball field in a cornfield, as in the film “Field of Dreams.”
Once the building was finished, he said, calls started rolling in from people who were interested in buying kombucha. The company quickly found a distributor to sell its products in area health stores. Its kombucha also can be found in a variety of local businesses around Springfield, including coffee shops, bars and restaurants.
“We kind of put the ball in motion,” Chris said. “We’ve been reacting a lot since then in terms of the directions we’ve taken.”
The company sold its first product made in its new facility in March 2018.
‘An alternative’ to alcohol, soda
Across the state in the St. Louis metro is Companion Kombucha, owned by Tom Nieder and his wife, Tricia, of Maplewood.
The Nieders make their kombucha at a facility in Overland. They offer a roster of seven flavors, some of which are available on a seasonal basis.
Their kombucha can be found in 55 Whole Foods stores in Detroit, Minneapolis, Chicago and across the Midwest.
Prior to starting the company, Tom Nieder was a nursing home administrator. His background runs the gamut from being an entrepreneur to running an orthotics and prosthetics company and handling public relations for a hospital. His wife still works in health care — in addition to her work with Companion Kombucha, she also is a medical oncology nurse educator.
Nieder said he’s always been interested in food: When he was younger, he worked and cooked in restaurants, and in his personal life, he’s been the main cook in his relationships. But he’d never been exposed to kombucha before meeting his wife in 2009.
“She was already making kombucha, and I had never heard of it prior to her,” he said.
The two made it at home together, and Nieder said he enjoyed the endeavor. Then one day in 2014, he woke up with an epiphany: They should start a kombucha business.
The leap wasn’t too far, he said: The couple always had been drawn to healthy eating and living, whether through practicing yoga or becoming vegetarians.
“We looked into it and said, ‘Well, let’s do that,’” he said.
The couple took part in the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership’s food incubator program, found a commercial space in June 2014 and started working on their recipes. The company formally launched on April 1, 2015.
“I like to tell people, ‘No foolin’,” Nieder said.
In those early days, he spread word of the company by knocking on doors of local businesses with a Playmate cooler filled with the product, his sell sheets in tow.
By the end of August 2017, the space in which they were working closed, nearly putting the fledgling company out of business. They found their current location in March 2018, and Tom Nieder spent the next eight months building out their production facility.
Nieder said he saw the kombucha trend brewing long before it arrived. He’s noticed that young adults are drinking less alcohol and soda, and they are seeking an alternative when they go out to bars or restaurants. He said kombucha fits the bill for many in that space: there is less sugar in kombucha than many other drinks, and it also comes in a variety of interesting flavors.
“It’s an alternative, and they can drink it and go be active and leave and do something else,” he said. “It really does make you feel good. I tell people it’s a new kind of feel-good. You’re not going to do backflips, but a lot of people will notice it. You have a general sense of wellbeing.”
‘I hadn’t been sick in an entire year’
That sense of wellbeing also drew Amy Goldman and her husband Sean Galloway to sell kombucha through their company, The Brewkery in North Kansas City.
The two have a passion for fermented foods, and they had been exploring the idea of selling sourdough bread and beer for a business, she said. They tried selling sourdough bread at the farmer’s market for a summer and created their limited-liability corporation in 2015.
Then, a friend who made kombucha at home introduced Goldman to it. Her friend also shared some SCOBY and taught Goldman how to make it.
Goldman said their equipment for beer translated well to making kombucha. She started making it at home, and in time, she was making bigger batches and kegging it to sell at a farmer’s market.
By then, the couple was drinking kombucha daily, enjoying it and seeing its health benefits firsthand, she said.
“We went through that winter the next year, and I realized I hadn’t been sick in an entire year,” she said. “I attributed that to the kombucha, for sure, and just an overall feeling of health and detoxification.”
It took about six months to figure out how to establish a commercial kitchen to make the product, she said. They found a space in a shared commercial kitchen, and in April 2016, they distributed their first bottles of kombucha to area grocery stores.
Goldman and Galloway were able to keep costs low by self-distributing and operating in a low-cost space until they learned their commercial kitchen was being sold and they’d need to find a new home.
They found their current location in North Kansas City in an up-and-coming, industrial area with affordable rent. The new location gave them the opportunity to build out a fermenting room, brewery and kitchen on site.
After saving enough money from sales, they opened a taproom out front in February 2018. They sell kombucha on tap, as well as in cans under the label of Lucky Elixir Kombucha, and by the growler.
Today, they have a distributor, and their kombucha can also be found in Kansas City-area locations of Whole Foods, Price Chopper and Hen House, as well as all locations of the Roasterie Café and other locally owned businesses.
Each of the three businesses have seen sales drop from the COVID-19 pandemic, especially sales from local businesses that suddenly were unable to operate fully under stay-at-home orders.
Nieder said his company hasn’t yet switched to a direct-delivery model because it remains a small operation, but he’s keeping tabs on that prospect. He’s also considering the possibility of seeking outside investment in the company.
During a two-week time frame in March, the Ollises said, they had to quickly pivot from a draft-only business to a business selling product in cans.
“We had the equipment available to self-can and realized that, with the draft business taking a real hit, we were either going to have to do this or potentially be in some real trouble,” Jessica Ollis said.
Chris Ollis said self-canning has limited their output, however, and they’re quickly selling their entire product on a weekly basis. They’ve invested in new equipment to automate the canning process and sell more product, which they hope to have online in July.
They also implemented a home-delivery service within Springfield city limits, and they continue to sell at their local farmer’s market.
At The Brewkery, Goldman said overall sales are down about 60 to 70 percent.
“It was a huge hit for us,” she said.
The company was able to continue to sell cans and growlers from its location throughout the first months of the pandemic, and it set up an online store for curbside pickup. In May, it was able to reopen its taproom and eventually resume selling food on-site.
Before the pandemic, Goldman said the company was considering selling 12-packs of kombucha online to ship directly to customers. They’ve accelerated putting that process into place but have not yet rolled it out.
“I know that consumers are just buying so much more online right now, and so hopefully that will go well,” she said.