Brewed for business: Three partners find sweet success in the beverage game

Brewing kombucha was not part of Jeff Empric and Heather Lucas’ life plan. As a married couple, he was a busy sales manager, traveling a lot for his work, and she was a stay-at-home mom to their infant son, when they started brewing their own kombucha in their home kitchen in 2015. This is where the Bootleg Bucha story began.

They were mainly interested in the health benefits. Empric had acid reflux issues that were controlled with medication. So did his friend Todd Salansky, who introduced Lucas and Empric to this miracle elixir that was still pretty unknown in Western New York.

Brewing kombucha is a fun hobby, Lucas said. “When we started making it, there wasn’t anyone else making it locally. There weren’t a lot of options four or five years ago.”

The couple kept tweaking their recipes. Kombucha ferments in the same manner as sour dough bread, according to Lucas, where you have to begin each batch with a starter. Sweet tea and the yeast-based starter (called SCOBY) are blended and, with time, Mother Nature breaks down the sugar and starts the fermentation. From there, you can change up the flavor profile by adding other ingredients.

“You can adjust it to your own taste,” Lucas said. “You can make it a little more sweet or a little more sour.”

When the couple felt felt they had the right balance, they started sharing it with friends and family. The idea caught on. Fast.

An early challenge was convincing lawmakers that this concoction wasn’t some 21st century riff on moonshine. Empric traveled to Albany to work with regulators and educate them about the safety of creating a raw beverage. Kombucha was more popular on the West Coast, where the fruit-forward fizzy drink was renowned for its probiotics and other curative qualities.

In 2015, Empric, Lucas, and Salansky launched their business partnership with a 400-square-foot space in the Horsefeathers Winter Market on Buffalo’s West Side. Looking back, Lucas said, “We didn’t know what the future held for us.”

More and more people found their way to Horsefeathers and down the stairs to where Bootleg Bucha was blazing new trails for this trio and the Buffalo-brewed beverage scene.

“We grew really fast and it was hard to keep up with demand,” Lucas said. They doubled their space at Horsefeathers in just about eight months. Eventually, they moved to 1250 Niagara St. in Buffalo, and over the past three years, they added to their footprint as sales continued to grow. And grow. In addition to brewing and bottling Bootleg Bucha, the company also creates private-label brews.

The trio made a commitment to keep their business in Buffalo, acknowledging that they were pioneers, and to self-fund their own business development. They did this by modestly managing their growth, and shopping for reasonably priced – and often gently used – equipment. Adding a bottling line maximized their efficiency of this important task: Bottling now takes only two or three people per run, as opposed to the gang of 10 that used to hand bottle, cap, and label all products.

The demand for this product is high, and Lucas said recent investment in more tanks and other equipment was necessary to keep up with demand. The production facility now has multiple stainless steel storage tanks (the sweet tea and starter ferment here, under close supervision from the brewmaster), with 300-gallon capacity. They also purchased a spinning cone column which uses vacuum technology to extract the naturally occurring alcohol from their brew. This was a significant – and important – investment that gave the company a competitive advantage. Bootleg Bucha is only the third kombucha brewer in the country to own this piece of equipment. Putting their brew through this apparatus guarantees that the beverage contains under one-half percent alcohol, the legal limit.

“Buffalo is a great city to start a business,” said Lucas. “People want to support you when you start a business here.”

Still, it was a leap of faith to launch this enterprise.

“One of our biggest challenges was creating a market for a healthy drink,” Lucas said. “We had no idea how it was going to be received back then. When you bring something new to market, it’s tricky.”

Bootleg Bucha relies on the power and reach of social media to get the word out, along with word-of-mouth from satisfied, loyal customers. Tastings and other events invite new customers, too. A variety of flavors are available in Wegmans, Tops, and Dash’s Markets from Western New York, to the Southern Tier, and into Pennsylvania.

The Niagara Street location also includes a tap room where you can try before you buy, and a retail space, in addition to the brewing facilities. Eight full- and part-time employees – mostly college students – complete the workforce for now.

Lucas said the company’s goal now is to keep educating people about kombucha, and to expand its reach to include restaurants and bars. Turns out, kombucha is also a fantastic mixer for cocktails, said Lucas.

“I never would have thoughts this was my future,” she said. Spoken like a true pioneer.

Read more articles by Cherie Messore.

Cherie Messore is a native Buffalonian and has longtime experience in the region's vibrant not-for-profit sector with special interests in the cultural community and education. She is also a freelance writer, public relations practitioner, and volunteer docent at Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin House.
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