My guest today is Kombucha king GT Dave. GT is a unique blend of a farmer of live drinks who takes each batch of Kombucha as seriously as his first, noncompromising entrepreneur, and loving son. GT started his Kombucha business 25 years ago out of his parent’s home and now has 40% of the market. GT is the sole owner of his company and to this day brews to order. He has been able to dominate in his space without giving up quality or care for his product. GT has endured family death and divorce only to come out the other side a little more resolved. He has now added Husband and Father to two small babies so it suffices to say like all of us he is also doing the work/family juggle. He is a shining example of what determination, commitment and passion look like. I have enjoyed and appreciated his product myself for over 20 years and to meet him is to understand why GT Dave’s Kombucha is so good. He has turned his Kombucha empire into GT’s Living Foods.
Listen to the episode here:
- The Beginning of Greatness [00:03:02]
- Coming Out [00:15:17]
- The Kombucha Effect [00:24:17]
- Breaking Down the Kombucha [00:30:24]
- Starting On Your Own [00:34:12]
- The First Employee [00:49:43]
- Creating the Market [00:53:11]
- Consistent Innovation [00:59:36]
- The Forbes Feature [01:09:45]
- The Big Moment [01:13:03]
- Keeping Yourself In Check [01:22:17]
- Parenthood [01:37:44]
GT Dave – Multi-Million Dollar Entrepreneur with a Mission
My guest is GT Dave. I have been drinking GT Dave’s kombucha for over twenty years. I know a lot of you have tried the drink. This conversation was amazing. We talked about starting a new business as a teenager, losing a brother, and getting married. He has two babies that are three months apart. What I loved about this conversation with GT was the combination of sticking to your guns and your values, being of love, but also having a serious mission that keeps you on the path. He’s an entrepreneur. He’s a loving son, husband, and dad. I hope you enjoy the conversation.
What’s interesting doing my homework on you and being someone who has a small business, we did it differently than you. We took our business public in September 2021, which has its whole other interesting dance. When I was introduced to your product, I was one of those people that if I was at a little health food store and it was there, I would buy it in the ’90s.
You’re one of our early adopters.
I want to bucket this a little bit and talk first about your business. When people see a company like yours, they don’t understand unless they live in that space. For example, the fact that you do a cold chain product, that alone is on the higher side of the cost compared to other drinks when it first came out. The SCOBY, which we’ll get into, is considered strange if you didn’t know about it. All these things and yet you have been not only successful but you introduced an old idea into the modern era in the United States. When I started reading, I was like, “We’re going to call him GT.” People think Dave is your first name and not your last name because you go, “GT Dave.” It sounds like a guy who hung out at the beach with fluorescent shorts, “That’s GT Dave.” GT is short for your formal name and Dave is your last name.
It’s my legal last name.
I looked at your parents and their last name is Dave.
GT came from the name George Thomas after my two grandfathers, my father’s father George and my mother’s father Tom. I’m the baby in the family so that’s why got George Thomas Dave within the first 5 seconds or 5 minutes of my birth. After that, they’re like, “GT Dave sounds better for such a small baby.”
You used to have on the packaging the story about your mom. As businesses grow, things tighten up. There are rules and we learn those. You have to take that part of the story off. For a lot of us, I knew about it. Maybe you could share how your parents were introduced to kombucha when you were a kid.
To start the beginning of the story, I have to give credit to my parents who raised me as a vegetarian. My mother raised me as a vegetarian in her womb. They exposed me to the best of what I believe of the East and West. I was raised Catholic, for example, and I was an altar boy. I would go to mass every Sunday.
After mass, I would go to Sunday school and I learned about Hinduism, Buddhism, how to meditate, and things of that nature. I had this interesting combination of two different worlds. That was my foundation. Through that, I was raised in a somewhat unconventional environment. Being a vegetarian is number one and having a heavy belief in spirituality and things like karma and things of that nature.
In addition, my parents took me to India at a young age. I was able to witness firsthand the contrast between the Western world. I’m from LA, born in Bel Air. It’s not a tough background. Going to India and seeing young children defecating on the street and seeing disease everywhere opened up my eyes. This was my parent’s master plan but they never articulated it. They wanted to raise a good human being that understood that there’s more than meets the eye to this life. Through that, it created this feeling of selflessness and wanting to do something with my life and make a contribution.
Naturally, food being medicine and probably the most intimate thing that we can do with our bodies because we ingest it and it can heal or hurt us was always a big deal in my parent’s household. Kombucha came into the household in the early ’90s and it was one of the many crazy things that my parents were exposing me to, tofu, wheatgrass, noni juice, fasting, all this stuff.
Where and how were they raised? It’s not that they were in the ’60s so there’s a hippie overflow. Where did this come from within them?
It came from my mom. My mom was such an incredible human being because she was one of those types of people that her favorite word was why. “Why this?” “Why do I have to do this?” “Why do I have to believe this?” “Why do I have to behave this way?” She was a positive rebel if you will. She wasn’t looking to rebel just to rebel. She had a natural curiosity. Through that curiosity came her love affair with astrology and the more mystical, esoteric things of life. She is the one that was the catalyst for my father’s change in his lifestyle. When she met my father, he was an atheist. He owned what’s now Bar Marmont in West Hollywood.
Was he an attorney?
He was an attorney CPA by day and a nightclub owner by night.
You have a little both of them.
Something that I’m proud of is that I’m creative and artistic. Also, I’m realistic, practical, and disciplined. If you’re on one side of that or the other, you can sometimes be a little lopsided. I take a lot of pride and certainly make a conscious effort to maintain a good balance between those two.
With all these practices, your mom gets aggressive breast cancer. You’re a teenager. You’re not making any claims but you’re saying that one of the things for her, it felt like the kombucha didn’t hurt.
It was the opposite. It helped her. I’ll lay the foundation for you quickly. When kombucha came into the household, it was one of the many crazy things that my parents didn’t force on us but strongly recommended. Because it looked weird, smelled weird, tasted weird, I was like, “I’m going to pass.” Now I’m at an age where I’m a teenager, I’m 13 years old. As you know probably with your kids, our favorite word at that age is no.
What are you doing? I’m going the other way.
I resisted and I didn’t participate in their consumption of kombucha but I did observe. With kombucha, it’s not a secret when you’re drinking a lot. Especially if you’re making it at home, you have to ferment it. I noticed that my parent’s fermentation went from one batch of kombucha, which is a bowl sitting in the dining room fermenting for about 7 to 10 days to 2, 3, 5, 7. Their obsession was not a secret. Naturally, I was observing and was like, “My parents are into this but I’m going to sit this one out.”
For somebody reading, if you have never seen a SCOBY, it’s Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast. It’s strange looking.
Someone has to gift you a SCOBY. That’s the way to go. It’s unusual looking. It’s like when you went to science class and there were things in the jars and the such.
It looks like an amoeba. It looks like something from a sci-fi film.
Was she playing around and experimenting at all with flavor or adding things or was it straight up?
It was straight up. By the way, my parents got their first culture from this lovely man named Dave Otto. He owns the Beverly Hills Juice Club, which is a fresh press juicery on Beverly Boulevard in Orlando. He gifted a SCOBY to my parents because his wife who got the first SCOBY in the Himalayas and traveled back was raving about it but he was a cynic.
He approached my parents and said, “You’re good friends. You’re good customers.” My dad would go there every day on the way to work to get his pressed juice. He said, “Please, try this because I’m not buying it. Fresh-pressed juice is the best you can get.” He turned my parents on to kombucha. That’s how it got started. For the first two years, they didn’t know anything. Keep in mind, this is the ’90s. There’s no internet and Google so you can’t look things up. It was a different world back then.
I don’t know the amount of liquid but you need five grams or more of sugar to get the party started. The SCOBY eats it. People have to realize, it’s what’s in the water versus what the SCOBY takes. It’s all these different things. They learned, winged it, approved, and noticed, “If we went longer here or shorter there, this is what happened.”
[bctt tweet=”Our body talks to us. You just have to make sure you’re listening. “]
They had no playbook because there was no such thing as kombucha back then. They followed their heart and listened to their body, which is important. Our body talks to us. You just have to make sure you’re listening. My parents were good at listening and that’s where their passion for kombucha began. Now, they’re doing this for over two years and I’m still like, “They’re doing this on their own, whatever.”
What caught my attention is when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. That was a fateful day. I remember it like it was yesterday. She took me, my brothers, and my father out to the backyard at the house that we live where it’s the house that I started making kombucha and said, “I went to the doctor today. I thought I was pregnant and so I wanted to get checked. It turns out, I am not pregnant. There is something growing inside me and it’s a large tumor in my right breast. It’s about the size of a golf ball.”
She said, “The doctors believe that I’ve had it for four years. I knew it was there but I thought it was a muscle.” We had this big Doberman Pinscher that my mom would walk up the hill and she thought that was a muscle from following the dog but it wasn’t. She said, “The doctors told me today that they don’t think my future looks bright. They said that because this is a fast-growing type of cancer and because I’ve had it for about four years, they’re almost convinced that it has already metastasized and moved to my bones and the rest of my body.” She broke down and I broke down.
I’m the baby in the family. My mother is my everything. With that news, I felt that I had been diagnosed myself. It was a dark couple of weeks while we were waiting for subsequent information to come our way. Interestingly enough, two weeks later, we went back into the backyard, my mother gathered us again and said, “I have some good news. I was called into the doctor’s office today. I was freaked out because they only call you in when they have bad news. They told me, ‘Mrs. Dave, we brought you in not because we have bad news but because we have good news but we need to learn more.'”
They unpacked everything and said, “We thought your condition was this, we thought your future is going to be that but we were wrong. Your tumor is mostly precancerous. It hasn’t spread. We’re marveling at your situation. We want to know, is there anything unusual that you’ve been doing that perhaps has played a role in your body’s resilience to this cancer?” My mother said, “I exercise. I’m vegetarian. For the last two years, I’ve been drinking this pungent-tasting tea and it makes me feel great.” You can imagine the look on the doctors’ faces. This was in the ’90s.
Luckily, the medical community is now accepting and, in many ways, endorsing natural ways of healing yourself. Back then, not so much. They said, “Mrs. Dave, whatever it is you’re doing, continue to do it because your condition is miraculous.” Those were the fateful words that came out of my mother’s mouth that all of a sudden, opened up my eyes and I said, “This weird thing called kombucha has done something.” Because I’m a curious individual, I was like, “I need to learn more.” I started making it myself and started drinking it. Even at the young age of 15, I started to feel its power. All I needed is that this helped my mom potentially, it’s helping me certainly and could help others. That was my North Star.
I get the sense that you probably were not an average teenager. Did you have any window of space in there where you were rebellious or whatever to take on that attitude? To me, you feel focused. There’s a control element that we’re going to get into but was there ever a time that you were freewheeling?
100%. There were probably two major chapters of my life where I was not on a good path. One was being a baby. When you’re a baby, you feel like you can do anything.
You look like your mom.
Your mom is a beautiful woman. She’s probably like, “Look at my guy.”
That certainly helped. I got everything I wanted, which is dangerous. It’s not that I was spoiled but I knew that I could charm my way into any situation or out of any situation. That created a little bit of friction in the household. People thought I was the favorite. People thought I could do no wrong, I was untouchable, and all of that.
Meaning your brothers.
Even my father, to be honest. With my mom, I could do no wrong. When things changed is, ironically, around the time kombucha came into the household. At the same time that kombucha came into the household, I was kicked out of the closet. I was a young gay boy. Being a Scorpio, I pride myself on being self-aware. I knew who I was at a young age. I was having this conversation with a friend. It was in first grade that I knew who I was and what I was drawn to.
What does that mean? Some friend ratted you out or something?
Long and short is my father was married before my mother and had two kids. Sometimes when one marriage ends and another one starts and there are kids involved, there can be some resentment and even some jealousy.
You got to live with the dad.
My mom was perhaps perceived as the homewrecker and I’m the byproduct of the homewrecker.
You look like the homewrecker. One of them said, “You know GT…”
It was my sister. My sister confided me. She shared some personal desires that she had and then used that as an entryway to open me up and encourage me to share my desires and I did. She took that little piece of information and ran with it. The next thing you know, I’m hearing stories about myself doing things and participating in things that I was like, “I am barely a teenager.”
Is this 12 or 13 years?
Thirteen years old. It was hard. Not to go down this rabbit hole because we could talk about it for a long time. Back then and even now, anything that’s different or anyone different, people fear what they don’t understand and they’re scared by it. They sometimes process it through resentment and anger. At the age of 13, I went from the baby that could do no wrong to like, “What is this devil child?”
It was crazy because my parents were religious and spiritual. You can understand that maybe I violated some religious principle. In the spiritual world, not so much. My parents were blinded by what was going on that they were struggling to process it. Virtually, overnight, I became an outsider, the black sheep. “Watch what he’s doing. He’s going to be engaging in bad behavior.” The jury had ruled that I was rather a bad kid because of this “choice” or I was deviant or something like that.
Three things come up for me that I’d love to get your take on. One is your mom is connected strongly at this moment. Didn’t she know inside?
If you knew in first grade, your mom knew in first grade for you too, don’t you think?
My mom put stockings and heels on me when I was 8 years old. When this all happened, there was a time when the temperatures chilled out and I was able to have a little more candid conversations with my parents, especially with my mom. I was like, “Mom, why are you surprised? I have all the qualities.” They think it’s a phase and choice. The good news is she eventually came around but it took some time. She said, “I want you to have a happy and normal life.”
Parents get weird when we’re scared for our children, let’s face it. The kids think, “They’re mad at me.” They don’t realize they’re afraid for their kid. The second thing it makes me think though is it got you prepared to enter into things. For example, when I hear that, I think, “You were perfectly primed to sell kombucha.” You’re like, “It’s outside. It’s strange. You don’t know what it is. I’m your guy.” We go through these things in life and we don’t realize they are merely helping us, if we can survive it correctly without hurting ourselves, for something probably superpower-ish later. It’s like, “This seems unusual, weird, or strange. Perfect. No problem. I’ve heard this before.”
The last thing I was curious about is because you have your own children. I’ve thought about this a lot for my kids. Sometimes when I think, “There are those things.” In your case, for that short period of time, it’s like, “He’s being deceitful. There’s some deceptive behavior or something.” In a way, is that chicken and egg? Did you start to think maybe you were because that was the energy being thrown at you? I’m bringing it up as a precautionary tale because a lot of times, our kids go through things. Because we don’t understand it, we will label it. All of a sudden, the kid goes, “I must be those things,” and they’re not.
What saved me is I was raised to understand what does it mean to live a good life. I’m incredibly grateful for it for a lot of reasons. This is why religions can sometimes be problematic because there’s all this red tape. When it comes to spirituality, if you love one another, that’s it. If you cause no harm and love one another, if you’re doing that, you’re good. Honestly, that is what kept me brave and resilient throughout this entire time. As my parents were telling me, “What you’re doing is wrong. What you’re doing is dangerous.” I said, “What am I doing?” First of all, I’m not doing anything.
“I’m a nonpracticing gay male. Thanks a lot.”
“I’m a virgin, FYI.” I said this to them, “It’s the equivalent of you being angry that I’m attracted to blondes.” That’s it. I’m not harming anybody. I’m not harming myself. The HIV conversation came up and I said, “Mom, Dad, you’re going to have to trust that I’m not going to do drugs and I’m not going to engage in criminal behavior. You have to know that even sexually, I’m going to be responsible.” Little by little, as we continue to have those conversations, I continued to prove myself.
Starting my business was an incredible moment and event in my life and certainly in theirs because I was proving to them that I can and want to do something with my life. Being gay and being this outcast gave me the bravery to say, “Honestly, I have nothing to lose. I don’t have any friends. My parents don’t even like me right now.” I dropped out of high school. I took my GED. I started making kombucha. My number one form of advertising is would go to the local health food stores and sample it. Sometimes people would spit it up in my face.
You’ve done a beautiful job of bringing the old to the new and understanding that a market still wants it to taste good. I would imagine that the early formulas were more vinegary-flavored than they are now. What’s inside of you as a teenager that you’re like, “This is a good idea.”
First of all, it’s the fact that I was able to hear how it helped my mother and then personally witnessed how it helped me. Because my parents are proud and fanatic about anything that they believe in, they’re evangelists if you will, they would turn on friends and family members. People would also flip for it. Even the most narrow-minded person that doesn’t put anything healthy in their mouth, if you can get kombucha even like four ounces down, they’ll go, “I feel different. I feel better.”
[bctt tweet=”When it comes to spirituality, if you love one another, that’s it.”]
It was witnessing that in conjunction with the fact that I had nothing to lose in my personal life that I was like, “I’m going to do this and I believe in it.” Candidly, I was too young to think of life for this opportunity as a business endeavor. In many ways, it was this labor of love, this weird and strange partner that I could hold hands with and walk down a lonely path into this new world that I was trying to create for myself. I had nothing to lose.
If you look at your timeline, even though I know it’s hard, things happened in a good way. You had traction early. Also, there was positive reinforcement. You did have enough early success within a few years that it was like, “This is something.”
The case in point is within the first month of selling my kombucha on the shelves of Erewhon, which is my first store by the way. Shout out to Erewhon. I would get feedback from consumers who would call the toll-free number on the label, which was an answering machine in my bedroom.
Was that George or was that Thomas? George was the delivery guy.
There’s George, Jorge, and GT. I was a man of many personalities. People would call and they would say, “I was in Erewhon and I saw this product and it looked a little interesting so I bought it. I drink half a bottle and I’m going to tell you it was different but I feel great.”
What do you think it is? What is it?
One of the many beautiful things about kombucha is that it’s liquid life. That can’t ever be underestimated. If you think about true forms of food, things that grow from the ground, things that have this lifeforce, this energy, this vibration, this frequency, that is the best form of nutrition. Not to dismiss vitamins and nutrients and all that stuff that is also important but it’s also the quality of where that food comes from and its current state when you ingest it. Kombucha is one of the few things that you can find in a package that’s still living and breathing and has this life force if you will. That’s what people resonate with. What people would say is, “It made me alive. I feel a few awakened.”
I don’t drink alcohol. I don’t mean the high alcohol content ones. There were days where I’ll have no food, I’ll have a kombucha, and be like, “Oh.” I have this running joke with Laird. I grew up in the Caribbean and a lot of people drank a lot of alcohol in excess and I watched it I thought, “It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere good.” I don’t have an issue with it. If people enjoy wine or do whatever, I’m like, “Knock yourself out,” but I didn’t. When I have kombucha in a certain state, I feel like I’m getting away with some midday afternoon treat. Also, you don’t pay a price for it.Because I find the process interesting, I have to share something with you quickly. I have an acquaintance that has a kombucha company as well. For a while, we were going to do something with Laird Superfood but only in kegs. We weren’t going to be messing around with bottles. This is a serious thing.
It’s a commitment.
It’s no joke. The fact that you do it in Los Angeles is a whole other beast. We go to Austin and I went with our food scientist and we messed around with kombuchas for kegs for businesses. We work for businesses only. We use coconut sugar in our products because of the minerals. Of everything that we have found for us in our brand with flavor and ingredients, that was what was going to work.
We said, “For fun, can you do one SCOBY, one container with coconut sugar?” The SCOBY was five times thicker. I want you to take that and mess around with it. Let’s say it was ten layers with the sugar on the starters. this was 50 layers. I don’t know if it works and if the party can still go but I thought it was worth sharing that with you. Maybe it’s the minerals, I’m not sure. Explain to people how the SCOBY lives on and on.
What’s beautiful about kombucha, one of the many things, is that it is a source of life and a form of life. It’s like a fruit that you cut open and there are seeds, you can use that seed to grow something else, and so with kombucha, it’s similar. Each batch of kombucha starts with a singular culture. By the time you’re finished fermenting it, which can be anywhere from 7 to 10 days, after that, you have two cultures.
What’s happening is the first culture utilizes the tannins in the tea, the carbohydrates of the sugar, and consumes it. In return, it creates all these enzymes, probiotics, and organic acids to grow but also to reproduce. Now you have two. That’s why kombucha is special is it’s self-sustaining, it’s pretty prolific, and it wants to be shared. To this day, I have never purchased a culture from someone else. It’s always been the same strain of culture from that first one that came from the Beverly Hills Juice Club back in 1993. It’s crazy.
Do they have batches and then that’s over?
Yes. Like everything in life, it has its life cycle. We do have cultures that, at a certain point, age out. They get super dark for being stained by the tea and then they slowly start to deteriorate that even when you pick them up, almost pieces of them fall out. That’s when we retire them and we use them for mulch. We donate our retired cultures to farmers and others to use them because it still has nutritional value but you can’t use it to make the best kombucha.
Are you using black tea and green tea? What are the teas that are the base for your products?
We use organic green and black tea. That was something that I developed early on because when my father was making kombucha, it was almost overpowering.
What does that mean?
It was almost like pure apple cider vinegar. You couldn’t drink it, you could sip it or take a shot. I was like, “How do I resolve this? How do I not compromise its potency and nutritional qualities but still make it more palatable?” How good is something that’s nutritious but it’s so bad that you’re not going to take it?
Free people are.
What I did is I tried to study this recipe if you will. That black tea gives kombucha its bite and its bold flavor. Green tea is the same plant. Black tea is just fermented green tea. What happens is the green tea gives it a little bit of that champagne quality, a little bit of this lighter and brighter note. We use about a little bit of a blend, not quite half and half, maybe 60% black tea and 40% green tea. We use organic sugar. I am going to look into your coconut sugar.
I mess around with it to see what happens. If you put it side by side, if you put two SCOBYs in at the same time, see how they go. I thought it would be worth it. You’re informed enough.
Over the last 2.5 decades, we’re always still learning stuff. We even play music for our batches. We learn that they respond to music, they respond to certain energies. They’re like a living thing. In my company, we consider ourselves more farmers than beverage manufacturers. At the end of the day, we’re stewards of this cultivation, of this living thing that is going to reproduce on its own but we hold its hand and let nature be the star.
You to Erewhon and you’re in Whole Foods, which, in 1999, it had about 100 stores or something like that. I also love the fact that your mom would do sampling for you. Because you were young, your parents would maybe pretend to be the front people a little bit. A lot of younger people that are pursuing business feel a little bit prejudiced. It’s like, “What do you know? You’re young.” Would you have any wisdom to that? That happens to a lot of young people that are motivated, they’re driven, they have a good idea, and sometimes people don’t take them seriously.
It’s this weird combination of being humble yet confident. I pride myself on being humble. Humility is key. You may not know everything. I don’t think anybody does. You want to walk in with an open heart and open mind. When people realize that, it allows them to drop their guard. At the same time, you’d have to contribute, which means if you have an idea, if you have an opinion, if you’ve had an observation, share it. Through that interaction with people, what I learned early on is how I was able to overcome this potential issue of people dismissing me and saying, “He’s a kid.”
Also, not only are you a kid but you’re trying to educate them on a whole new type of drink. It’s not like you’re selling something that people already know about and they go, “This is a different version of that.” You’re going, “By the way, on top of it…” Your parents were instrumental in helping you. What does growth look like? You’re doing it at home. How are you moving the liquid? That’s the thing, the SCOBY is big. The liquid is hard to manage. It’s fizzy and bubbles over. At that time, how do you even bottle the stuff?
Simply by hand. The best analogy is I saw my first 3 to 5 years of being a single parent where I got pregnant with this SCOBY, this kombucha, this business idea, this opportunity, or whatever you want to call it. In many ways, I felt I had chosen it but also it had chosen me. I’m not a woman so I don’t know what’s like to be pregnant but I have an idea, especially from what my mom told me of how she treated her pregnancies.
It’s a commitment that everything you do and anyone that you’re around, that plays a role in this life that you’re bringing into the world. For the first two years but even for the first five years, I was this single and overprotective parent that wanted to raise my child to be a great human being. I didn’t want to raise my child to be a celebrity, to be an athlete, to be famous, or to be rich.
That’s not a parent’s job, by the way. Wait until you learn that for real. You know this because you have two young children, the unlimited possibilities for both of them and how we have to control ourselves, “They are going to play music and do nineteen languages. They’re going to be super athletes. They’re going to be spiritual and kind.”
[bctt tweet=”Humility is key. You may not know everything. You want to walk in with an open heart and open mind.”]
I used to tell my girls all the time, “I’m not your coach. I’m your mom.” It bites you in the ass in certain ways because then you’re like, “I should have pushed them more in certain ways.” You’re saying that you started this business for the sake of doing this business and doing it well. It’s not like, “I’m going to crush it. I’m going to have my own facility.”
“I’m going to be 3x sales in the next eighteen months.”
Also, that’s new. The market is way more competitive but your business still has more than 40% of the market space. I also admire that you continue to innovate your flavors. You have your AQUA KEFIR. I don’t like fruity-flavored drinks but when I have that, I don’t mind it because that has a different feeling. What’s going on with that compared to the kombucha? You do feel different after you drink it. There’s something about that. What is it?
Something that the world needs to know more about is that fermented foods have many different kinds. Kombucha is a fermented tea, which is an acidic ferment that gives it this vinegary sourness. It makes it high in organic acids and things that detoxify. Water Kefir, which is our AQUA KEFIR, is a lacto-ferment. It’s not lactose. It doesn’t have any dairy. It’s a different ferment so it’s not sour and it has a different variety of probiotics. For instance, it has bifida, which is not present in kombucha.
We’re learning more and more that there are hundreds if not thousands of different strains of probiotics and they all play in their way own different roles in how we feel, how we behave, our health. With AQUA KEFIR, for instance, they’ve done studies where Bifida and the cultures in water kefir enhance your mood. It’s nice. It has a natural hydrating quality. It has no tea base. It feels different even when you drink it. My mission is to not be a one-trick pony and say, “I brought kombucha into the world.” I bought kombucha in the world, which is one of the many things out there that I know the world needs to improve their lives and uplift their health.
You go on your way when you have to move, your parents are like, “You can’t be growing this stuff in our house.”
There’s a story there if you don’t mind.
I want that. That’s why you’re here.
My parents were spiritual and unconventional with their thinking. What came along with that is they were big into psychics. A psychic told my father, “When all your kids are young, you’re going to lose a son at the age of 22. He’s a reckless son. He’s going to die before he turns 23.” Interestingly enough, my father thought it was his first child from his first marriage, Jason.
The mean sister’s brother.
They did everything to “save” him. They took him to India where this holy man was. They chanted, prayed, meditated, everything. Jason’s 22nd birthday came and went and he turned 23, 24, 25, and so forth. About a handful of years later, my brother, Justin, who, in retrospect, was candidly as reckless as Jason but in a different way. It was a little bit more subtle and not as obvious. Ten days after Justin turned 22, he was diagnosed with a severe form of cancer.
Keep in mind, this is about a year into me starting my business. You have this unusual situation of my mother beating her breast cancer. I’m overcoming the gay bullying situation. I have this new lease on life. Justin, the middle child, gets diagnosed with his fatal form of cancer. For the next six months, his life, his strength, and his vitality are slowly being pulled from him.
I’m not here to bring the conversation down. The reason why I bring this up is that being 16, 17 witnessing my brother who’s not that much older than I slowly die opened up my eyes even wider than they were before. Life is short. Life is sweet. You don’t want to be on your deathbed and have regrets. That’s what I saw in my brother’s eyes. Like many of us, in his teenage years, cars, girls, parties, drugs, whatever, that’s what he thought was important. When you’re facing death, you realize it’s not. That gave me a sense of urgency, number one. Number two, it forced a new environment on me because six months after Justin passed away, my parents split up.
That happens a lot. With a death of a child, people go to their corners and lick their own wounds. It’s hard for some couples to go through it together. It’s a hard thing. You and your mom probably were more of a unit, I would imagine.
That’s exactly what happened. Many things came out of it. One is it reinforced this bravery that I need to have. I felt even more alone. I was like, “My household, my parents are crumbling right now. I don’t want to be in the house while it crumbles.” That’s a personal and emotional point of view. From a physical business standpoint, I was like, “I’m making my kombucha in this house.”
They were talking about selling the house and divorcing. I was like, “I need to do something about this.” That was the catalyst that forced me to move out, which is a daunting experience. It’s one thing to have your “little hobby kombucha company” from your parent’s house. You have no risk, no rent, none of that. Now you have to physically go to work, you have to pay rent, and you have overhead.
It’s no joke.
I was forced to make that decision. Because all the circumstances behind me were pushing me in that direction, I did it and didn’t even think about it. It was that moment. If I was in my 20s or 30s and I had a relationship, a job, a mortgage, or whatever, I probably wouldn’t have made that decision because it was a high risk. In my mind, at the time, I had nothing to lose. It was one of those other catalysts.
Did somebody cosign for you? How does that work? You’re young and you have no credit. What happened?
Luckily, I saved every single cent of the first two years. My father’s friend called me up and said, “I’m in the Los Angeles Times classified section and there’s a food processing facility by Crenshaw and Rosecrans.” I was like, “Isn’t that where the LA riots were?”
I was going to say, “Good Neighborhood.”
He’s like, “Maybe but that doesn’t matter. You need to come and see it.” I went, I saw it, and the stars aligned. The landlord was incredibly kind.
How old were you?
I was 17.
You’re already boyish. It’s not like you’re 17.
I look like a man.
It’s like, “Hi.”
In many ways, things happen for a reason. You have to lead with your heart, be open-minded, and be open to what is coming your way. Still, have an optimistic attitude. Also, be ready to encounter some challenges. I was fortunate at that time to have doors open for me without me even asking.
How long could you stay there at that place? Could it handle the amount of manufacturing? This is the thing I want to add. You’re moving along, you get your GED, there’s no way you know how to be a CEO. You’re the founder and it’s your idea so you understand the DNA. How do you move through and learn these other elements? There’s always manufacturing. Do you align yourself with people? Where did you get these tools? This is what a lot of entrepreneurs go through.
I’m fiercely observant and I’m obsessed with details. Those two combined, I’m always studying everything. As I said about my mother, in many ways, I inherited that why. Why do you do it this way? Why is this important? Why don’t you do it this other way? I only had one job before I started my company and that was working at a restaurant.
I was appalled by the conditions of lack of cleanliness by my standards at least in the restaurant’s kitchen. There are whole heads of lettuce sitting on the floor for hours and hours and stuff on the ceiling and walls. I said, “If that’s considered good by the health department and other standards, I’m going to be better than that. If I’m better than that, I’m never going to have an issue.”
I always treated everything that I did as if I was making it from home, making it for a loved one, making it as if it was a sacred ceremonial thing that I’m doing that’s intended to help and never hurt somebody. Even to a certain degree, I always had high standards that were even, at some point, unrealistic. It became a challenge because I was obsessed with quality that I didn’t want to hire anybody. I wanted to do everything. I was reluctant to even distribute or deliver my products into areas that I couldn’t physically visit. That was where the good and the bad happened.
The good is I was able to maintain quality and work out all the bugs before they became bugs. At the same time, I was inadvertently suppressing my business, which, in retrospect, was still okay. In a more traditional business trajectory, people could say, “He was slow, fearful, timid,” or whatever. Everything happens for a reason. That’s where I built the foundation that made me solid. At year five when I started expanding my distribution, I had a strong footing and I could navigate the ups and downs and the temptation even that comes your way when you’re growing a business. You’re learning as you go.
When you say temptation, cutting costs, taking on investors, what kind of temptations?
Honestly, all of the above. When you start to do something that’s becoming popular, people come out of nowhere and they’re like, “I want to give you money.” “I want to do this.” “You should add more sugar.” “Why don’t you put it in a plastic bottle?” I had a friend that was working for another beverage company at the time. He was much older than I. He said, “Your glass is $0.30 a bottle. I know that. My company, it’s $0.04 to put it in plastic.” Of course, they pull up the calculator and they’re doing their math. They’re like, “You could save all this.” It’s like, “Am I saving? If I’m cutting corners and I’m cheapening my product, that’s not going to work long term.”
You can’t put that in there. It’s not about the customer. It has a positive response to the flavor. We know it’s not great for you. It doesn’t matter, you’re always going to find some scientists who can tell you it’s okay. My favorite thing is because it’s on the jar or the bag, once you eat it or drink it, that’s not what’s happening in your body. You have your own place. Who’s your first employee? Who can handle you, GT? Who was there?
His name was Wences, which is an unusual name. He was a young Latin gentleman.
This isn’t the one who moved through your company, is he?
No. That happened about ten years later. It sounds silly but when I would interview people, I would want to know their life stories. What turns you on? What turns you off? Astrologically, I want to know your chart.
You’re 20 years old and being like, “What’s your sign?” Seriously?
By the way, that’s even a litmus test on its own. If you don’t laugh at me and you think that I’m like some Warlock, that means we’re good, that means we’re vibing.
If you get squirmy, we have a problem.
If you get uncomfortable, that means we’re probably going to have some issues. He came in and I got a strong impression that he took a lot of pride in his work. He had this nurturing quality, which is a big criteria when you’re making kombucha. It’s not transactional. You can’t just do it to do it. It has to be a labor of love. That was my first employee. Little by little, that gave me the confidence to semi-step away and do a little bit more of the sales or do a little bit more of this. I could give him certain aspects of the production and the fermentation but not all of it.
Because it’s a secret.
It’s a secret and it’s sensitive. Even the person who holds the culture and places it into the vessel, it’s almost like, “Who’s baptizing your baby?” It’s something like that. I put over-emphasis on every single step. It was a slow and steady journey. I have one funny story, an interesting story that I’ll share. My fifth employee was going to be a manager and he fell in love with kombucha. He was everything that I said a maker of kombucha should be, nurturing, thoughtful, kind, compassionate.
Was he more hippie?
He was. The story goes south a little bit. He ends up dying. He came to me one week and he said, “Can I talk to you from a personal place?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “My wife’s having an affair. I need a day off.” I said, “Absolutely. Take two days off. Take as many days off.” He’s like, “No. I just need a day off. I need to process this.” He took his day off that weekend and he died of a heart attack. My mom said he died of a broken heart.
Here’s the interesting part, which reinforces my belief and philosophy that making kombucha is ceremonial and it’s incredibly intimate. Every batch that he had touched in this week or two all turned into complete mold. I had to throw everything away. What it almost was is if the batches and the cultures took his sadness and his energy. It’s almost like they did the opposite of what they normally do. Instead of live and thrive, they died and wilted.
Do you have any employees that make super happening kombucha? They are gregarious and they got it going on. Their kombucha comes and that mother is rocking and rolling.
Yes. You have to. That’s the criteria. Honestly, there’s no exception. It’s rather that or nothing.
You guys sell everywhere. I have a curiosity. You start in California. How do you create a market for yourself across the country? How does that work?
We are in different times now. Those that yell the loudest get the attention. That is partially to blame because of the internet and social media. It breaks my heart to say this, certain aspects of the health and wellness space have become incredibly transactional. You have big food brands hiding in the shadows and being puppet masters to these brands that you would think come from entrepreneurial, passionate, health-driven, and health-focused individuals but it’s a disguise. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case when I started my company.
[bctt tweet=”When you’re making kombucha, it’s not transactional. You can’t just do it to do it. It has to be a labor of love.”]
First of all, what happened and helped me is my product was one of the few that was this beacon of light that radiated from the shelf. Keep in mind, in the ’90s, what you had is Snapple, SoBe, Gatorade, at some point, Vitamin Water. All these products were considered healthy back then. If you scratched the surface, it’s high fructose corn syrup, blah, blah, blah. The consumer was dying for something different.
Whenever I would sample, sell, or merchandise my products in a store, they sold themselves. They had this almost conversation, this language that spoke to people who had a curiosity, “I want to eat and drink better.” That was my advertising. I didn’t spend $1 on any marketing. Number one, it was the best product ever. Your heart and soul go into every single bottle no matter what.
The original was the blue. It was the first one. It’s good. It’s straightforward. What’s your second flavor?
The second flavor I came out with was lemonade, which was so-so, I must admit. The third one was Gingerade.
It’s still the most popular. That’s Laird’s favorite.
It’s a case in point of what kombucha and, candidly, our food should be. It should be delicious and nutritious. It’s not one or the other.
What about Trilogy, that must do well?
Depending on where you look, depending on what market, what store, sometimes Trilogy is also our number one. It’s remarkable. A little fun fact about me is my luck runs in threes. Gingerade was my third flavor, my number one. Trilogy means three. I’m the third born. I’m born on November 3rd. It goes on and on.
We are in a form of food ourselves. We work a lot in powders. We only have one product with a couple of skews that goes through the cold chain process. What do you say to people in Chicago when nobody’s had kombucha and you’re getting kombucha to Chicago? How do you do that?
You do it carefully.
In cost and margin, it’s insanity. How do you do it? Not now. I understand now because there’s big, there’s demand, there’s so much volume, and all that. I’m saying back then.
What gave me the confidence that it was going to be the path less traveled but not the path never traveled is I studied other products called the refrigerated section of stores. I started to look at what are their shelf lives? What are their refrigeration or handling requirements? Immediately, I came across three compelling examples. One was fresh juice. Back then, you had Odwalla which wasn’t pasteurized and some of them had a four-day shelf life. Then you have yogurt, which has a 30-day shelf life.
At the time, Stonyfield Farm was in New York and I was in LA. I was like, “If they can do it, I can do it.” What we also do is, to this day, which is insane, we make to order. What happens is most companies stockpile some inventory and they draw it down, and then they replenish it. It allows them to expand and contract and do certain things with us. We ferment to the orders and then we bottle for the orders. We don’t sit on any inventory. It’s crazy. I can see your eyes, you’re like, “Why would you do that?”
That looks insane because you think, “We’ll make a certain amount of the basic ones.”
It is in an effort to make the best product possible.
You have all of these flavors. I want to talk about Guava Goddess. How is that so sweet and so good with such low sugar?
Sometimes sweetness and flavor can be misunderstood. What is also special about kombucha and certain fermented foods is they bring brightness through their organic acids and these other qualities that give the liquid a bright and full-body quality without the need for additives and sweeteners. With the guava, what helps it is it’s a purée. It also has some body to it and some mouthfeel. Guava in many ways is similar to grapefruit. It has this bright quality, so it can taste sweet but it’s not sweet.
A lot of citrusy-type things are punchy. They liven it up.
Lime juice is a great way to brighten something without sugar.
The blue algae one is fascinating. You sent it here and I drank it. I was like, “I claim that one.” When you’re innovating and doing, is it the collective? Is the team going, “This seems on-trend and popular.” You’re reading more about the benefits of these ingredients. “Now we’re big enough that we can explore.” That’s the other beautiful thing. When people trust your brand, they’ll go, “I’ll try that.” How do you guys keep coming up with new and innovative formulas?
There are two primary paths to innovation for us. One, which is almost the primary and almost the exclusive, is every product, every flavor we create in many ways is an expression of myself and an indication of something that I’m personally passionate about. It’s how I was raised. I was raised to believe, “Let thy food be thy medicine.” I’m almost always looking for food, not to for flavor. I don’t live to eat, I eat to live so I want everything.
Even down to the quality of water I drink to make sure that it’s doing everything that I need because I’m learning this more and more. Especially as I grow up and get older, life is a game of survival and you need the food that you ingest. The people and energy you surround yourself with are your armor that protects you or can hurt you.
To answer your question more pointedly, I’m always curious and searching for new ways to nourish my body, protect my body, and strengthen my body and make me feel great. To be honest, with my brother who died young, I feel like I have a lot to do. In many ways, I feel like I’m running out of time so I want to sprint to my next destination. I need fuel to get me there safely and strongly. That’s where and how I innovate.
The second part is myself and my team are constantly researching. We don’t like to research things that it’s like, “This lab-made ingredient is hot right now.” That is counterintuitive to our philosophy that food should come from as close to the earth as possible. Once in a blue moon, we’ll come across CBD or something that has an enhanced quality to it. They’re like, “We’ll study this.” We’ll play with it but at the end of the day, we always have to answer the question, “Why are we doing this? What value is this bringing to the portfolio? More importantly, what value is bringing into our consumers’ lives?” We don’t just do things to do things.
Being a Scorpio, I don’t do anything casually, so it’s a commitment. Our ALIVE drink medicinal mushroom is something that I firmly believe in. The world needs more of those. Medicinal mushrooms are essentially where kombucha was years ago. It takes bravery, conviction, and passion to take something that’s obscure and borderline weird, bring it into people’s lives, and get them to adopt and accept it into their life.
I know it’s been a lot of work. You’re doing something that is considered an old practice and I’m always fascinated. I was discussing something with author James Nestor. We’re talking about breathing and using breath as a tool, not only for emotional health but physical health as well. It’s helpful. He’s a curator and had studies and all these things.
I got notes from people complaining that we didn’t give the due credit to India pranayama and I was like, “I didn’t know that all breathing was born from pranayama. I don’t think it is.” I was like, “Why not look at what the intention of what he’s doing is?” People think when they’re deep into something, maybe there are people who’ve made kombucha in the ’60s, they’re like, “Everybody knows about this.” No, they don’t and they’re busy. They don’t have time to navigate it. A lot of people don’t take care of themselves.
It’s interesting that you have this old-world thing that you’ve done in this new way. I would imagine that there have been times that people have the interesting pushback when you’re trying to do a great job at something. Then people are annoyed that you took kombucha and now everyone can have it.
In the first ten years, I would almost get quasi-death threats because people were like, “You’re exploiting this incredible free thing that everybody should have access to and they shouldn’t pay for it.” I said, “I agree but when it comes to growing an apple or growing an orange, that is essentially nature doing its thing. It takes time and energy to cultivate it, harvest it, clean it, package it, and deliver it. I have to pay my employees, cover freight, have insurance, and all these things. No, I’m not taking something that’s 100% free and just exploiting it.” By the way, for the longest time, I made a conscious effort and still do to make sure that my kombucha is available and accessible to everyone. Healthy food and nutrition, regardless of where you live and regardless of your income, you should have access to it.
The commitment to the product. It’s important for people to remember that no matter what you do at whatever level with whatever intention, there’s always going to be pushback that you have to be responsible for your own commitment and then get on with it. I can’t imagine that there weren’t many difficult times, be it emotionally or even financially, where it’s like, “That batch didn’t make it. We’re going to scratch that and have to start over.” How do you get through those times? Do you do everything yourself or did you get to a place where you had to take outside funding? How did you navigate it? The fact that you’re private and you’re the owner is astounding.
It’s not easy but you have a point. First of all, what happens is because I was so overprotected about kombucha in the first five years, any mistake that I made was incredibly isolated. I never had a recall. I never had a bad batch hit the market because, to this day, I taste-test every batch. That’s how I begin and end my day.
How do you taste that much kombucha?
It’s almost like a winery in that aspect.
Have you gotten Allan involved like, “Can you help me on that side and in the middle?”
Yeah. I’m human. Sometimes I can get tasting fatigue. Sometimes I have to cross-reference it with someone else, whether that’s my husband or people that I work with. That saved me early on. Keep in mind, within the first 2 or 3 years of me starting, Odwalla had their recall. They grew too fast. They went from using crated apples to apples straight from the orchard. They had a little bit of fertilizer on a couple of apples, which turned into fecal matter which turned into E. coli, and it wrecked them. That also was eye-opening and that changed me forever.
When I walk into Erewhon to make my delivery, the Odwalla cooler was empty with the sign posted saying, “This has been recalled.” From a quality standpoint, I never luckily had to face any kind of catastrophic recall or anything of that nature that came from me not doing good work or making a good product. That doesn’t mean that it was smooth sailing. Within the first ten years, I went from, “This is healthy,” to, “This is poison,” to, “I can sell this,” to, “I can’t sell this,” to, “This is legal,” to, “This is illegal.” You’re like, “What is going on?”
The only thing that saved me is that I would constantly remind myself and ask myself, “Why did I get started?” My answer was always, “GT, you got started because he wanted to make one perfect batch that would help at least one person’s life. Have you done that?” The answer was always yes. From there, I’m like, “Then nothing else matters.” If this is the end of the road, in my mind, I’m still victorious, successful, and accomplished.
That creates this groundedness and the semi-detached point of view that when something goes wrong, you’re not crushed and you don’t feel like the sky is falling. You have this confidence of like, “This too shall pass. In the weirdest way, I’m supposed to learn from this.” That’s what I did and honestly, that’s what I continue to do. The bigger you are, the harder you fall and the more targets you have on your back. That’s why I still have the same philosophy. I am doing what I’m doing to help people. As long as I’m doing that, everything else doesn’t matter.
The brand has done a good job of doing new things. You got there early. I want to be honest, I use you guys as an example because you’re the only brand that I can think of that is helpful, started in the health space, and transcended. I can go into a major grocery store and find it there. I’ve seen six packs of it at Costco. I can go into Trader Joe’s and I can see it.
We have the same conversation in our business. We want to live in those places and we want to get it to people everywhere. Who’s done that? Your brand has done that and it’s unusual. The fact that you’re continuing to innovate is important. I’ll be honest with you, I saw and I’m sure you’ve seen it if I was a close friend of yours, do you remember when Forbes did that piece on you?
Let’s talk about it. If I didn’t have the opportunity to pay attention, you’d be like, “Holy crap. That guy’s intense.” That made it seem like, “Control. I want everything perfect. Everything’s in its place.” It was amazing directorial edit because it’s almost like they created the character of you. First of all, how’d you feel about that? Did that tweak you at all? Were your friends like, “What the hell was that?”
There’s so much there. This is a story I never get tired of talking about because it was a mixed bag, to say the least. What happened was is I was essentially told that I was potentially going to get the cover of Forbes, which in retrospect, it should have been like, “No way, no how they told this.”
Why? It’s your story.
Now that I know what it takes to get the cover, I was like, “My people or myself should have known better.” It was one of the first times in my life that I dropped my guard and took my hand off the steering wheel.
The whole thing is about control.
That’s the irony. I let Forbes architect, direct, and curate this content and I was starring in a movie that they wrote.
It felt like that. Before, I was like, “Whoa.” Honestly, I would get your product after and be like, “I don’t know that I would have connected those people with this bottle.” It was like, “We want you to walk in and talk about how you like to have everything perfect and how you cut your own vegetables.”
In retrospect, this should have been a major red flag but they’re like, “We want you to go into your entryway and pace. It’s going to be great. We’re going to shoot it this way. We’re going to see your silhouette.” I don’t pace and pacing is usually a worrisome pensive expression. I’m not that guy, so why would I do that? The normal me would be like, “Thanks, but I’m going to stay in my lane.”
You think, “It’s Forbes. It’s all grown up and stuff.”
“Why would they do me wrong? I’m going to get the cover. In fact, they have this big idea for me.”
“We’re going to talk about my kombucha.” It’s interesting. Of course, that’s the stuff that’s like, “Why do so many people see that?” What’s great and important is that reminder that you can be successful and have all this stuff and still, other people have narratives. I was amused because when I was getting ready to talk to you, I thought, “I’m going to do my homework.” I go, “That’s such a misrepresentation of what’s happening in this.” I want to wrap up the business side of things. A tipping point, which product was it where the gates opened, you felt it, and you go, “Something’s going to happen here.”
I know exactly what it was. It’s 2005, ten years in. A big aspect of my marketing or interaction was the sample of my products. I would travel up and down the West Coast and go to certain stores and I would sample. I would observe and I would notice that there was this periodic common theme that when people try my kombucha, they’d say, “This is incredible. This is different. This is exactly what I’ve been looking for, but I wouldn’t have noticed this product because of its packaging.”
At the time, it was in a barbecue sauce glass bottle. I call it a Snapple-inspired label. It’s bright, colorful, poppy, and all this stuff. What I didn’t know that I was doing is I was inadvertently misrepresenting what was on the inside of the package. After hearing that quite a bit from people’s feedback, I said, “I need to fix this.” This is 2004 or 2005. I spent the next year meditating, contemplating, and almost soul searching for what the next face of my product was going to be.
Instead of going out, scurrying, and knocking on the doors of friends, you waited but ask the question.
I asked myself again, “Why am I doing this? What was the driving force that brought me here?” It’s my background, spirituality, and belief in eastern ways of thinking and living. There’s symbolism and thought there. I thought, “Here I was exposed to all these deep conversations of karma, reincarnation, transformation, and things of that nature. I have to look within. If this kombucha is an expression of who I am, I need to lean into that.” What I did is I worked with a design firm in the northwest.
Did you torture them?
It was tough at the beginning because what happened is a lot of design firms, even to this day, default to what’s hot right now. The first round of designs that they shared with me look like POM Wonderful, IZZE. There’s nothing wrong with those products, but they’re contemporary beverages. They are designed to capture the eye, quench your thirst, move on, don’t even think about it. I said, “That’s not me.” This is like a religion. This is a spiritual quest. First of all, you should have seen the look on my face when I poured my heart out in the first kickoff meeting, and then I came back a month later and they had me fly up to Seattle. I was in this board room, conference room environment and they’re like, “Here you go.”
That’s the best. You’re like, “Did you hear one thing I said?”
I was this close to tipping the table. Complete rage. What happened was I left that meeting, went to Kinkos and AOL, and started to search certain words like karma, Om, prana, pranayama, and all these things that were in my vocabulary as a young boy but slowly faded out and I resuscitated them. Through those search words came imagery of a lotus flower. That means transformation and transcending darkness into light or challenge into a success. All these little different symbolic qualities started to come to me, and then I started to sketch the label.
I’m a big believer that you have to go almost out of your way to make sure that your intention is clear. Most times, the best way to solidify your intention is to articulate it. That’s why even today, my labels have a lot of words on them because the words are me and the product trying to speak to you. That’s what I did. I sketched this label and I faxed it back to these designers, and then six weeks later, they came back and I had what we call the Lotus Architecture.
[bctt tweet=”Healthy food and nutrition, regardless of where you live and regardless of your income, you should have access to it.”]
That changed me forever because it unlocked this language, conversation, and connection between the bottle and the consumer that I no longer had to be sampling to have that conversation. You can only be in so many places at once. If the packaging is talking and it’s speaking the right language to the people who are seeking it, solid gold. Within a year, I went from doing well to not being able to meet demand. At the time, I would send truckloads of product to these West Coast distribution centers that would supply Whole Foods and all that, and it would sell out in fifteen minutes.
Here’s the interesting part. That can be a company killer because you’re now pissing off customers and consumers. It’s the best way to give birth to your own competition or for people to say, “This is BS. I need more product or you’re out.” I can’t tell you how many times people said that to me and I said, “This is not Coca-Cola. This isn’t even orange juice that I just buy more oranges and squeeze more oranges. I’m growing these. They take time.”
I keep thinking about buyers at grocery stores. The cycle is they’re only going to do it every couple of months, all this protocol and all this stuff, and then you’re like, “I’m growing this. This drink can’t be rushed.” People must be like, “Oh my god.”
What’s funny is even Whole Foods at some point summoned me into their corporate headquarters in Austin and they were like, “What the heck? What’s going on? Why can’t you make more of this?” What they realized and recognized is I was trying to serve a greater purpose. They could tell that I wanted to make and sell products, but at what cost?
I said to them, “You sell a ton of products that are manufactured that people drink and forget about. I don’t need to join that party. I’m doing something special. Clearly, it’s working. Why would I change that for a short-sighted decision to start getting the product back on the shelf now? If I cut corners, I can’t tell people with sincerity that’s the best product possible. People will recognize that, and then that’s the beginning of the end.”
Besides your customers and vendors and such, do you answer to anyone?
We all answer to somebody at some point. I have to answer to myself.
In your business, do you have someone who’s like, “GT, I need to talk to you. This is going on,” and you have that? Does the buck stop with you? If you want to pivot, you pivot and that’s just the way it is?
For the most part, the buck stops with me and the only time it doesn’t is if I’m not seeing things with clarity and this could harm the business financially, physically, what have you. I encourage the people that I work with in any stage of where they’re at in the company, above me, below me, beside me, all of that, to say, “This is not a good idea and these are the reasons why.”
I always believe you need to be open-minded. I like to invite people’s opinions. My father told me, “Everybody has an opinion but most of them stink.” You listen to what people say, but you almost disseminate it into, “What’s the common form of feedback that I’m hearing amongst everybody or most people?” That’s usually what I pay attention to. Having said that, there’s a reason why my company’s private. There’s a reason why I haven’t taken on investors. It’s because I’ve noticed as great as those circumstances can be, and I’m not here to judge anybody who’s done that, there now are two cooks in the kitchen.
When I saw the Forbes interview, I know you want to be the only guy. The fact that you’ve been able to do that is unusual and amazing. When you get to a certain level of success, did you have anything in place or practice to keep yourself in check? It’s fun, nice things, and trips.
You’re the guy. I appreciate the spiritual practice, but as you’re living in the world, did you step off the curve a couple of times and go, “That’s going to take me down. I better be careful.”
100%. There are three things that kept me focused. One is witnessing my brother die, how he felt, and what was in his eyes and his heart in those last moments. That reminds you that there are things that we overlook that are important. At some point, we’re going to recognize it and you don’t want it to be too late. I have those visuals ingrained in my brain.
The second is my mother. My mother was always an example because my mother is beautiful, glamorous, and all these things, but she always had heart. She was never mean-spirited, egotistical, or materialistic. It doesn’t mean she didn’t like the finer things, but it wasn’t her identity. The third thing is maintaining spirituality, which comes in many shapes and forms. I’ve done ayahuasca three times. I’m not here to promote stuff like that, even though I do think it’s incredible.
Whether it’s ayahuasca, breathwork, meditation, or going on a hike and immersing yourself in nature, there are these opportunities to reconnect with a vibration and a frequency that exists everywhere on this planet but our eyes aren’t open to it and you have to open up your eyes. When you see that, you can’t unsee it. To be honest, it’s a routine, it’s a practice. There’s a reason why I’ve done ayahuasca three times because almost every two years, I need that reminder. I need the veil to be pulled back.
We’re funny like that, aren’t we? I say that to my husband sometimes. A sign will come and I’m like, “Why do I have to be kept given the sign? Haven’t I learned this yet?” It’s that reminder. I get bogged down with life’s details and my own stuff. You have your truth, you’ve seen the truth, and then every once in a while, the beam comes down and goes, “Hey, knucklehead,” and you go, “I know that already. Why do I need to be reminded?”
That is why the practice is important because it keeps the veil a little thinner. Maybe for you, besides being clear about your intention from a straight business perspective, what’s one of the more valuable things that you know to be true for you that you’ve learned? You went through the school of doing a business. You didn’t go to Wharton. What is it that has shown up for you in a business way that you’re like, “This is should be in every business book.”
First of all, it’s asking yourself, “What makes me happy?” I realized at an early age that wealth and success don’t make me happy. In fact, they make me quite miserable. What I did notice is that what makes me happy is to contribute and participate in the happiness of others and bring joy into their life. When you’re healthy, you’re happy.
If I can contribute and support the health of others, which then translates into them being happier and in many ways, and this is the number one thing people say when they drink our kombucha, “It opened up a door.” “It opened up my third eye to my relationship with myself, food, others, and this planet.” It’s this incredible divine experience. That’s what I want to be a part of to whatever degree.
What if you have to go to a meeting and you have some beverage manager, he’s going to buy your product, and you guys culturally couldn’t be further, how do you bridge the gap between what you’re selling? These guys are about numbers, distribution, where it’s positioned on the shelf, and shelf velocity. How do you find ways to find the language?
Honestly, sometimes that language involves the word no. I have been in some big meetings with some big customers that are trying to bend me over and say, “It’s this or nothing.” I said, “I’m here to tell you that I want to be a vendor. I want to be a partner. I want to hold hands and walk towards success, but at what cost?” I do believe in short-sighted decisions and short-sighted mistakes. I said, “If I do this one thing, we may have success today or tomorrow but I don’t think it’s going to last. That’s a losing situation for you and me.”
There have been times that I’ll say no. At the end of the day, it goes back to the why. Why am I doing this? I’ve already made money, so it’s not like I need to make more. Stay true to yourself and more importantly, don’t exploit situations. If I was to succumb to this temptation or better yet this mandate that I’ve been giving, if it involves me compromising my beliefs, my values, and what my product stands for, I’m sold out. It’s not a good look.
That never ends well. What’s your favorite flavor? Do you have one?
It varies. The one that you brought up, Sacred Life, the blue one is my favorite.
It has a trippy feel.
It has a silkiness that comes from the blue spirulina. There’s a story about that flavor, which I’ll share. That was our 25th-anniversary flavor. Amongst all this pandemic stuff, we were trying at least to celebrate our 25th anniversary and we wanted a moment to do that. Sacred Life was the flavor that I developed. By no mistake, when the original bottle came out, it had sacred geometry, the seat of life kind of pattern if you will, embossed into the glass.
I named it Sacred Life because clearly, what makes this planet and all of us so incredibly special is the ability to sustain life. That’s important for who we are as human beings. That’s important for all living things on this planet, including our food. It was a reminder to me as well as people who work with me and the people who buy and consume our products that that is still our number one priority. No matter how trendy or clever things get in the marketplace, because there’s a lot of snake oils right now, it has to have life.
Why it was also special is there was a reason why we use and incorporated the blue spirulina into the liquid because it’s a reminder of one of the most sacred forms of life on this planet, and that’s our ocean and how our ocean is struggling. It was a big moment for me and that’s why it’s my favorite flavor. It has a lot of sentimental value.
I enjoyed it. How many kombuchas do you drink a day?
I would drink so many.
To answer your question first, I drink anywhere from 12 to 18 bottles, which is 1 to 1.5 gallons, even 2 gallons sometimes.
Maybe you’re drunk a little bit.
You are super-powered. To be honest, I’m juggling a bunch of stuff every day and kombucha gives me the mental clarity, physical stamina, elevated mood, and all of that to take on things and be my best.
How much sleep do you get at night?
That’s my other thing. I have a couple of non-negotiables in my life. Eight hours sleep.
Laird’s sleep is non-negotiable.
How many hours does he need?
He’s obnoxious. He tries to go to bed by 8:30. It’s brutal. How do you have any fun? No offense. At one point, you were single and you weren’t going to bed at 8:30.
Even right now that I’m married, I go to bed sometimes at 12:00 or 1:00.
What are your non-negotiables?
My non-negotiable is eight hours of sleep every night.
How is that possible? You have two babies. That’s going out the door.
You make it happen.
You say, “We’re going to get these kids but daddy needs sleep.”
We know what it is, which is interesting about kids and I know you know this.
I want to re-interview you in about five years.
I’m going to be heavy-set, tired, and smoking.
You’ll only be drinking hard kombuchas.
Sleep and what else?
Workout every day.
What kind of workout? You’re banging iron.
I lift weights, I do kickboxing, I swim, and I run. Working out to me is a lot like brushing your teeth. You just have to do it. It’s not nice to have, it’s a need to have. You got to do it.
Do you do morning?
Do you find that if you don’t get it in the morning, your day is eaten and you never get it in?
Yeah, and I’m cranky. I’ll cancel meetings and I say to them, “I’m doing this for you because you do not want me in that meeting without a workout because the stinger’s coming out.”
I always feel like for me, the same thing. “I’ve done one thing for myself today,” and I’m a little more reasonable. It’s hard for people to realize that you get that time back in a multiple to you on your precision, balanced thinking, and sense of well-being. Are you vegetarian still?
Yes. This goes back to raising kids. My parents raised me a vegetarian but after the age of 10, they said, “We raised you this way. Go and eat whatever you want.” It is important because people need to have the ability to make their own decisions and learn from them. They’re being given education and information so they can sort things out, but at the end of the day, the choice is theirs.
I have a daughter. My kids eat healthy but there are things I don’t have in my house. I don’t say, “You can’t eat this or that.” The way my kids rebel is they’ll be like, “Can we go to Starbucks?” I’m like, “Could I have a healthier one?” They’ll get some weird, crappy something. She’ll be like, “Oh.” I never say anything. If you’re an example to them and your parents are an example to you, and I do think it’s healthy to let kids go off and make the choice, and if you’re showing them that’s what you eat at home, it feels good.
It goes back to the thing that when people drink kombucha, it’s like, “It just feels good. There’s something about it.” It’ll be interesting though because we say, “Know the difference between what’s food and what’s fun.” With my kids, I always say, “A bagel is not food. It is fun but it’s not food.” As long as they understand the difference. Let’s talk about you having two children that are three months apart. You have a sense son and a daughter. You were married in 2019. How long were you and Allen together before you got married?
We were together in 2011, so eight years. That’s a long time. To be honest, I wrestled with the whole idea of getting married because of a combination of things.
You have a big business and you have stuff to divide. Do you want to get in that hassle?
Things are going so well. We’re so good. Do we need a piece of paper to define us?
There are ceremonies.
That’s the other thing. We even talked about doing the ceremony but not getting married. We changed that when kids came into the picture, which by the way, kids were also something that my husband always want it because he’s a Taurus, and Taurus is maternal and paternal like my mom. They were born to be parents. On the other hand, I feel like I’m married with kids already with my business. I’m like, “I’m good.”
[bctt tweet=”There are things that we overlook that are important. At some point, we’re going to recognize it and you don’t want it to be too late.”]
When we started losing family members, especially when you lose a parent, because my husband lost his father, when you lose a parent is when you become an adult in certain ways. What I’ve learned is our parents, whether we like it or not, are always like, “When you were a kid… When you were a baby… When you were this big…” You’re always hearing these stories but when they’re gone, the stories go.
There was a desire in both my heart and mind as well as my husband’s to build our family, grow our family, and more importantly, hope and pray that one day we would be blessed to have a child that we could look in their eyes and see a familiar set of eyes looking back at us. We can’t do it the old-fashioned way, it’s a commitment. It’s not a fleeting moment.
When you’re pregnant, you get eased into, “I’m three months.” “I’m six months.” “I’m nine months.” “I can’t sleep now.” Because you’re not going to sleep. When you’re uncomfortable because you’re big in your pregnancy, it’s like, “Nature’s getting you ready for not sleeping.” I have friends who adopted and they’ll be given the baby. My friend is in her size two jeans with a three-day-old. I’m like, “Something is intense about all this.” They didn’t warn you or prep you. What are you surprised about being a new parent?
I experienced this within the first five minutes of my baby boy, Bloom, being born. I was blown away by how the paternal instincts come out immediately. Within the first five minutes, my world got small. All my stresses, worries, and desires completely went away. The only thing I was concerned about was loving and protecting this living thing.
In many ways, children are like a mirror. They show you who you are for better, for worse. They also shine a bright light on your life. I’ve already told my husband this, “I’m not getting a dad bod. I’m not going to get pulled into it. I’m not going to let the kids ruin our relationship. We have to continue to maintain what makes the relationship special. We need to continue to maintain things in our personal lives that make us happy like working out.” That ultimately will allow us to be the best parent and lead by example, by the way, because kids are, of course, observant. It did open my eyes to a whole other part of this world that, I’m embarrassed to admit, I was somewhat blind to.
No offense, but gay, CEO, badass company, perfect, why would you worry about cotton spit-up blankets or a cool ergonomic stroller? Why would you ever need to know about that? What I want to know is do you have a minivan? Do have a Porsche Taycan?
I have the electric Porsche. It’s a four-door. All my other cars were sports cars. That’s the closest I can get to it.
Are there two car seats in there?
Where do the kids go?
Full disclosure and I’ve never thought I was going to say this. It sounds pretentious. I bought a Kia Telluride and that’s the kid’s car. I don’t drive it.
I will not be caught dead being seen in that car.
It doesn’t have enough torque for me.
There will be Cheerios in that car. Even if they’re gluten-free, they’ll be in the cracks. My husband used to joke, “Remember how clean everything was when I first met you because my car’s always clean?” My kids are getting bigger now but there was a time where I was like, “Who cares?” People are like, “Is that a suitcase in your car? Is that a cooler? Is that food?” “Yes, it is.”
[bctt tweet=”People need to have the ability to make their own decisions and learn from them.”]
Somebody said something to me that’s important for parenting. Byron Katie said, “You could do two things that would be important for your children, which would be to listen,” because the tendency is going to be to want to fix everything. She also said, “Make yourself as happy as you can.” Happiness is not the destination, but this idea of working out, doing things, nurturing your mind and your spirit. She said, “So they know what it looks like.” I thought, “It feels selfish but there’s something so powerful when you also trust in the modeling factor of parenting.” How about Allan? How is he adjusting? Is he in hog heaven?
He was born to be a dad. Cloud nine, loving every aspect of it. It’s beautiful. That’s what I knew going into this. My mom told me, “Having babies sounds nice but you can’t see a baby in the street or out in public and be like, ‘I want one.'” She’s like, “That is the beginning of the end. It has to be this fire in the belly, this burning desire that only gets bigger. When that happens, then you can have kids.”
It’s no joke. Did you ever have a night you go to bed and you realize, “They’re here.” We used to joke at our house, “You can’t put them back. There’s no pause. Even when they’re not here, you’re thinking about them and you’re worried about them.” I used to think when you have a new baby, especially if there was something interesting where I’m like, “I need to get out of the house for a minute.” The minute I leave, I was like, “I need to be home with them.” There’s such an interesting and beautiful occurrence but yes, they are here.
It’s a lifetime commitment.
It’s real and it is the most expensive thing. I want you to come back. I want them to be about 2 or 3 and I want to see how it’s going. I want to see if your shirt has a stain on it or something and you’re like, “I was with the kids.” I appreciate, first of all, your business. I appreciate that you put your product out there. I have been a consumer since the beginning. I don’t just say things.
Thank you for that. That’s huge. Companies like mine exist because of people like you.
I have to ask a couple of things. If somebody thought, “I’m about to buy this stuff but I would like to experiment with doing it at home.” There’s always some adventurous soul. Can you find a SCOBY anywhere?
Where? Can they stand outside and get the old SCOBY?
That’s going to turn to molds. I probably wouldn’t want them to do that. There’s now a trade association for the kombucha industry called KBI. That’s a great source to get cultures for homemade kombucha because it’s a trusted source. Number one, everything, even the seed of a fruit, there are better seeds than others. You want to make sure you start with a good seed. Number two, this is a case in point that we make incredible kombucha, which is easy for me to say, but you can grow a SCOBY from a bottle of GTs.
You have a lot of confidence. You’re like, “Go ahead.”
There are more steps here but I’m going to simplify it. If you take a bottle of original, pour it into a vessel, and cultivate it as if you have a culture, it will develop a culture and then you can use that to make your next batch. It’ll continue to reproduce and you’re off to the races.
You’re like, “Leave it to the professionals.” GT’s Living Foods is the brand and you have other things. We talked about the AQUA KEFIR and you have your COCOYO. There are other things that you’re doing. There are over 40 flavors. Do you want to give a shout-out to Steven Seagal? I thought that was amazingly random.
Is that incredible? The most amazing part by the way is when I got the call back from Steven’s team.
How old were you, 20?
No, I was much younger because I’m still making it at my parent’s house. My answering machine takes a message and it was something like, “Hi, I’m with Mr. Seagal. We are interested in your product. We’d like to have it directly delivered to us.” When I finally get their address, they’re off of the street that my house is on.
Would you ride your bike down there?
No, because that’d be a giveaway. It looked like I was traveling from far away to bring it there. I brought it in and it was remarkable what a small world it was. It’s those sweet moments. If you’re reading and you’re like, “The universe is telling me, ‘Keep doing this. You’re doing alright.'”
The signs are there. Is there anything else that is important to you that you want to share before we wrap up?
We covered a lot. In closing, it’s important for all of us, especially in this day and age that we’re going through where we feel challenged, days feel dark, and all of that, to always look inward and to know that there is a greater meaning to life. Sometimes it’s not right in front of us and maybe it’s not as obvious. If you take that moment and center and ground yourself with love, gratitude, and good intentions, everything will be okay. You’ll be happy, you’ll be healthy, and the days will be bright.
What you do naturally though because you have maybe that blend of your mom and dad is that you are strong enough and maybe a little bit of a killer that you can also stay rooted within your path. Because sometimes when it’s one, it is hard. It’s easier to do that when you’re strong within yourself because the outside world will oftentimes run over you. What you have interestingly is that killer. You have the combination or the strength to be soft like, “That’s the line.” Especially if people are doing business, it’s a difficult thing to do but it’s certainly worth trying.
You’re right because some of the things I said could be easily misinterpreted. You’re like, “He’s just a pushover or a nice guy or peace and love hippie-dippie.” Yeah, peace and love but I also believe in being a soul-dier. You’re fighting with your spirit. You’re not fighting to harm people, but you’re fighting because you believe in something and you will not back down. You’re willing to die for what you believe in.
That’s important. I’m going to close on saying that I’m excited because I know your mom must be thrilled that she has grandchildren and that what she thought maybe was going to be your path when you were 12 or 13. You didn’t have to suffer because of going at what she thought was a different path at that time. It’s reminding people that we don’t always know how it’s going to work out and it usually could be so much better than we think. Congratulations on your family and your business. I can’t wait to see what you do next.
Thank you. I appreciate that.
Thanks so much for being here. If you’d like, rate, subscribe, and leave us a review. All of my music was graciously done by Frank Zummo and Tom Thacker. If you want to see some of the behind-the-scenes action, follow me @GabbyReece. Remember, don’t miss new episodes every Monday.
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About GT Dave
The story of GT’s does not begin with a business plan; it starts with a young man on a mission. Witnessing its incredible effects firsthand, a teenage GT Dave realized his purpose to share the gift of Kombucha in its purest, most potent form to help people everywhere live healthier, happier lives.
Raised by parents embracing Eastern philosophy, GT adopted a spiritual view of the world at a young age. After receiving the gift of a Himalayan Mother SCOBY in the early ’90s, the Daves were intrigued by Kombucha’s ancient healing properties and began brewing their own batches of the fizzy fermented tea. Over 25 years later, GT’s is the most loved Kombucha in the world.