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Andy Bannister, CEO, Head Brewer, & distributor for Big Norwegian Kombucha

Andy Bannister, CEO, Head Brewer, & distributor for Big Norwegian Kombucha

Published by Leonardo Calcagno

Who are you and what is your background?
My name is Andy Bannister, and I have been brewing kombucha commercially for over four years. I was a pioneer kombucha brewer in Buffalo, NY, which now has at least five suppliers. My background is as diverse as a microbiome – most notably I have a background in language/communication, HVAC, and fermenting alcohol. My wife, Marissa, handles most of the artistic components, including coming up with our delicious flavors; she is a teaching artist who enjoys lighting the fire of creativity within our community’s youth.

Your current job:
I currently work as CEO, Head Brewer, & distributor for Big Norwegian Kombucha. My wife and I are also parents to two wonderful daughters, Freyja and Amelia.

In which city:
Buffalo, NY

Where does your interest in Kombucha come from?
I have always found fermentation to be a wonderful process. I spent many years making beer and wine, and I certainly enjoy the fruits of that labor still, however the symbiotic fermentation of kombucha truly captivated me. My wife taught me to make kombucha when we first met, and I have not slowed since. I enjoy the challenge of creating the proper conditions to create an alcohol-free product that offers consumers high probiotic bacteria counts, as well as loads of healthy organic acids.

What prompted you to start your company?
This is the second kombucha company that I have started, and I chose to branch out because my ambitions are high and I wanted to create a production facility that could supply enough kombucha to build a lasting and trustworthy brand.

What makes your product unique?
Our product is unique because we choose to nurture the Gluconacetobacter, which is responsible for producing gluconic acid. This is significant as we don’t simply rely on acetic acid to dominate our flavor palette. By fostering the development of gluconic acid, which is a sweeter and healthier acid, we are able to reduce the amount of fruit, juice, or other sugars/sweeteners to our final flavor.

What do you want to convey through your brand image? Design: how was it designed? By whom?
Our brand image was designed by Olivia Fisher, of Syracuse, NY. We worked closely with Olivia, examining those attributes of our company and mission that should reach our customers through our brand design. Ultimately, we loved the idea of a mountain patch – in Eastern NY we have the Adirondack Mountains, and it is customary for those who climb the higher peaks to add that mountain’s patch to their collection. So, in a sense, we wanted our customers to enjoy our product, and then be proud of their positive choice to treat their mind and body to a mindfully created craft beverage.

What are the main challenges in your company?
The main challenges are seasonal. We are a true four-season region, and selling cold beverages can be difficult during the long winter. We are very pleased that the regional market has welcomed kombucha as a viable option for soda and fruit juices. Other challenges are more mundane, such as staffing and finding new ways to be in multiple places at once.

What tools are essential for your work (app, software)?
I keep track of my brewing metrics in Excel. We use Square for our POS system, and we rely on QuickBooks for accounting and wholesale invoicing.

A word to define what type of worker you are:

What does your office space look like?
I do not have much of an office, but I do have a desk in the back corner of my dry storage area, and a rolling cart that carries my laptop and planning calendar.

Do you have a way to organize your days to optimize your work?
Yes, I like to meet weekly with my team, which mainly includes my wife, Marissa, to set the week’s priorities, or just reaffirm an ongoing plan. My wife’s background as a teacher has provided us with some very tried and tested organizational methods. We are planners. I find it is very important to know your plan well and then trustfully in that plan. I lay out a weekly calendar with each day’s tasks. Of course, there are always derailments, as is common with managing any business, so it is important to be realistic about how much you can achieve and to be as kind to yourself as you can. After all, you don’t want to thwart your own plan by being too critical of yourself.

What tips would you give to improve productivity?
When something works, stick with it. Don’t worry about the micro-adjustments in your process – they will work themselves out. Focus on the big picture and advancing your goals and plans. I think planning is critical to productivity – setting up your day, or a week or month in a way that doesn’t duplicate efforts will certainly save you many frustrations.

What is the best advice you have been given?
Be passionate about what you do, or do something about which you are passionate.

Can you give us a tour of your local Kombucha scene?
Yes, we have one very large producer who distributes in multiple states on the east coast of the US – they blazed a trail for several other smaller companies to flourish locally. There are two other kombucha producers who are comparable in size and scope to us, but luckily there is a large market for kombucha here, so we have been able to avoid too much stepping on each other’s toes. There are also several smaller producers, typical owners of cafes who choose to produce their own kombucha.

How do you control the growth of your company?
By determining which market segment and sales goals we will address, and when we will address them, we are able to plan for continued growth over the next three years. That certainly comes with the caveat that we can not predict outlying consumer behaviors, which unfortunately tend to hit the kombucha market harder as most people see it as a luxury product.

What is your strategy for making your kombucha known? (tastings, festival, etc.) Why this strategy?
We have a very substantial farmers market scene in our region, so we bring our product to the market and engage new and existing customers to keep them happy with our product and their choice to buy it. We also have several weekly events that center around food trucks, so we like to offer our delicious kombucha to those who have found their perfect meal.

What are your end-of-day and early-day routine?
End-of-day routines are cleaning – I like to come into a clean environment. I find that my days start better this way. Early-day I try to hit the day hard and begin working on the plan for the day. I do try to get most of my financial matters addressed early in the day when my mind is fresh and energetic.

What advice would you give someone who wants to start a Kombucha company?
Be sure you’re ready to treat your kombucha as a product. What I mean by this is that the romance will likely wear off, and you will be handling your kombucha as a commodity, which can change the way you view the process. If you decide to do it, make the best plan you can for growing your business to a size that will work to reward your time and efforts. Overall, I would not deter folks from taking a chance – those who are risk-averse may find that beverage production is not for them. Also, surround yourself with positive people as much as you can.

Apart from your computer and your phone, what gadget cannot you do without?
Thermometer, pH meter, and refractometer.

Upcoming products or projects?
Our next project is to outfit a cold storage vehicle to help us bring more cold kombucha to markets, festivals, and events, and to also double as a delivery vehicle as we are currently self-distributing.