Spring Branch Kombucha is on the verge of a production uptick for its fermented tea product.
The commercial kombucha brewery, the first and currently only such operation in Springfield, is in the process of transitioning to significantly bigger tanks to accommodate demand. Founded in 2017, the manufacturer started wholesale distribution in March 2018, initially producing 250-gallon batches in its 300-gallon tank that was built at Springfield-based Custom Metalcraft Inc.
Now, Spring Branch owners Chris and Jessica Ollis are ready to step up production with 600-gallon tanks they purchased for an undisclosed price from New Orleans-based Big Easy Bucha LLC. The husband-and-wife team’s goal is to move from offering its kombucha tea drink, now available on draft at nearly 20 retailers and every week at the Farmers Market of the Ozarks, to adding a prepackaged product in cans.
“We’re only on draft at the locations around town,” says Chris, who maintains his full-time job as portfolio manager for U.S. Bancorp Wealth Management. “We don’t have a packaged product or anything like that. We’re moving that direction, but like everything else we do, we’re not going to do it until it’s right.”
Keeping up with production has been a challenge from the beginning, Jessica says of the three-person operation that includes Chris’s brother Matt. The company drew early interest from MaMa Jean’s Natural Foods Market LLC and Lucky’s Market. Lucky’s store wasn’t even open prior to making contact with the couple after representatives saw media coverage of the new venture in fall 2017.
“It went pretty fast; it was kind of a blur,” Jessica says about adding its products at various restaurants and bars, including 4 by 4 Brewing Co., Tie & Timber Beer Co. and The Wheelhouse. “We had to go slow because our production couldn’t meet up with demand.”
She adds those connections were spurred by conversations the couple had with Springfield-based Wil Fischer Distributing Co. Prior to being contacted by Wil Fischer last fall, the couple had planned to self-distribute.
“There’s been a lot of fortune and luck in the timing of a lot of things,” Chris says.
The Wheelhouse co-owner Melissa Smallwood says the restaurant, which opened a brick-and-mortar spot in August 2018 after five years as a food truck, offers four Spring Branch flavors on draft.
She says her family loves kombucha and used to make it at home. The restaurant menu has a number of fermented foods on its menu, such as kimchi and falafel.
“We’re a health-oriented restaurant and this fit in with our focus,” she says. “We’re all about foods that have good bacteria with them.”
Draft pints of the drink are sold for $4.50, with The Wheelhouse also selling 32-ounce growlers for $13.50, when initially purchased, and $10 for refills. More than 200 glasses of kombucha were sold in May, along with 12 growlers, Smallwood says, adding the product has been consistently popular since the restaurant began offering it.
The drink’s popularity isn’t just in Springfield, based on a December 2018 study from New York-based global measurement and data analysis company Nielsen Holdings PLC (NYSE: NLSN). Through the first 11 months of the year, kombucha sales in the U.S. had reached $412 million – an increase of 42% from a year prior.
Production in Spring Branch’s 1,650-square-foot manufacturing plant regularly runs at 100% capacity, Chris says, averaging around 500 gallons per month to create its nine flavors.
Lemon hops is the most popular option, with nearly 200 gallons sold monthly – almost twice as much as any other flavor, he says, declining to disclose company revenue. Among other Spring Branch flavors are blueberry thyme, lavender, raspberry basil and ginger turmeric.
“Lemon hops has always been consistently our biggest seller, but it doesn’t do very well at the farmers market because that’s just a flavor combination that people at 9 o’clock in the morning aren’t that interested in. They want something fruitier,” Chris says, adding raspberry basil and elderberry ginger both garner interest at the market.
With just about 14 months of sales to track, Jessica says they’re still determining what flavors are proving to be more seasonal in popularity.
Nearly $500,000 has been invested in the company since opening, Chris estimates, including work on its plant designed by Sam A. Winn & Associates, Architects PC and built by Greg Crawford Construction Co.
Chris distinctly remembers the first bottle of kombucha he ever bought because it exploded in his car – a notable lesson that the product is probiotic-rich with live bacteria.
He had brewed beer off and on for years, but after reading about kombucha, he believed he could adapt his brewing skills to the tea drink. The couple initially saw the pursuit as something small that could be done on the side and sold at farmers markets. However, Jessica, a stay-at-home mom, saw a business opportunity as a commercial brewing operation. None existed in Springfield.
“I knew if we were going to have a family business, we had to have full buy-in,” she says. “It was a timing issue that I really wanted us to jump on. In sales and marketing, sometimes it’s better to be first.”
Aside from its nearly 20 Springfield distribution points, Spring Branch has extended to Harrison, Arkansas, where kombucha is sold at health food store Nature’s Wonders. Still, the Ollises say this isn’t part of a strategy to expand its footprint beyond the Ozarks – at least not yet.
“We’re an Ozarks brand. We identify ourselves very heavily with this area,” Chris says, adding the focus for now remains on pursuing its prepackaged product.
In the meantime, the Ollises plan to continue the weekly farmers market appearances, along with as many community events they are able to accommodate.
“We’re not in the event business, but we are definitely doing our best to build relationships around the community as much as possible,” she says.
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