Small Business Summer Spotlights: Brewing Cultures & Community With Brew Dr.
This summer, Instacart is celebrating small businesses with our Small Business Summer Spotlights series. We know small businesses are the heart of their communities, and we’re proud to help them thrive and grow. Every Friday, we’ll introduce you to one of our many small business partners, so check back each week for the latest installment.
Brew Dr. is on a mission to bring the magic of kombucha to all, without compromise. The company takes a tea-first approach to its product, crafting its innovative beverages from natural, organic ingredients. The company’s commitment to people, and to the planet, is a north star for the brand, from its carbon neutral operations to its B Corp Certification.
As a part of our Small Business Summer Spotlight series, we had the privilege of sitting down with Matt Thomas, the founder of Brew Dr., to learn more about the origins of the business, the role that Instacart has played in supporting its growth, and the ways in which the company is investing in its community.
What was the initial inspiration that led to you building Brew Dr.? How did the company move from an idea to a full-fledged CPG brand?
The early origins of the business started back when I was a senior in business school at the University of Oregon (I’m an Oregon Native), with the assignment to write a business plan that served a niche audience. I was already a tea drinker back then, and hadn’t caught the coffee bug like a lot of other people at the time. I realized pretty early that tea can mean a lot of things – there are teas that help you fall asleep at night, that make you feel better, teas that wake you up in the morning, tea with tapioca pearls in it, and spices, milk – a whole world to explore. The idea I came up with was to bring all of these different ways teas are presented around the world to a cool, college campus-style coffee house.
I opened the first tea house in 2003 in Portland, Oregon. It wasn’t the best job market for graduates at the time, and I was passionate about the business plan I’d created and wanted to give it a real shot. So, I went to Kinkos and printed copies of the plan to hand out to anyone who was interested. I scraped together a group of friends and family to invest about $45,000 to start the tea house. All of those people are still owners of the company today, so several aunts, uncles, friends and friends’ parents still get updates on all of our business moves and have been following our journey since day one.
We decided to call the shop Townshend’s Tea Company. I spent my early twenties trying to figure out how to keep a tea house open, which often consisted of being a handyman, learning to fix appliances and build shelving. Eventually I was able to step out from behind the tea counter and open a second location in 2008 in Bend, Oregon.
Kombucha happened as a result of my love of tea, and the desire to bring everything you could do with tea under one roof. Around 2008, we started to see the rise of kombucha, which I love because it provides the health benefits of raw fermentation in the easiest, most delicious way. We started making our own kombucha in the kitchens of the two tea houses, and discovered that the recipes we’d come up with for our tea menus – blends of teas and herbs, botanicals, and dried fruits – translated really well as flavor profiles for our kombucha. One of the original recipes from the tea house menu is still our top selling product today – our Clear Mind kombucha, which is green tea, sage, rosemary, mint, and dandelion root. Those herbs are bright and invigorating, and translated perfectly into the fizzy kombucha format.
Our jars of kombucha started selling out right away, and what was really meaningful to me was that the staff loved it. People who were drawn to work at the tea house were tea experts and enthusiasts, and the fact that they were excited about it meant that we were on to something. We opened up a little commercial kitchen in the basement of our Portland tea house and started making more, filling each bottle by hand and driving them to the co-ops around Portland. That’s how it all started.
The tea house was open 13 hours a day, 7 days a week, and then few of us would do kombucha shift at night, after the tea house closed. We quickly outgrew the basement kitchen, but didn’t have the capital to do anything beyond that.
We had gotten onto a couple Whole Foods shelves by then, and I learned about their Local Producer Loan program, which provides loans for emerging local businesses to buy things like equipment to grow their operations. We moved into a new facility, and once we had just a little bit of automation, we took off. We were eventually able to invest in more equipment, including a couple of vans to deliver the product ourselves across the Northwest. Our next springboard was an SBA-backed small business loan. In 2016, we moved into the facility we have today. We call it our kombucha brewery, and it looks a little like a mix between a brewery, a winery, and Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
Brew Dr. prioritizes giving back to your local community and running a responsible business. What does that look like in practice for a small brand?
As the business grew, it became really important for me to cement our values. We’re an Oregon company and I grew up here. Oregon was the first state to roll out a bottle bill designed to create a sustainable recycling process for cans and bottles. The state has a very progressive environmental focus, with many tall trees to protect.
In 2018, Brew Dr. became certified as a B-Corp. Back then we were on the large end for a B-Corp, but happily today, much larger companies and corporations are opting to become B-Corp certified. It means you’re not just focused on profit and running a solid business, but also maintaining a commitment to the people who work for you, the people and community you impact, and the planet. It’s also an incredible way to engage our employees. I’m always so proud and impressed by our team. We have a volunteer group of employees called the B-Hive that explore new opportunities for us to give back and consistently improve the sustainability of our operations. It’s not just company leadership dictating that we need to do certain things to maintain a B-Corp score. It’s a proactive mission from within the company, and comes from all levels. We also have what we call our Local Love project, where we compensate our employees for their volunteer time multiple times a year.
We’ve supported a number of nonprofits from early on in our journey, even before we became a B-Corp. In Oregon, there are many organizations that provide outdoor education, inspiring kids to care about nature, understand the ecosystem, and learn how to maintain its natural beauty. We’ve supported several of these nonprofits, and helped a few become members of 1% for the Planet, allowing them to source more donations and grow. And, this June we’re excited to continue our partnership with The Trevor Project, supporting LGBTQ youth during Pride Month and all year.
On the back-end of the business, we prioritize carbon neutrality according to Oregon state guidelines. Our facility and operations are Scope 1 and 2 certified carbon neutral, and we also purchase renewable energy credits.
Tell us a little bit about building the brand from a creative, storytelling perspective. How do you work with Instacart to share your brand story with consumers?
Our first tea house location was in Northeast Portland, which is very much an arts district. That’s where we came up with our sloth mascot, Otis. There were a lot of murals, street art, and a big artistic community in the neighborhood so I had a local artist who specialized in animal illustration paint us an animal tea party scene on a wall in the shop. The central character of the animal tea party is a sloth, which is a great metaphor for the time and care it takes to make great tea, and ferment authentic, delicious kombucha. In our new brand refresh you’ll see that Otis the sloth has made his way onto the label of our packaging as our constant reminder that “you can’t rush the good stuff.”
We’ve been working on this new brand refresh because we want to continue to see kombucha grow as a category. You might be surprised that kombucha only has about 20% consumer awareness across the country, so it still has a long way to go. The early adopters of the product and our brand have been consumers interested in organic food, and gut health as a part of health and wellness. We want to continue to make new and interesting versions of our kombucha for them, but also attract new customers that maybe want to try kombucha as a replacement for another beverage they enjoy. Maybe they’re not motivated by the minutiae of why it’s good for you, but they’re looking for something that they know is a healthy option and is genuinely delicious. We wanted to bring something more accessible and inspiring to consumers this year with our brand refresh, which uses illustrations of the ingredients from our tea recipes to create travel poster-like designs.
Instacart allows us to really showcase this artistic aspect of the brand. Unlike many other ecommerce experiences, we’re able to customize our creative and our brand story with Instacart’s Pages and display advertising products. It really functions as an extension of our brand and website.
Instacart has been a critical partnership for us to grow, not only in our home region but also across the country. We’re always getting requests about where people can purchase our products, and we love being able to point to the carrot on our website which will bring you to the retailer nearest to you. As we continue to grow and expand into additional retailers, we’re really leveraging Instacart as a resource to capture that new consumer base, and share our kombucha with even more people.
Learn more about Brew Dr. here, and follow them on Facebook and Instagram. To shop Brew Dr. via Instacart, click here. To learn more about Instacart Ads and our work with emerging brands, visit https://www.instacart.com/company/ads.
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