In the beverage alcohol space, Black Americans represent 12 percent of alcohol consumers but only two percent of alcohol executives, according to Pronghorn. But there are innovators seeking to transform the industry and promote diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA).
Jackie Summers is the CEO of Jack from Brooklyn, producer of Sorel Liqueur. In 2012, he became the first Black person to hold a license to make liquor in post-prohibition United States.
An innovator turned industry luminary, Jackie is often found sharing his story and success through his writing and appearances at industry events. He was named a Drinks Innovator of the Year by Food and Wine Magazine and his writing for Epicurious was nominated for a James Beard Award.
For his brand Sorel Liqueur, Jack draws from his African and Indigenous ancestors, with unique flavors that trace their roots to the spice trade. Even his brand name draws inspiration from sorrel, a hibiscus tea popular in West Africa that was brought to the Caribbean through the African diaspora.
Learn how Jackie drives brand growth while staying true to his values.
How has being a Black liquor brand owner affected the marketing and distribution of the brand, and what challenges have you faced as the only licensed Black distiller in America?
The obstacles are both operational and tactical. From an operations perspective, Black entrepreneurs receive less than two percent of overall funding dollars each year. Black-owned businesses accounted for less than nine percent of all loans and are expected to borrow at a higher interest rate.
From a tactical perspective, any time I enter a negotiation with a distributor or walk into a bar, restaurant or packaged goods store, I am dealing with the reality that it is more likely that these people have seen lions, tigers and bears in person, yet have never stood in the presence of a Black liquor brand owner.
Both in terms of acquiring the resources necessary to run a business, and then building the kind of network required to be successful, the systemic barriers are, and have been, significant.
You have taught diversity and inclusion curricula for several years, but in 2019, you changed the topic from “How to Build a Longer Table” to “How to “How to Build Your Own Table.” How does your company promote diversity and inclusion within its workforce and supply chain, fostering equal opportunities and supporting marginalized communities?
Promoting diversity and inclusion is both an internal and external matter.
Internally, my company is comprised of the kind of diversity necessary to best address our consumers. We are Black, White, Latino and Asian. We are Gen X, Millennial and Gen Y. We are Christian, Muslim, Taoist and Agnostic. We are men and women, straight and queer, and we do not simply tolerate our differences, we celebrate and lean into them.
In this way, we best address outward-facing needs, like marketing, hiring vendors and cross-pollination of resources shared between brands owned by marginalized communities.
A recent example of how this works in real-time was our activation at the world’s largest cocktail convention, Tales of the Cocktail. Most Black and minority-owned brands cannot afford an activation on their own, so we bought one and invited brands to come in under our umbrella. We provided the venue, the food and the music and shared the light with a half-dozen other Black-owned brands. The result was an event that was five times over capacity attended by major press and distribution.
We shine brightest when we shine together.
You mentioned that part of Sorel's uniqueness is its flavor-first approach. You said that you add flavors to alcohol, while big liqueur companies add alcohol to flavors. How does the company gather and leverage customer insights to inform product flavor innovation and meet customer needs? Do you conduct surveys or focus groups or analyze customer feedback to identify opportunities for the next flavor?
Our surveys are our grandmother’s kitchens, our aunties who make that good mac and cheese and our uncles with the hip flask who work the grill at family gatherings.
I do not believe in trend reports. By the time information has been gathered, assessed and redistributed, it is too late.
The best way to predict trends is to create them, and the best trend-makers are the custodians of long-standing cultural traditions.
A misalignment between investor values, brand values and social media influencer values can negatively impact a company's reputation and financial performance. How can brands ensure their values align with those of their investors and social media influencers?
This is a hill I will die on (and almost have more than once): You cannot accept money from people who do not share your values.
Finding investors is like getting married, except marital divorce is less expensive. No matter how badly you need capitalization, you cannot accept money from people whose values are fundamentally incongruent with your own.
Before you accept the check, make sure your goals are aligned with your investors. Values over valuations, always.
The ingredients for making Sorel come from diverse places: hibiscus from Morocco, ginger from Nigeria and clove from Brazil. How do you enforce supply chain responsibility by ensuring responsible and ethical practices throughout the supply chain, such as monitoring supplier compliance with labor and environmental standards?
While I have yet to visit these places personally, I ensure the vendors I work with can vouch for working conditions and sustainability.
Anytime you have goods crossing international borders, it is hard to minimize the overall environmental impact, so you have to ask very specific unfiltered questions.
Standards and enforcement vary wildly from country to country, so if answers seem nebulous, you move on until you can find a vendor who can unequivocally prove they are in compliance with best practices and standards.
To learn more about how businesses find success, listen to GHJ’s Business Disruption and Resilience Podcast. To learn more about how food and beverage businesses can set themselves up for success, please contact GHJ’s Food and Beverage Practice.