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Level 6

How Do You Create a Market for Drinking Vinegars? With Clear Vision. Just Ask Jess McClary.

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Jess McClary used to bake for the local farmer's market. Now she makes "shrubs," or colonial drinking vinegars, and they're wildly popular as creative cocktail ingredients. She told us about how she focuses on the bigger picture, shares her stories of running into unexpected difficulties with bottling and discusses her plans for future growth.


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Name: Jess McClary

Business: Owner of McClary Bros., a drinking vinegar producer

Started: 2012


Q: Tell us about the inspiration for McClary Bros.! How did you guys get started?


A: My husband started a business in 2006, but it failed during the 2008 recession and we had to declare personal bankruptcy. I'd always baked with my mom when I was younger, and I still enjoyed it, so I decided culinary school was the next step. I started the McClary Bros. Bakehouse from home and named it after my twin boys Jack and Ben.


But about eight months in, I lost my drive because I realized I was taking fresh local produce and coating it in butter, flour and sugar. I wanted to make healthier food, but I couldn't leave the farmers behind because I was sourcing $800-900 a week from them, so I started looking up old-fashioned preservation techniques online.


As soon as I came across concept of drinking vinegar, I knew that was it. There weren't any cookbooks or recipes out there, so I experimented with creating my own new flavors.


Q: What was your greatest challenge?


A: Once we started making vinegars and quit baking, I had so much more time to focus on our growth and realized I had no idea if I was making the right decisions.


Sometimes I was getting in my own way and I didn't even know it. Sometimes I was so buried in baking that I never get a chance to step outside, look at my business as a whole, and check on my trajectory.


Through  Food Lab Detroit I heard about the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program, and it was exactly what I needed. Basically, it's a free mini MBA program: I went in a small business owner, and I came out a CEO.


Q: How do you find new clients? 


A: We know how important word of mouth is to growing our business. We hired "boots on the ground" to bring our bottles to bars whose menus might include shrubs. Bartenders are the most curious creatures on the planet: if they see someone walk in with an unfamiliar but cool bottle, they get excited and ask to play around with it.


It's also lucky that people like to post pics of cocktails on social media. While sharing pictures of cocktails doesn't necessarily drive sales, we leverage social media as an opportunity to increase our business' reach and audience. We'll go to our most loyal customers and ask who else they think might be interested and if they can spread the word.3 jess_circle2.jpg  

Q: What did your branding process look like?


A: I knew I wanted a colonial style that felt old, and we knew someone whose daughter had just finished her degree in graphic design, so we got in touch with her. 


We must have gone through a million iterations. I spent a lot of time creating flavors, but I spent a thousand times more working on the brand, because it's the only impression customers get of the product if I'm not there in front of them talking about it.


I think too many times entrepreneurs want to just get the branding done with. I wanted to too, but it's so unbelievably important. I had to get it right the first time from the ground up, because who wants to rebrand years into the business?


Q: What do you wish you'd known before you started out?


A: One day we realized we could buy a whole pallet of glass bottles instead of just one box, so we bought two pallets. It took a month before we realized these bottles were made overseas, and of considerably lower quality: they were so rough that every label we applied immediately became wrinkly. We'd already made a batch using all the bottles at once, so we eventually had to just hand-label all of them. It was a huge pain.

It's important to be very careful about sourcing from overseas for cheap. I got what I paid for!


Q: What would you like to ask a network of small business owners and self-employed professionals?


A: As an entrepreneur, I wear more hats in my business than I'd like and it can be difficult to find time for myself. What kinds of things do you do to force yourself to take a break/take time off/have quality "me" time?


Help Jess out! 

How do *you* make sure you take a break?

Sometimes we forget to take a step back from the daily grind and just relax. What do *you* do to get some quality downtime?

1 Comment 1
Level 7

How Do You Create a Market for Drinking Vinegars? With Clear Vision. Just Ask Jess McClary.

Forcing yourself to take a break/take time off/have quality "me" time is definitely a challenge as a self-employed person. I usually have to get out of the house and spend time with friends and family to pull myself away from work. This also gives me some social time, which is important since I work from home. 

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