*Please note: There’s been an exciting update to the Blue Ridge Bucha story. Please read the entire article for the full story.*
Over a decade ago, Ethan Zuckerman started an interesting hobby. He began homebrewing kombucha, a fermented tea that’s flavored and served cold. Kombucha is heralded as a lower- calorie and all-natural alternative to soda, and it’s full of healthy probiotics, which can aid in digestion. Kombucha is also a non-alcoholic craft beverage that many enjoy as an alternative to craft beer.
You might like kombucha for its healthy properties or simply because it tastes so good, which is what happened when Ethan shared his weekly brews over the years with friends and family. The feedback sparked an idea between Ethan and his wife, Kate. What if they transformed the kombucha hobby into a kombucha business? Anchored in previous experiences with helping startups and creating a non-profit called Common Ground Healing Arts in Charlottesville, the couple got to work creating Blue Ridge Bucha – with a twist.
Kate and Ethan wanted to take their personal commitment to environmental sustainability into their new business venture. Brewing kombucha typically means producing a lot of bottle waste, but the Zuckermans wanted to streamline their packaging and bottle usage. In fact, being good environmental stewards has been a non-negotiable principle of the business from the beginning. The bottling solution came in the form of a lightbulb moment about their brewing method. “We thought, we can’t really get it out there without all this bottle waste coming along with it. Then one day, an idea just kind of came to Ethan. He wondered if we could do kombucha in a keg in a similar way that beer is done in a keg,” Kate recounts.
Ethan was on to something, something that only a few other companies in the world were attempting. After some trial and error, Ethan and Kate successfully figured out the process and launched kombucha in a keg. Eventually, the product line expanded to include refillable bottles keeping an astonishing 1.1 million bottles from going to the landfill. Blue Ridge Bucha now sells certified organic wholesale and retail kombucha and features a taproom where patrons can enjoy tasting flights. In 2019, Blue Ridge Bucha even earned a Best of the Blue Ridge award from Blue Ridge Outdoors.
Like many businesses, COVID-19 has profoundly impacted Blue Ridge Bucha prompting a temporary taproom closure with online pre-orders and curbside pickup taking precedence. Despite the challenges, the Zuckermans remain grateful for the Waynesboro community that’s supported them since the beginning of Blue Ridge Bucha in 2010. “We have a number of friends that are small business owners in Waynesboro. Waynesboro has gone above and beyond to support us and promote us. They are real team players, and it’s been great to work with them,” Kate says.
In terms of advice for people thinking about entrepreneurship, Kate advises choosing an industry that you’re passionate about. “You really want to have a passion for what you’re doing because there’s going to be the really uplifting moments, and there are going to be the really difficult moments. So, if you have a reason why you’re doing what you’re doing, then that certainly gets you through the inevitable challenges that you’re going to face,” she explains.
As with every entrepreneurial journey, there are significant milestones along the way. Recently, Ethan and Kate sold Blue Ridge Bucha and are transitioning ownership to Hank Heyming, who most recently co-founded Trolley Venture Partners, a Richmond-based venture capital fund. We sat down for a Q&A with Hank to talk about this exciting development in the Blue Ridge Bucha journey.
Q: Where are you and your family from originally?
A: I’m from Los Angeles, California, and my wife is from Northern Virginia. She went to undergrad at UVA, and eventually, we moved to Richomond, Virginia.
Q: How did you become interested in entrepreneurship?
A: My dad is a first-generation American and immigrated from Europe in the 1960s. He started his own real estate development business. I became interested in entrepreneurship growing up and watching him. I’ve been an entrepreneur in everything from the furniture industry to software development.
Q: How did you become interested in Blue Ridge Bucha?
A: Ever since 2017, I’ve been looking for a business that I could own and operate. I wanted something that was interesting and that I could grow. Blue Ridge Bucha was my favorite kombucha, so when I heard it might be available, I jumped at the chance. I look at Waynesboro as being the main east corridor and the gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains. So, I love our location, and I love the fact that we’re in Waynesboro, and I have no plans on changing that. When we outgrow our facility, which we may do next year, if our growth does what I want it to do, and if COVID permits, I would anticipate growing in Waynesboro.
Q: What’s your experience been like so far as a new business owner in Waynesboro?
A: In the short time I’ve owned the business, I’ve really felt the support of the Waynesboro City and the Waynesboro sort of tourist organization. They’ve been very helpful to us. They helped us do a promotional video, and they’re being supportive. We won an award for the best non-alcoholic beverage in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and they were very excited about it and want to help promote that with us and other businesses in town. So I feel like it’s a very business-friendly town. And I feel like it’s a very good location for our type of business and any similar types of businesses.
Q: What is your vision for Blue Ridge Bucha?
A: The sustainability mission is critical to the actual brand itself. I am 110% behind the sustainability mission and intend to continue it and try to find new ways to expand it, like becoming carbon neutral. I’m also committed to keeping all the staff on hand. I kind of look at it as they’ve built a wonderful thing, and I’m really just the caretaker of it. There are many areas for growth as well, including expanding into the southeast and central southern region. I’m also looking at adjacent categories like hard kombucha, which is a good solution for people that want an alcoholic beverage but don’t really enjoy IPA’s or heavy beer.
To learn more about Hank and Blue Ridge Bucha, check out the Waynesboro at work podcast! Find the Waynesboro at Work podcast on YouTube, Spotify, Google Podcasts, RadioPublic, Breaker, PocketCasts, and Anchor.