From Homebrewing to Award-Winning Tonic With Mary Pellettieri of Top Note Tonic

by Drew Hendricks
Last updated Dec 29, 2023

Legends Behind the Craft Podcast

From Homebrewing to Award-Winning Tonic With Mary Pellettieri of Top Note Tonic

Last Updated on December 29, 2023 by nicole

Mary Pellettieri Top Note Tonic
From Homebrewing to Award-Winning Tonic With Mary Pellettieri of Top Note Tonic 11

Mary Pellettieri, Co-Founder and creative mind behind Top Note Tonic began her beverage industry journey as a homebrewer with a focus on craft beer. After gaining technical expertise at the Siebel Institute and making waves at Goose Island, she transitioned from larger breweries to launch her own venture. Top Note Tonic, born from her entrepreneurial spirit, explores innovative possibilities in tonic syrups, herbal beers, and tinctures, showcasing Mary’s expertise and commitment to pushing and brewing boundaries.

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Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn: 

  • Mary Pellettieri’s journey from homebrewer to craft tonic maven
  • Crafting Top Note Tonic’s unique flavor profile
  • Balancing bitter and sweet and creating tinctures for the American palate
  • Top Note Tonic’s flavor portfolio and shifting trends
  • Top Note Tonic’s transition from supplying bars to capturing the non-alcoholic market
  • Supply chain challenges and ingredient sourcing in the beverage industry
  • Mary recommends the style of gin that best complements Top Note Tonic
  • The challenges and strategies involved in scaling up production to meet the demand
  • The percentage of sales through the online store and the company’s cost-effective moves
  • Reflections on growth and marketing strategies
  • Mary Pellettieri’s advice for launching success in the beverage category

In this episode with Mary Pellettieri

Join us for an engaging discussion with Mary Pellettieri of Top Note Tonic. From her roots as a basement brewer to being a trailblazer at Goose Island, Mary shares her journey in the beverage industry. Discover how Top Note Tonic evolved from kitchen experiments to a thriving craft tonic company.

In today’s episode of the Legends Behind the Craft podcast, Drew Thomas Hendricks is joined by Mary Pellettieri, the Co-Founder and Creator of Top Note Tonic. Mary delves into the challenges of creating beverages for diverse tastes, the shift to non-alcoholic markets, and the impact of the pandemic on scaling the business. Gain insights into marketing strategies, the importance of a clear brand story, and the lessons learned in navigating the ever-changing beverage landscape. Whether you’re a beverage enthusiast or a budding entrepreneur, this episode offers a taste of success in the craft beverage world.

Resources Mentioned in this episode

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[00:00:00] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Drew Thomas Hendricks here. I’m the host of the Legends Behind the Craft podcast. On this show, I talk with leaders in the wine and craft beverage industry. Today’s episode is sponsored by Barrels Ahead. At Barrels Ahead, we help the wine and craft industry connect with their customers through authentic content.

We’ve got a very special guest on the show today. Mary Pellettieri, co-founder and creator of Top Note Tonic. So Mary’s career evolution, she’s moved from a basement brewer to honing her skills at the Siebel Institute, to becoming one of the first female blue brewers on the floor of Goose Island. And then finally, she launched her own craft tonic and soda company from her kitchen, which is booming right now.

Excited to learn more about this story. Welcome to the show, Mary.

[00:00:43] Mary Pellettieri: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me Drew. So, we started out as a tonic company and as a syrup company, I should say. The craft beer business was really where I got my start in beverage. I was getting a degree at the University of Illinois in Chicago and decided to, as a mass, as a public health major, and I decided to, to look at, you know, the food and beverage industry as a way to focus on, on new growth for myself.

The environmental side of my interests were still there. So I think I always was very interested in how people were using the food chain. How we use food for energy, for plant, for botany, you know, for enjoyment, but also for nutrition. So the food industry was interesting to me, and I started homebrewing with my then-boyfriend, who became my partner in this venture, but we were homebrewing together.

And we, we both enjoyed that. I think I got more tech, techie geeky about it. And I started working at the Siebel Institute, during that time that I was actually in grad school.

[00:02:02] Drew Thomas Hendricks: So Mary, so after the Siebel Institute, let’s

[00:02:06] Mary Pellettieri: Siebel Institute was where I got my start, but I was also going to graduate school.

Siebel actually closed, they merged operations with Lallemand. And I was already kind of on my way and decided after a few years of working another job to get a job at Goose Island and that’s where I got my kind of connected all the Siebel Institute things with all the things I learned after I left Siebel to kind of a quality manager role at Goose Island.

So I was more of a technical specialist there, not only helping with all of the laboratory testing and sampling, et cetera. I, you know, helped. Design new products for them. I led teams to do that. So we, we did a lot at Siebel. I was kind of there or sorry goose when I was there for more of their formative years when they were doing Bourbon County style for the 1st time and a large facility.

We were doing 312 was designed when I was there. It’s a fun story with that. That beer, you know, started out as a small little kind of unique wheat beer that they didn’t want to brand totally at Goose Island and as Goose Island beer, and they, we made it for several months before we entered the Great American Beer Fest and one of the brewers accidentally hopped it incorrectly right before the GABF. And it was the batch we were supposed to, you know, bottle for that competition.

And I had judged that category a few years in advance, so I was kind of familiar with what the judges were looking for, and I, wasn’t going to judge it that year, obviously, but as they were going ready to bottle, they’re like, “We kind of screwed up the hopping. Can you taste this and make sure it’s okay?”

Because I was the quality manager. And I said, “Yeah, of course.” And, I tasted it. I said, “Actually, it’s better for the category and maybe better for the beer. So just leave it. Don’t do anything to it. Don’t blend it. It’s fine.” And we bottled it and it golded and it ended up golding three years in a row in that category, which was, kind of a fun story and a good start for that beer because, you know, winning a gold medal in that competition was big deal. I,

[00:04:30] Drew Thomas Hendricks: And the fact that he remembered, like, it wasn’t like he threw in some random hops that he didn’t even know what he did. And then he spent another 6 months trying to recreate.

[00:04:39] Mary Pellettieri: No, they knew exactly what they did. It was just the next batch hops were ready to go. And that’s what he took.

[00:04:45] Drew Thomas Hendricks: That’s good.

[00:04:45] Mary Pellettieri: Yeah, so we were able to replicate that award-winning recipe from then on out.

[00:04:52] Drew Thomas Hendricks: What a great story.

[00:04:53] Mary Pellettieri: It’s a funny, fun story of how these things start. Yeah, but I was there for that. Matilda, 312, Bourbon County Stout. Kind of all of what makes Goose Island today, now owned by a very large brewery, obviously, became known and it was, it’s fun to be at the start of that entrepreneurial journey with with other folks. When I left Goose I went to MillerCoors and spent about five years in their quality as well as kind of a business operations role commercializing products out of the marketing teams thoughts and to me that was interesting.

I worked with big brewers, you know, large breweries. We had a lot of the same challenges a small brewery did, which was always fun. But I, I didn’t like how much, administrative work that was required for the job. And I thought I really want to get back to that true entrepreneurial, you know, work that I used to do.

So I left MillerCoors and started making these tonic syrups in my kitchen. And I think I was on the path of trying to become a, you know, a maybe a different type of brew where I was looking at making herbal beers and or making tinctures for beer and I

[00:06:12] Drew Thomas Hendricks: What a tincture for beer so that would

[00:06:14] Mary Pellettieri: Like you know an over add so you hear a Berliner Weisse, traditional style that used to have raspberry and Woodruff syrups, and I was very intrigued by this idea of having a syrup that goes into a beer, and of course, Radler and Shandy, these are basically beers mixed with soft drinks, you know, so there’s a lot of interesting, you know, traditional things that has happened with beer that I thought, well, maybe there’s a category there, but I also at that time saw tonic syrups being made at bars and, and bartenders were making their own tonic water out of a, basically crafting a, an herbal concoction, you know, tincture with some simple syrup.

And that interested me as well. You know, when I was a brewer at Goose Island, I couldn’t drink and I got pregnant a couple times. So that I remembered, you know, the first time trying to like figure out what do I drink now that I know I’m pregnant, you know, and you can’t tell anyone. So you have to kind of keep it a secret.

I used to drink tonic water with a splash of orange juice. It was awful.

So, that was, that thought was still in my head that someone needs to fix tonic water. Someone needs to fix, you know, what’s available when people don’t want to drink at bars. And I didn’t see really any solutions coming around at that time. That was over a decade ago. So, you know, just played around, started making some bitter syrups, I would say, kind of bitter soft drink syrups based on vermouth and, you know, other traditional herbal recipes that I found in, in literature.

And, eventually, enough consumers, customers at farm markets, et cetera, and our, our investors said, “Hey, you need to back this, and let’s get you. Doing this, you know, in a ready-to-serve bottled format.” So we raised some money and started bottling and it’s just been a, a truly a rollercoaster sense.

[00:08:30] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Yeah. I mean that, so that entrepreneurial spirit, especially like figuring out I need to, I need to drink something complex. When you were in college back in botany, were you doing any experiments back then or?

[00:08:43] Mary Pellettieri: Really I mean, I was, I was more reading and, and into herbology and just reading about how herbs were always used, you know, I think I, I’ve always liked that connection to the plant world with what we eat and drink.

So, I was a big Michael Pollan fan, you know, there’s probably a lot of them out there now, but I was an early one with some of his original work. And I think there’s, there’s always been a real interest of mine there. And I just took that interest instead of blogging or writing about it. I went into just crafting.

[00:09:19] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Going out entrepreneurial. So talk to me about those like the early days when you’re investigating these syrups. How did you walk the viewer through this? Who may not be like from the kitchen? Like, where did you start?

[00:09:33] Mary Pellettieri: Well, I had obviously some beer experience. I actually was literally making beer again in my kitchen. So that was kind of fun.

But as I started, I just started steeping different dried herbs in water, making different levels of simple syrup with different types of sugars. Realize there’s a lot of sugars, there’s a lot of different acids, there’s juices, there’s herbs, there’s all these things to choose from. And of course, if you read, you know, the story of Coca-Cola, which you know, it’s a very successful brand, obviously it was kind of the same thing.

He kind of just started with herbal tinctures and some syrups and made a very

successful And some other good stuff

that people Yeah, some other good stuff. But he was a successful, you know, he was successful at doing kind of very similar thing. And I think a true soft drink is really that it’s it’s a combination of what tastes good.

Maybe what might be good for you in a in a format that that you want to drink. Yeah, there’s a lot of soft drinks in the market now that I think are maybe not so tasty. They might be good for you, but they’re not necessarily tasty. And that’s that goes against kind of obviously a key value of mine because I grew up effectively making things taste better.

That was a real not only, you know, business need, but it was something that I really enjoyed. And I have, I have, I like tasting things, so.

[00:11:11] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Oh yeah. Talking about not so tasty, because that, that kind of resonated with me. Like I, a lot of these artisanal soft drinks, to me, they just, they don’t resonate with me.

They’re not that tasty. And that may be more of a European taste versus an American taste. Or a U. S. taste that’s used to very, like, sweet, Coca-Cola, Sprite, whatever. As you were creating these tinctures, were you taking the U. S. palate into factor or just creating something that, that was good that a, the U. S. palate would kind of come to appreciate? Over the –

[00:11:49] Mary Pellettieri: Yeah, you know, I guess a broader question would be, you know, if all craft artisanal beverage makers did that, we probably would not be happy with the variety we would have. So, yes and no. I live in a very, you know, middle-of-the-country city, Milwaukee, and it’s a bit of a sister city to Chicago.

Chicago obviously has a broader international community, a broader community that, you know, travels internationally. That isn’t to say Milwaukee isn’t sophisticated. Milwaukee has, obviously, those folks here too. It’s just a smaller group of people. And when we were out the farmer market, farmer markets, you know, basically selling our then kind of tonic syrups.

They were like aperitivo sodas that you’d find in Italy. Some people liked them. Some people didn’t. Some people loved them. You know, we had a lot of folks that came, that would go through these farmers markets. It’s kind of out of state and they just buy all of them up, you know, in multiples. So we saw that there’s clear, clearly like there’s, you know, rabid fans.

And then there are those that are just like, what is going on? And we didn’t want to necessarily just point our local community. So, when we went to make our first launch of our products. Ginger beer was a very loved product. We took a little modern spin on it. We made it drier one. We didn’t use as much sugar.

We use date sugar, which gave it some roundness, some savoriness. And we also used real ginger oils and that seemed to hit a mark with not only the folks that were looking for something different, but also the folks that liked me, maybe that more sweet palate, but didn’t necessarily, you know, they know, they knew they were probably drinking too much sugar anyway.

So we, we took that to the market along with two tonic waters. And they were the tonics that people really quite liked that we made. We made an Indian tonic water and we made a bitter lemon tonic water essentially.

[00:14:02] Drew Thomas Hendricks: And what would be the flavor difference between those two?

[00:14:05] Mary Pellettieri: So they’re both made in our portfolio, Indian tonic water is simply a slightly different tonic. It’s low sugar and it’s made with Genshin root, which is the root that you find in, say, Kampari and, you know, the big kind of the digestivos that are, that are in the market. And then, of course, quinine. So we have the slightly different mix of bitters in our Indian tonic water, low sugar and a little grapefruit, and then our bitter lemon has juice in it, a little more sugar, and more lemon character, so, but both use that Aperitivo soft drink base, which has the, the two types of bitters, and they are great on their own, or they’re great, you know, but you have to like a little bit of a bitter profile, and there are folks that do like that.

They’re, you know, drink green tea, they drink, you know, espresso, they drink IPAs, and they’re very happy to find a soft drink that kind of meets that need and there are more folks that are drinking, you know, for health and quality and bitters tend to meet that digestive need too. So I think our original purpose is, yeah.

[00:15:23] Drew Thomas Hendricks: The last 10 years, the flavor, like the, like the consumption patterns have definitely shifted towards that more complex bitter profile.

[00:15:31] Mary Pellettieri: Yes. Yeah. And if you look at the data since coven people looking for just more flavor in general. We sent our, we made a version of our, our Indian tonic water with more gentian root during, during COVID and went to the New York Times and we didn’t think we’d get a writeup, but the wine, the wine writer, New York Times adored everything we made.

And she said, “It’s just, it’s finally nice to taste something that has real flavor that has, you know, that has depth and complexity that isn’t just kind of about being something that’s. You know, supposed to be healthy for you.” And even those qualities might be questionable, you know, I’m spending a lot of money on this stuff.

What am I getting for it? And that’s, I think flavor is always a base, you know, anyone will tell you it’s got to taste good. Consumers are expecting that as a base and some, some products are missing that mark for sure. The ones that are selling well, aren’t.

[00:16:35] Drew Thomas Hendricks: That’s the sure sign. Now, when you were starting off in the farmer’s market, were you really going towards that non-alcohol, or were you partnering with bars and helping as a mix?

[00:16:45] Mary Pellettieri: We were mostly focused on giving the bartenders a new tool for mixing their own, you know if they can’t make their own tonic syrup, something that they can buy. There’s folks still doing that. We, we got out of that business of doing a tonic water syrup. Funny thing, it’s more popular now than ever before, but because of that non-alcoholic serve.

But there’s, but we thought it’s, you know, it’s simply not, it’s a lot of hands-on work and it wasn’t a big enough business. We liked the idea of pulling together recipes from the original formulas that we had to a new formula, and we share that with co-packers now and our co-packers make our products, but we still make the formula.

So, we still start in the kitchen with herbs and spices and make tinctures and, and replicate that because that’s actually the real kind of heart of, of who we are. You know, we love the fact that we have control of our formulas and what’s in them. We know exactly why these things are in them because we wanted to replicate, you know, these three herbs or whatever.

It’s sometimes hard to really replicate that herbal note, but we’ve, we found some really great suppliers in the extract business to help us. So,

[00:18:04] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Oh, that’s fantastic. Like over the last few years that this, just the word supplier says, there’s been a huge supply chain problem in the beverage industry is Top Note have to navigate that with getting ingredients in.

[00:18:18] Mary Pellettieri: Yeah, yeah. You know, I’m still thinking about your original question about flavor. And if, you know, we make flavors for kind of a broad audience, of course, we do. But ginger beer, that being said, you know, sweet is something that is I think U.S might have a little bit too much love for if you taste some beverages on the market, as we were talking about, some of those can be, it’s still too sweet, even though they’re using sweeteners.

So, I think there’s a move and a shift away from that, but as you mentioned during Covid. And I read there’s more shift towards more flavor. During COVID we had a challenge with our ginger and getting our ginger supply. And I think that’s just because it’s a, it’s an, you know, Asia is kind of the source for ginger, and finding that supply took some time and we ran out of stock a couple of times.

That was the real only challenge we had with our, our kind of herbal extracts. The bottles were also a problem and still remain to be that because they are expensive. Yeah.

[00:19:35] Drew Thomas Hendricks: That’s just all the, all the challenges of navigating the last, the last few years look, jumping back to, 2017, you found a Top Note and then right after that, you received that tremendous award from Sofi that really catapulted your brand.

[00:19:50] Mary Pellettieri: Yeah, the Specialty Food Association, we were a member of, and we, it was kind of our first, foray into that big, you know, food show kind of world, and we put our name in the hopper and put our, and sent our Indian tonic water in, it was two weeks old, and we eventually, essentially came home with an Oscar, you know, it was, it was a pretty amazing, you know, change of events for us.

We had no idea our product would resonate that strongly with, you know, really big critics. These were obviously bartenders, chefs, and professionals in New York that rank that. So our Indian tonic water, I think was just recognized because it was unique, was lower in sugar. If anyone would drink it today, it certainly drinks like a tonic water.

You can mix it with gin, vodka, whatever, but it. If you want to drink it on its own, it drinks like a bitters and soda, but a true bitters and soda, one that has a little more bitterness. So, if, you know, your fans are out there thinking, what does this taste like? That’s what I would qualify it as kind of a, a light sugared, bitters and soda, very refreshing.

And, some people just love it. I mean, there’s fans out there that just love that tonic. We grew our name on that tonic. We still sell that. And this is a very challenging market, say, to, to, you know, kind of crack with something different tasting. The, our Indian tonic water is still our bestseller here in Wisconsin, and it tastes nothing like any other tonic water on the market.

[00:21:28] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Right. This is not tonic.

[00:21:30] Mary Pellettieri: Well, some people, you know, found it and loved it. And you know, that’s, so that kind of goes against the grain a bit of what’s, what, you know, should you make your stuff taste like everyone else is not necessarily making your stuff taste like you want it. We, we, and that’s an important part.

I think it is. I mean, clearly, you can’t be innovating so far people don’t know what the heck you’re doing, but we always set a modern spin on what is known as kind of traditional mixers. We launched our classic tonic water which is our third in the group. I think it was in 2019. That one just recently double-golded at the San Francisco Spirits Award.

[00:22:14] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Oh wow.

[00:22:15] Mary Pellettieri: And that’s a big, big honor. I think, you know, many brands have simply made their brand off that one award. We were shocked, again, because every single judge must gold the product for it to double gold. And if you know anything about that, that award it’s all the best Psalms in the country.

All the like the top bartenders that you see kind of get all the, you know, all the media go there. So it’s the critics of the critics. I mean, it’s really a critical panel. They all golded our tonic water. It was the second double gold we received in like three months because we also won one at the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers Award.

So that tonic’s hitting the mark right now with customers on what should be the standard. And I would say if anyone wants to try our tonic water as true kind of gin and tonic mix, pick up that one.

[00:23:16] Drew Thomas Hendricks: That’s going to be their gateway into the other more exotics.

[00:23:17] Mary Pellettieri: Classic tonic, it’s so good. It is highly flavorful. So compared to say the other premium tonics on the market, you’re gonna find that you have a lot more aroma a lot more character and the gin will still come through which is really the exciting part about mixers.

Mixers are very challenging soft drink category to make because you’re not necessarily making just a soft drink that people drink on their own. You’re making something that is intended to be diluted with some spirit, probably some ice. That alone, it requires, you know, a kind of a balance of flavor and then, you know, that spirit can hide or mask or overwhelm.

And you don’t want, you don’t want the mixer to hide, mask, or overwhelm the spirit. So it has to be this beautiful synergy and it’s hard to do both, right? You make something quite tasty on its own, and you make something that’s mixable. We like to think that we’re up for that challenge. And that’s what we set out to do. It isn’t

[00:24:24] Drew Thomas Hendricks: In your opinion, like with gin, like the flavor profile of gins is all across the board. What style of gin would you recommend your tonic meshing best with?

[00:24:37] Mary Pellettieri: Yeah. That’s a broad question, but I was going to say it doesn’t work with everything. So, the Indian tonic water, for example, that bitters and soda one, works lovely with a lot of the botanical gins out there, the ones that might be more citrus forward, as same thing with our bitter lemon, but there’s some craft spirits out there, the smaller distillers, they may have more different types of carbohydrates, say, in their finished product, and it comes off as almost sweet and you lose some of the character. So, I would say a clean botanical gin from Spain, Italy, those are great, or one from the U. S. And then there’s, you know, our classic tonic, I would say goes with your classic juniper or, you know, Spanish style gin.

So you’re English and Spanish. There’s so many though. And, and they really are like, because there’s so many, you really can’t just have one tonic water.

[00:25:39] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Yeah, I’ve been, I’ve been amazed at the gins over the last few years. We had Barr Hill on the show a few months ago and they’ve got a gin from honey.

So, it’s just a real complex taste and yeah it’s, you got gotta kind of know which tonic you’re putting in your gin. Yeah.

[00:25:57] Mary Pellettieri: Yeah. We’ll get back to innovating with tonics. Again, soon we just, we put a pause to some of that because of the pandemic and we wanna get our cost structure in order before we start line extending again in the mixers. So,

[00:26:14] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Yeah, let’s talk about that. Because in 2017, you started, and then quickly had to ramp up, have what were the challenges of scaling from, like, hitting that Oscar-winning Sofi award to be able to actually fulfill all the demand.

[00:26:30] Mary Pellettieri: It just required cash, because you have to build the inventory, and it’s still, that’s still our biggest barrier to growth, is access to some capital, which we’re working to change, but there’s, you know, you, we always have to build inventory for, you know, the next three months, and if that includes a large restaurant group or if that starts to include, you know, a big grocery store, we’ve got to be ready for that.

So it’s usually just, kind of finding the cash. We’ve been lucky in the sense that we have investors, we’ve have investors re-up. We’ve had SBA loans, we’ve gotten grants. So we’ve somewhat bootstrapped this, but that’s really the biggest hurdle to a lot of these. You have to be ready with your capital and your suppliers need to be ready as well. We work with large enough suppliers that it’s not a problem in that regard.

[00:27:30] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Okay, well, that’s good. Now, but going into ramping up and you’re going full steam ahead, like so many businesses were going into the pandemic. How did you guys have to, how did you guys react and then come out of it?

[00:27:43] Mary Pellettieri: So we, unlike say the spirits world, which we saw a lot of our craft spirit partners decide to start making, you know, something completely different in hand sanitizer, we didn’t have to do anything like that. We just had to keep stock on the floor. And that became the challenge because everything became longer and longer, lead times.

So our six packs went from four weeks lead time to 12 weeks lead time. And we don’t know how much you need. You got to buy a bunch. And that’s, you know, three months above where you’re supposed to be with your bottles. It’s just, it never seemed to quite match. So we were always kind of chasing our tail and materials just to make sure we had enough materials for the next run.

And we ran fairly lean. We kept our, our some, some products ran. I would say, heavy through through the pandemic, but some products we continuously ran out of and that’s that’s the challenge of being a small business. I thank most customers and our distributors and our retailer for all very accommodating and understanding. So just keeping product on the shelf with the goal.

[00:28:56] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Were you doing direct-to-consumer sales at the time?

[00:28:59] Mary Pellettieri: Yeah, we did. You know,

 we had a can run of tonic water, classic tonic that double gold 1 that we had extras from something we did for Costco and we were like, well, we’ve got extras.

Let’s put this on Amazon. And we threw it on Amazon and it sat there for a while. And then I don’t remember what date, but it was about a month into the pandemic. Someone put it out there on Facebook that tonic water and zinc prevent COVID. And I was like, “Oh no.” And then suddenly we started seeing these orders come through on Amazon.

I was like, what’s going on? And then it was just like, literally boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. We spent two weeks getting out of that. It, when we ran out of stock. I think it could have kept going for months on end, but we just we ran out of stock, which was unfortunate. We couldn’t turn those folks to our, to our bottles.

The cans were value-packed essentially. Yeah. So, those weren’t necessarily the customers that we needed for long-term growth anyway, but it certainly helped push that product into the market and, and help keep, you know, cash coming in for us. So it’s nice.

[00:30:14] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Oh, yeah. And you’ve got your store now, and you’ve got a subscription-based service.

[00:30:19] Mary Pellettieri: We do.

[00:30:21] Drew Thomas Hendricks: What percentage of your sales are directly through that store to consumers?

[00:30:25] Mary Pellettieri: Not a lot. We don’t do a ton of work on it. We don’t advertise on Facebook and Instagram, which is usually how you get a lot of that going. And that requires quite an investment. It’s just something we don’t have, I would say the bandwidth to really staff.

So we’ve left that to let it grow on its own. I still send emails out to our kind of VIP list, and when there’s a sale, or like for the holidays, I’m gonna push out, you know, special sales for the subscribe subscribers and that sort of thing. So we, we do kind of the minimum for that.

But it is, we did a lot of work to make that work through the COVID. We made sure that the, we had a basically a shipper that required, you know, no extra plastic and that sort of thing. So everything we send out is 100 percent recyclable. That’s something that drove me nuts when I would order stuff, you know, online and have all this plastic.

So I made sure our customers didn’t have to deal with, you know, plastic peanuts and plastics and that sort of thing. So we made sure our shippers are very sustainable, and they’re made for e commerce. So it keeps it simple to open and get your stuff out and just break it down and have nice tonics in your pantry for your party.

[00:31:48] Drew Thomas Hendricks: No, that’s good. I mean, it’s a good channel to keep open whether or not you’re focusing your efforts on it.

[00:31:54] Mary Pellettieri: Yeah.

[00:31:55] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Keeping it kind of primed and ready to go is, because you never know how the economy is going to shift again.

[00:32:01] Mary Pellettieri: You don’t. And it’s nice to have kind of problem solved. We, you know, bottles are still very expensive to ship.

It became more expensive kind of post COVID to watch those shipping rates go up. So that’s kind of also stalled us a bit. We, we’re, we’ll go back to cans at some point, but right now we’re, and we do have some flavors and cans, our new soft drink line. But we’re not, like, again, we’re not focused on an e-commerce, way of solving, although a lot of folks that hear these sorts of podcasts and hear about us have to buy it. That’s how they have to buy because we’re mostly Midwest-based.

[00:32:39] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Yes.

[00:32:41] Mary Pellettieri: Yeah.

[00:32:41] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Yeah, and it’s I mean, you don’t a lot of it since it’s not alcohol. You can kind of ship any lines a lot easier.

[00:32:48] Mary Pellettieri: Yeah, we’ve shipped overseas. We have shipped. We’re on a platform that sells direct to stores. So little B2B market and we’ve shipped to England, to Italy, to France, kind of fun.

[00:33:02] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Oh, that’s fantastic. That’s amazing. You know, as we’re kind of wrapping down, there’s a couple, two questions. I want to ask though, as you’ve grown in this trajectory, is there anything you would have done differently?

[00:33:14] Mary Pellettieri: I think if I would do it again, I would go back to the drawing board and be sure our brand story was very clear from the get-go.

That’s always a challenge to get out there and make sure that we had enough money in our, in our budget for continual marketing that it’s just something that we’ve had to pulse in and out. And that’s really not a way to continuously grow. We now have budgetary, you know, we’ve budgeted out marketing through for now on because we just know we’re not, we’re going to grow for not marketing.

But you know, during COVID we had to turn things off and that was one of the things that we had to turn off. But, you know, to start, I think if we set ourselves, you know, a nice pool of money to keep marketing with, we probably, we might’ve would’ve, might’ve been better off at this point. It’s challenging.

You know, small brands have only so much money and so much of it has to go to making the product. And then you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to pay people to sell it and how you’re going to pay people to market it and how you’re going to keep your books up and all that fun stuff. So it’s never like, you know, it’s, it’s never an easy thing.

But I think I probably would have shifted more money to marketing and a little less than sales just so what was on the shelf, you know, was more easily pulled because you want to go deep before you go wide.

[00:34:45] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Another thing I like, just keep keeping the engine kind of running and primed. It’s always, it’s harder to start it back up again than it was once it’s off.

[00:34:53] Mary Pellettieri: That’s true. Yeah.

[00:34:54] Drew Thomas Hendricks: That’s something we, we encounter all the time in the industry. The second question is what advice would you offer someone trying to launch a brand in this category?

[00:35:05] Mary Pellettieri: Well, beverage is, you know, beverage companies need a lot of capital.

As I mentioned, they need a lot of capital to make the product, and they need a lot of capital to market it. It is, there is a lot of noise out there. There’s a lot of chatter. Keeping, your brand story as clean as possible, it, and as consistent as possible is important. So I would say just be ready.

You know, we raised less than a million dollars. I think we needed to raise probably 3 million just to get going. And that’s on an idea, which is very hard to do. You know, that investors won’t necessarily give you money on an idea. So it’s kind of like, how do you make it happen? You’re damned if you do down, if you don’t, if you get going and there’s not enough traction, they’ll say we’re not investing, but they’re not going to invest in you with that.

You know, so how do you do it? It just takes a, a lot of energy, excitement, and true belief in what you’re doing all the time. Don’t start without the money and don’t start without true belief. You won’t last.

[00:36:14] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Very good points. And I think also the other thing I heard from what you said is have a clear idea of what you want the thing to taste like. Don’t make it taste like everyone else’s. You have a passion for that flavor.

[00:36:30] Mary Pellettieri: I think you have to have a set of values that you’re working around. There’s a lot of folks that get into beverages that aren’t necessarily like food chemists or beverage creators from the start. You know, they didn’t grow up in a brewing lab like I did.

They are, you know, they farm it out, so to speak, you know, there’s, bnds owned by, you know, much bigger personalities than me. And those aren’t necessarily things that they made, you know, they, they’d let someone else do that. And sometimes you can tell, you know, you can tell, and they might not have a true point of view on flavor.

You don’t see that, say, in the wine world. You don’t see that in the, in the craft spirits world. These are, you know, these are products, and certainly even in the big wine and spirits world, some, at some point, someone had a real point of view on what it should taste like, and they went out to do that.

So, yeah, I think the true artisanal craft beverage makers, they may not always get all the PR, they may not always get all the money, but they’re the true ones out there. So support them.

[00:37:44] Drew Thomas Hendricks: We will. So Mary, where can people find out more about you and Top Note?

[00:37:49] Mary Pellettieri: So, we have a storefront there, we routinely blog, we have recipes that we push out, and we refresh that, that information all the time and if you sign up for our newsletter, we’ll be for sure to keep you in touch with things that are happening in our world.

So that’s kind of how you find us, we are found at the Whole Foods markets in the Midwest and a lot of independent liquor stores, so if you’re in the Midwest, Chicagoland, or Milwaukee area, Madison, you’ll, you should see us on the shelf.

[00:38:20] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Perfect.

[00:38:21] Mary Pellettieri: Yeah.

[00:38:22] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Check it out. Well, Mary, thank you so much for joining us today.

[00:38:25] Mary Pellettieri: Thank you so much, Drew. Have a great afternoon.

[00:38:28] Drew Thomas Hendricks: You too. I look forward to tasting your tonic. Bye bye.

[00:38:31] Mary Pellettieri: Take care. Bye bye.