Wisconsin residents Layne Cozzolino and Mindy McCord met in 2010 when they worked together at a café. Their shared passion for local food sparked a friendship, which inspired the pair to go into business together. Layne and Mindy started canning and fermenting jellies, jams and relishes—selling them at farmer’s markets. “As we continued to do that, and our lives changed, and our families grew, we realized that the market was pretty saturated in those spaces. We wanted to discover a product that would take us to the next level. And when Layne became pregnant with her son, she stumbled upon a shrub recipe, which changed the trajectory of everything,” said Mindy.
What’s a shrub?
With roots going back to England in the 1700s, the shrub we’re talking about here isn’t a plant. It’s an old-fashioned beverage. Before refrigeration, people preserved fruit with vinegar. It eventually became fashionable to pour off the fruit-infused vinegar and mix it with sweetener to create a syrup for making beverages.
“We loved that it was something unique and different and that we hadn’t seen or really heard of prior to that. And we started to make them for our farmer’s market stand, and they blew up. People loved them. They thought they were so interesting and fun, and that’s when we realized we were really onto something,” said Mindy.
So how did the duo initially convince people to try a drink made with vinegar? “We were pretty connected in our community to people that loved food—that was a big part of why people would try it—because they trusted us. We had built-in relationships. We’d been working in the food space for a while. And so, we’d established a rapport in the community. And that was a fun part of getting people to try something that they’d never heard of and get live-time reactions,” said Layne.
The entrepreneurs felt good about the positive reactions the drinks received and launched Siren Shrub Company in 2018. They produce mixers made with organic apple cider vinegar, organic cane sugar or maple syrup, and a fruit, root or herb. They make great cocktails with alcohol or without—you use them a splash at a time,” said Mindy. Siren Shrub also sells a ready-to-drink sparkling shrub. Since the bevvies are non-alcoholic, they appeal to a wide audience, including non-drinkers and kids.
Believing in their business
People often wonder how entrepreneurs raise capital for their businesses. In Mindy and Layne’s case, they funded it themselves. “So, we went all in with each investing our own money, and we started to work with a co-packer right out of the gate, recognizing that we didn’t have all the time that we wished to focus on that,” said Mindy.
For those unfamiliar with what a co-packer is—it’s a business with a commercial kitchen that will produce your food or beverage product. “We send them the ingredients, they make the shrub with our recipes, and then they bottle it up, package it up and send it to our warehouse,” said Mindy.
The entrepreneurs shared that since most people weren’t familiar with shrubs, they needed to spend their time educating consumers instead of making products in the kitchen, which takes tons of time.
Layne provided some insight into how they made that biz decision. “Since we were both working in the food space, we had knowledge around what it looked like to be selling goods at farmer’s markets. I ran a commercial kitchen at the time that people rented out to sell at farmer’s markets. Through that experience, we were starting to see how much time people needed to spend in the kitchen if they were making it on a really small scale. We had families; we had full-time jobs, and we were starting to sell a product that no one knew what the heck it was. And so, I think that putting our professional experience into play to say, ‘all right, well, if someone else helps us make it, then we have all this time to go out and really talk to people and learn more about what they think about it,’” said Layne
The women shared how they grew their business beyond farmer’s markets. “So going back to some of those relationships that we’d forged, our community was really supportive early on. And so we were able to get into some small shops and liquor stores. We had at least a baseline to start delivering these shrubs and putting them on store shelves, which was huge. And something that I think sometimes we take for granted is that we had those open doors from the moment we began, but then growing that is a totally different story.”
Working in the weeds of starting a business
Promoting a new business is hard work, and Layne elaborated on what it took to get the word out about Siren Shrub Company beyond their friends, neighbors and local farmer’s markets. “You have that early support. Then you really have to go outside of that supportive community that loves you and be like, ‘whoa, well, other people love us too.’ And so, it’s a lot of cold calling and a lot of the not-as-fun stuff as having those initial relationships. Mindy has run our Instagram account as long as we’ve been in business. She does tons of recipes there to market it.”
Layne elaborated on their marketing efforts. “We do special events. We go to maker’s markets to introduce and sample out our products. We actually do those more than we do farmer’s markets now. We’ve found that that’s a really nice space because we get to talk to people about it. We get to talk about our farm relationships and really give people insight into our business in that way. We also have done some PR. We have an agency now who’s helping us. That’s how we’re now marketing our business, but it started organically using Instagram—still do that and now have layered on other pieces.” Siren Shrub Company was recently featured in Vanity Fair, and editor’s named it a “best non-alcoholic drink for dry January.”
Siren Shrubs sells directly to consumers on its website. It also connects with retailers through Faire, an online wholesale marketplace, and three distributors that circulate the product into specialty, liquor and natural grocery stores.
Supporting local farms
Like their community supported them, Layne and Mindy feel strongly about supporting other business in Wisconsin. Siren Shrub sources ethical ingredients, like herbs, honey and berries, from locals, including a cacao nib provider, honey producer, rhubarb grower, strawberry patch, local apple orchards and organic farms.
Sowing the seeds for future food entrepreneurs
Mindy and Layne’s love for local food and community shined through in their interview, and we talked about how they’re supporting up-and-coming food artisans. In addition to co-running Siren Shrub Company, Layne ran a kitchen at a nonprofit focused on local food startups. These experiences provided insight into the challenges of starting a food business. “One of the things that we are working on currently, in collaboration with our city, is to look at the potential of an incubator space that goes past that startup kitchen that I mentioned. It would be more like our co-packers’ facility,” Layne said.
She shared that there is a major gap for food entrepreneurs looking to scale. “Food businesses are supported when they’re started, and then you’ve got this growth. But then what’s the next place you go?” Layne said that Siren Shrub Company was lucky to work with a small co-packer, but most co-packers focus on large manufacturing, which requires a large capital investment. “So we’re looking at what is a scalable kitchen could look like for food entrepreneurs who are mid-size or small to mid-size and past farmer’s market size. So, we’re currently working on that too.”
You can shop Siren Shrub Company’s beverages at sirenshrubs.com.