Q&A with Doer and Brewer Sara Lemmon of Denver CO
What makes your company special?
There’s something kind of magical about 3rd Bird Kombucha. Although our story started as a way for a mom using her science background to help lessen her son’s GI and sensory processing issues stemming from autism, 3rd Bird quickly became about more than just physical wellbeing. It’s about connection and dedication- to one's self and the community you choose to call your own. There’s a fearlessness to flying and one we want you to experience yourself, so trust your gut and take the leap.
What inspired you to start your company?
It all started when a Camp Robber flew onto my head. Well to be fair, there was bread on my head as I waited patiently for the bird to fly in and steal it. I didn’t know when the bird was going to come- just that it eventually would. It was both exhilarating and frightening at the same time. The fact that these supposedly contradictory feelings- excitement and fear- could exist at the same time is what brings us to kombucha. Here at 3rd Bird, we fundamentally believe that life isn’t about either/or’s. Or loss/gain. Or even that kombucha is either yummy or gross. Because here we believe that there’s always a 3rd way. And that’s where the magic happens.Silas- our 3rd bird- is both autistic and the reason why I started brewing. But here’s the cool thing: thanks to Justin Timberlake I thought that Silas meant, “The Man in the Woods”. Yes, Silas does have this meaning, but it also means the youngest or the 3rd. Like seriously, y’all, I got chills learning this. My kids are my 3 birds. Camp Robbers, aka Grey Jays, are known for their fearlessness and loyalty to the flock. Camp Robbers stick together to survive and thrive. They aren’t deterred and in fact it is their persistence and dedication to each other so much so that camp robbers stick together as a family unit long after the chicks are grown. Having a child with special needs makes our family stronger. Along with Elodie and Grier, Silas is part of a 3 sided structure that is able to withstand the turbulence of life and grant perspective on what really matters. Having Si strengthens our resolve, our belief in each other, and the collective goodness of us all. And if I’ve learned anything from brewing kombucha and launching a business, it’s this: that sometimes from the gross and unfamiliar comes a wellness and a wholeness that transforms you into something new. 3rd Bird Collective offers a 3rd way- a drink that isn't too tart or too sweet. A drink that is accessible for all. A drink that doesn’t sacrifice quality. But it’s also a drink and an attitude that says don’t mess with us. This flock flies together.
Tell us all about the characteristics of your brand.
The Most Drinkable Kombucha: Not too tart. Not too sweet. Fresh organic ingredients straight from our garden. Only a middle school science teacher could craft a brew this well balanced that every member of your flock will enjoy.Let’s bond over booch: Ours is a drink to be shared. Our bottles are intentionally too large for 1 person. Our flavors are simple- low in sugar and all organic. Pour a glass for friends, kiddos, loving family and the community you choose to call your own.From our nest to yours: This bird likes to fly. We deliver our kombucha straight to your door. Simple and convenient. Life is hectic enough- what you choose to serve your flock shouldn’t be.
What has been the biggest challenge since you started?
I thought selling would be the hardest part of the business. Nope- it's been finding affordable cold storage. Kombucha needs to be kept cold and at the rate I was growing, I couldn't keep up with the storage demands. So I reworked my brewing schedule which required me to brew, keg, and bottle every week so that I'd have enough shelf space for my beverage.
Tell us a funny story about starting up your business.
That I thought kombucha was gross! My husband, Kyle, brewed kombucha before I did. He kept it in a plastic fish tank above our fridge. He'd take it like a shot every morning and make the face. You know, the face. Anyways, when it became clear that Silas was uniquely different, I started researching and everything came back to the brain-gut connection. So I decided to give kombucha a try. And here we are!
How do you navigate fundraising?
My tactic has been from the beginning- if I can brew it, I can buy it. 3rd Bird Kombucha has not taken any loans or investments in our first 18 months of flight. I fly a pretty lean opperation- as cutting costs if one way to ensure that I always have cash on hand. The second is I treat my customers like they are part of my flock. I have a 70% return rate on customers at farmers' markets. This means that I'm not searching for new customers but rather I empower the ones that I have to spread the word about the bird for me. And lastly, I keep my business plan and projections up to date. This way when the time comes for me to raise capital, I have everything ready to go.
How did COVID-19 affect your business?
Before coronavirus hit the US, things were moving at an alarming pace for 3rd Bird. I was testing out recipes; learning the ins and out of the licensing world; building a website; collaborating on design for our logo; fixing-up our camper-- all with the goal of launching this bird off the ground by early May- just in time for farmers market season. Then Covid19 hit. The wheels came off the camper so to speak. 3rd Bird came to a grinding halt. I fell into a depression- one that found me in my bed with little energy. Grief draped over me like a weighted blanket and as the day progressed it became too unbearable to hold so I’d sleep. Sleep overtook me for hours at a time. I’d wake in time for dinner- however I was so disoriented that my time in bed was neither relaxing or rejuvenating. I’m not good at pressing the pause button on my life. I’m an Enneagram 3- the Achiever- so pausing to me feels like failing. And failing manifests into grief. Instead I felt shame that I somehow missed out on something I should have been accomplishing. Sound familiar? But what? During these uncertain times- I didn’t have anything to really accomplish- nothing to check off my list. I was compass-less and without any knowledge or insight as to how long this pandemic was going to last. This caused me to find refuge in my bed and finally name was I was experiencing- grief. And then there was the big grief. The grief that was more than me. I listened to friends worry about the salaries being cut or the meeting that they were holding next week where they had to lay off their young staff in hopes that when this pandemic was over, that they had a job to come back too. Watching the unemployment across the country skyrocket and fearing how this was impacting my students and their families. I grieved for the staff at the coffeeshops that I frequent to write- door shuttered with signs for online tip jars. I grieved for my nephew who at 18 was graduating high school with honors- yet won’t get the opportunity to wear his cap and gown nor celebrate with his friends at prom. And yet here I was still dreaming of opening a business. How selfish and naïve could I be? Self-doubt took over, causing my motivation for the work to plummet. Three weeks went by without me brewing or even dreaming about what 3rd Bird could be because I was stuck in what it couldn’t. I did all this goddamn work universe! Now reward me. I can say this now because hindsight is amazing- but that forced pause will make 3rd Bird Kombucha better now and in the long run. Taking a break spurred my creativity and to think differently about the type of business I was creating and get crystal clear on my why for this whole crazy venture. (Although challenging for me to do- there’s science to support the benefits of pausing in order to create). Because here’s what I know- motivation is a crap-shoot. Sometimes it’s there, most of the time I’m in my bed. So motivation isn’t what’s going to get the work done or make the hard decisions. For that- you need commitment. COVID reinforced my commitment. My commitment is to be essentially fearless in cultivating community. This is the mission of 3rd Bird Kombucha and what drives me to get out of bed, trust myself and face my depression and self-doubt. Global pandemic or not. This mission for 3rd Bird Kombucha is about serving- serving you and your family. This commitment is what allowed me to pivot and respond to the current crisis. Now 3rd Bird Kombucha will be available for home delivery or pick-up at one of the four Denver Bazaar curbside markets. Will I be selling kombucha out of my camper like I originally envisioned? Well maybe not this summer. But will I be serving a functional drink to build community- both at the gut level and at the community level? Heck yes.So yes- starting a business (a food business at that!) during a global pandemic is bat-shit crazy. Yet it is exactly what is needed. If this pandemic has shown me anything, it is that the ability to adapt is in all of us and so is the ability to be fearless.
What advice would you give to companies like yours just starting up?
Ask questions. People want to help- honestly. I had no idea about how to run a food business, but I reached out to brands and people I admire and asked. I then asked them to put me in contact with someone who helped them. This has created a network of support for 3rd Bird and has provided us with the flight map we need to soar.
What has been the most valuable lesson you've learned thus far?
Listen and respond to your customers. There's a lot of noise out there- things that distract and compete for their attention. Solicit feedback and then act on it. People buy your product because it's good. They are loyal because of the story and how you make them feel.
Learn more about 3rd Bird Kombucha (and how to order this delicious 'buch) by clicking the link here.