Mobtown Fermentation’s Wild Kombucha is on a growth spree, one that co-founder Sid Sharma says might have never happened if it weren’t for Baltimore.
“Baltimore’s an incredible place to start a business,” the co-owner of the Lutherville-based fermented beverage company said. “People are tremendously supportive of local products.”
Wild Kombucha, approaching its third birthday next year, operates out of a 4,000-square-foot production facility in Baltimore County, complete with an automated bottling line that can kick out up to 1,200 bottles an hour.
It’s a far cry from where Sharma, Adam Bufano, Sergio Malarin started in February 2015. With some savings and a family recipe from Bufano’s and Malarin’s parents, they began brewing, fermenting, bottling and shipping flavorful concoctions out of a 400-square-foot space on the side of a juice shop on Hickory Avenue.
“We’d bottle at night and on weekends,” Sharma said. “Really it just kind of grew the old-fashioned way.”
They started off with one client. Six months later, on Aug. 10, 2015, they landed Whole Foods.
“On August 11, we all quit our day jobs and just decided to dive in and go for it,” he said.
For thousands of years, brewers have been concocting kombucha by fermenting tea, sugar and microbial cultures. But only in the last few years has a commercial market for the beverage taken hold, in part due to its professed health benefits, including improved digestion, immune system strength and liver function. Analysts from the firm Marketsandmarkets predicted in 2016 that kombucha’s market value would grow 25 percent annually for the next four years.
The trio from Baltimore has seized on that opportunity, crafting five flavors: mango-peach, ginger-grapefruit, elderberry, apple spice and watermelon hops.
After finding success one year in, Sharma, Bufano and Malarin were at a crossroads. With growing demand but not enough inventory space, they decided to take a jump and get a larger space in the county. The facility needed considerable work, however, including a fermentation room, a walk-in fridge and a wash area.
They faced a major hurdle: they didn’t have any money.
Most beverage companies start off with large investments or by co-packing their product with another established firm, Sharma said. Their path was different: “We produce everything ourselves, and we really just started this company with $2,000 of our own money.”
Their fix to pay for the upgrades was a gamble: a one-minute business pitch competition on the Eastern Shore. If they didn’t win, they couldn’t stay afloat, Sharma said.
They pulled it off – $30,000 in the first round and $15,000 in the second round. The money allowed them to follow through on their plan, which in turn has let them allocate more time to managing their business. The company has since built on that success with additional financing, including a $100,000 loan this year from Baltimore County’s government.
The recipe appears to be working. Since 2015, Wild Kombucha’s revenue has grown 170 percent each year, Sharma said. Today the company produces about 4,000 bottles of kombucha a week, to go with about 15 kegs. Its flavors can be found at 250 stores across five states.
The business has even become profitable enough to start giving some of what it makes to charity. In an arrangement with the National Wildlife Federation, Wild Kombucha donates a portion of proceeds from every bottle sold.
The next few years could be even bigger. Sharma said they’re eyeing expansions to New York and Philadelphia. Regionally, they have some local competition, including D.C.’s Capital Kombucha or Marshall, N.C.-based Buchi Kombucha, but most of it otherwise comes from the West Coast, according to Sharma.
Mobtown Fermentation also plans to roll out a new product next year that’s not kombucha at all. Sharma wouldn’t drop any hints, except to say “it’s definitely a unique product that will be targeting more convenience stores, grocery stores and fast casual restaurants with.”
Ironically, some of their big growth has come from small-time accessibility. Sharma said they work with Baltimore-based farm-to-door delivery company Rooftop Hot, which he said serves smaller businesses that don’t meet larger firms’ minimum distribution limits. That’s allowed them to expand their client base to fellow small-timers.
Only two years ago, Sharma, Bufano and Malarin sat in the cramped storefront on Hickory Street, sanitizing, stamping labels and bottling their product with their own hands. Reflecting today, Sharma attributes much of Wild Kombucha’s success to the same old-school ideals that you might hear from your elders: “Really being willing to grind it out and make personal connections with customers is still a way to thrive as a business.”
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