Meet A Maker: Cy Cain, Straightaway
Straightaway is ensuring that batch cocktails get their day in the sun. Co-founders Cy Cain and Casey Richwine started as cocktail enthusiasts – or maybe a bit more enthusiastic than the average enthusiast. “We were the guys rolling up for a weekend at the beach with 14 bottles of alcohol in our trunks, simple syrups and jiggers, and then spending 40 minutes making everyone’s drinks,” said Cain. After reading about a forgotten gin cocktail called Lintik in a spirits book and making batches of it for friends, the two men found themselves with a serious fanbase. “Every year more people would want some, and pretty soon we had to either get legal or stop.”
Soon, Cain and Richwine were quitting their jobs to start their distillery and tasting room, and their line of batch bottled cocktails was born. Their space, located in Portland, OR’s Distillery Row, is already making waves in the flourishing Portland spirits community. We talked to Cain about the challenges of starting a spirits business, and why it’s all worth it at the end of the day.
Had either of you started businesses before?
This is my fifth startup. I’ve spent equal time at Starbucks and startups. I did a startup out of college, and it was a fun run for a few years, but we didn’t make it. I had to get a real job. It was the mid-90’s and Starbucks was just getting on the radar – we had maybe 20 or 30 stores in Oregon. I was there for 11 years, and it was a phenomenal time to be with the company; to be part of that growth and brand and education. After 11 years I left to be with another startup, and another, and one more after that. I was always guy number 2 or 3, to come into a brand after the founders, helping get the brand off the ground and get the product on the shelf.
Casey has been a recruiter for his professional life, but right out of college he worked at a winery. That’s where his whole penchant for making came from. He would make his own meads and beers and wines, and he had a quite the cellar full of his own stuff he made. Casey has an exceptional palate and a gift for finding the proper balance the cocktail needs.
We weren’t master distillers by any means, so we were coming at it through a unique lens – what’s the end product supposed to taste like in the glass? We wanted to help people get to that moment without having to be a trained bartender or have all the ingredients available. That’s what made us different – we were the guys on the other side of the bar chasing the best cocktails.
What was unexpected or challenging about opening Straightaway?
There are so many challenges to open a distillery. Beer, wine, and weed businesses are easier to open from a regulatory standpoint, comparatively speaking. We are also a bonded winery so we went through the set up process for both sides of it. With spirits, in the eyes of the regulatory system, it often feels as we are handling raw uranium. There’s a lot of rules and regulations around how to build a distillery, how to make the product. Because we were industry outsiders, we had to learn as we went.
What resources did you use?
We had help from our fellow distillers. No one person has all the information, and we’re all trying to move the game forward and help each other be successful. We’re all competing with the big guys, the industry standards. At Straightaway we try to be quick studies, and close the gap as quickly as we can.
How does the regulatory piece work?
We had legal help in the application process to make sure we had crossed our t’s and dotted our i’s, and so we could move through the process quickly. There are occasional inspections, and there’s reporting, and the labeling is very specific: what you can say, what you can’t say, what you have to say. It takes learning, and then you get the hang of it. We’re different, because we’re a cocktail, with more ingredients in each bottle. There’s more we have to say.
What skills have you developed along the way?
I’ve always been an early hire for other brands, and in that role you help problem solve, but you don’t wear it in the same way. It’s not your mortgage on the line. I’ve been invested and had ownership at companies, but it’s totally different when it’s your plan, your company and your savings on the line. It intensifies the problem-solving skills.
No matter what the obstacle is, you have to figure out a way around it. There’s precious few times when you can throw your arms up and say, there’s no way around this! You have to figure it out. I dig that.
And not to get overly excited by success, or overly down because of losses. Both of those will change.
Have you gotten good advice from others?
Getting product to market, as a spirit, looks different. If we want to import to a different state, it’s akin to importing to a different country, because every state has its own liquor laws. So there’s good advice given around playing the long game. We might have wanted to get XYZ accomplished in Year 1, but you re-set the timeline because expansion takes a bit longer. It’s not like I have a loaf of bread that I can sell across the country if I turn on retailers or distributors. This is a piece by piece building experience. There’s no magic button.
What’s your metric of success for Straightaway?
Success for us is when we make a true connection with a guest. Whether it’s our team members doing tastings at our tasting room, or the a-ha moment where people realize it’s one of the best cocktails they’ve ever had and it comes from a bottle. They become fans for life. We just want to make it easier for people to enjoy something great.
Has there been any great feedback that sticks out so far?
We’ve gotten a lot of great press that I wouldn’t have expected to happen so fast. Dieline said we were one of the top seven brands at the entire Fancy Food show. We were honored. And the engagement level with the customer has been really cool. When people say that it changes how they cocktail, or host parties, it’s so cool.
What kinds of tools and services do you use to run the business?
We use Square for our POS. Quickbooks for accounting. WhenIWork for shift tracking. We have software on the distillery side to make sure our reporting is correct and we’re making everything accurately.