Meet a Maker: Jess Messer, Savouré
Savouré Soda has been through more iterations in its 8 years of existence than many other food companies ever do. Jess Messer, who started Savouré making jam in Montreal in 2011, has transformed the business into a soda company and shared incubator kitchen for the small Vermont community of Bristol. Messer sells the soda, with funky flavors like apricot-saffron-sumac and black currant-rosemary, on draft and in bottles all over the state. And anyone who might dismiss a soda company in a state of 600k people as cutesy is quickly corrected by Messer’s thoughtfulness and business acumen. “People would say, ‘oh, you make jam, that’s so cute!’” Messer notes. “I said, ‘it’s not really cute, it’s actually grueling and really hard to figure out how to run a business.’”
Savouré is the unique story of a company that has spanned multiple countries and many products. Read on for Messer’s insights on growth, flavors, and succeeding in a small market.
How did you build a shared kitchen at the same time as a food business? And why?
I’ve started shared kitchens in Montreal and in Vermont. I did a Kickstarter to get a kitchen space in 2013, after 1.5 years of running my business out of my home. I got the kitchen, but it was a huge amount of space. I had a friend who was in a similar business that I really liked, and she ended up needing space. We found a few other women, and it snowballed into a shared kitchen. It was wonderful for me, because it would’ve been difficult for me to continue paying for the expense of the kitchen.
And then, I moved here to Vermont. I looked for a commercial kitchen space with a friend of mine, who had a catering company. We built out the space ourselves. Her husband’s a builder, and it’s Vermont so everyone is really handy. And since then we’ve taken on renters, and we also have events and pop-ups. The space is called Tandem.
This is a really weird and isolating business. Nobody really knows what it’s like if they’re not a food business. That’s why the shared kitchen was so great! We called it professional parallel play: when you’re doing your own thing, but you’re doing it in a group, and you can share resources and vent together.
How many employees do you have?
I have no full-time employees. I have three rotating contractors who help me during the busy season. It’s a tough call, strategically. Ultimately, you want to be a jobs generator, but there’s also the question of how to have sustainable growth. In Montreal, I bottled by hand and I had a full-time employee. But there wasn’t a sustainable growth model there. So just in the past year in Vermont, I decided to start bottling and go to co-packing. It’s not full co-packing, because I still do all the sourcing and I’m there when the process happens. But it’s an interesting balance. I’m providing other people’s small businesses with work and allowing them to have employees, but not having any employees myself.
Was there an a-ha moment?
I started selling jams and preserved foods at farmer’s markets. It was 2011, so it was early on in the craft food movement – particularly in Montreal. It was good timing for me, because it was more unique than it would be now, and people loved it. So there was a moment where I was like, wow, you know what? I should do this!
I gave myself 5 years to pull a salary, and we were on that path when we had to move to Vermont. It was brutal – it was the biggest professional setback you could imagine. But something about doing the Kickstarter really helped me. The Kickstarter community, and the fact that this many people wanted to back my business, really carried me through the move. I decided to stick with it, and I’m glad that I did.
What are your growth plans?
The thing I want to do with the business, is make food from food. There’s a big difference between a beverage that’s just made from colorings and sugars, and me buying celery from a farmer and turning it into soda. It’s a very different process, price point, drain on my co-packer, etc. So that all dictates how much I can really grow. It made me stop and think, what if I’m just a successful small-to-medium sized business, have a few employees, draw a salary, and be really regionalized?
I’m not ruling out the possibility of exponential growth and sale, but I feel like if/when that happens, it won’t be my company anymore. Somebody else can run with it and take it to the next level, if that seems like the right thing to do.
It sounds like you have a very personal relationship with everyone you do business with.
100%. Which is so funny and so unsustainable. I love it, though. I don’t have an advertising and marketing budget – all the stores I’m in are through word of mouth. People come to me, and they ask if they can carry the soda. It’s super fortunate, and also really lucky because I’m a terrible salesperson.
The market here is so small. I don’t want to be in every single store in Vermont – I don’t think that everybody wins in that scenario. I’d rather be in fewer stores, and have people actually make money selling my product. Then I can focus my larger growth strategies on more densely populated areas, both north and south. There’s a lot of untapped market for people in Vermont to sell in Montreal.
What’s a typical day like for you?
Get up early, drop off kids, go to the gym, and then work until dinnertime. Then family time, then bookkeeping or computer time. The daytime is for production and deliveries. Because I have relationships with my farmers and clients, I want to do that work myself.
I typically have 3 production days a week, and the rest is invoicing, delivering, client relationships, and Savouré offsite events or events at Tandem. I work most days, but it feels okay. June-Christmas is pretty busy, and then we get a lull that feels pretty great. I use that time to run numbers and re-analyze.
Do you still spend a lot of time on R&D?
Definitely. That’s my strength. I have two flavors in bottles, I’m introducing two more this spring, and then I’ll have a rotating flavor. All those years of playing around with ingredients that were new and different gave me anecdotal evidence on what sells and what things cost. All that data will definitely inform what we do going forward.
Some people want to be able to get the one flavor every day in the same place, but some people love the new and the limited-edition. I want to be able to do both of those things. The bulk format, selling in kegs, is super flexible in that way. I can make something that sounds fun. If someone finds a bunch of wild plums, I can quickly use them. But I make some sodas that only come around seasonally, like a blackout soda for Halloween, and people look forward to it. The things that people look forward to, I can bottle.
Do you have specific goals for 2019?
It’s a really big year for me. I just started bottling, so this upcoming warm weather season will be really important for me to find out how much product I can move. I’m counting on 2019 to give me a ton of info and strategically plan for what those next steps are going to be. And then trying to get in stores. I talked to a distributor in Massachusetts, who said no, and it was the first rejection I’ve had. I didn’t go into the conversation with my act together; I needed projections, visuals and numbers. So I’m going to become better friends with Excel sheets. I’m excited for it, and I’m totally ready.