I'll Have What I'm Having
Rambling House Soda
Watershed Distillery co-founder, Greg Lehman, sat down with John Lynch and Aubrey Fuller of Rambling House Soda to find out more about their origin story.
Greg- Guys thanks for coming out today.
John- Yeah, thanks for inviting us.
Greg- I want to talk through a lot of different topics, but a lot of the whys and the whats behind what you guys do. When did you guys start rambling house?
John- In the summer of 2013, we bought a building, and we knew we wanted to start a soda company, we didn't really know what that meant at the time. There aren't really books on how to start up a soda company. There's nothing really for how to do it on a bigger scale, so that first summer was kind of interesting, especially because the first thing we decided to do was Comfest. We didn't know what we were doing. I was making kegs Friday night because we had gone through so many during the day that we had run out. It was an interesting weekend, but it was also an awesome weekend to really see from the public that they were interested in a craft non-adult beverage option.
" He's making a simple syrup, he's processing ginger, he's doing everything you'd expect at a really high-end bar, and we're delivering a packaged, ready to go product. The amount of ginger Aubrey deals with on a weekly basis is really insane."
Greg- Did the soda start before the bar?
John- Yeah, in 2013 the bar itself was just a soda manufacturing facility. We opened it up once or twice that first of the summer to special events, we got a liquor license later that fall, but it wasn't necessarily to become a bar, it was just for certain financial reasons. It was nice at one point to have the liquor license, to be able to sell it, but we had a couple of those private events with music. That's been a big part of us right from the start, is live music. A couple different bands kind of convinced us that maybe we should do something with that liquor license, and those private events kind of snowballed into once a week events, then twice a week and slowly we got to where we were open 6 days a week as a bar. In early 2014 after we saw things kind of going that direction we moved production of soda down the road and that's where my brother came into play. Once we moved production to a new bigger facility, got bigger equipment, to where we can produce more, I guess my first employee came on, my younger brother Aubrey. Right from the start he really took over all of the soda production side of things, and I moved onto sales and we'll call it distribution.
Greg- Everything else that needs to be done. Dave and I wrote a business plan at Watershed, we raised money, and we found a space and went through this whole process to start a business. How did you actually get Rambling House up and going?
John- I was working for Elevator Brewing Company during the day as a salesperson and I was going to law school at night. So law school was 3 years, and during that time I worked on my business plan. Really because there weren't specific guides on how to start a soda company we really piggybacked off the brewing industry. We refined a business plan because we wanted to buy our building, we didn't want to lease. We really wanted to be on high street, but as time went on, and we looked at what we could justify with what we projected sales to be, we had to go a little off of high street.
Greg- You probably appreciate that decision now.
John- Now that we have expanded and we are leasing the place where we produce the soda, we own Rambling House bar, it's carved itself a nice little niche in the community. It was a long business plan, I'm not gonna say that we've 100% followed it, we've definitely taken some turns, but even if you go back to the first plan, expanding into a bottled cocktail was there. It was kind of the end goal because taking the time to run the numbers it was clear from the start that with soda, you'd have to produce it on a really almost massive scale to bring the cost down enough with packaging. If you're using good ingredients it's not really thought of as a pricey commodity.
Greg- What are you guys excited about right now?
John- What we are really excited about and the reason we always plan in the end, is our cocktail that we've come out with. We think that should be the end goal if someone is going to buy a cocktail, is how can I purchase the best possible product so that I can make something at home that is better than what I get in a bar. Really the only way to do that is to buy top shelf ginger soda, and while we haven't been able to package our soda in a way for the consumer to buy unless they go fill up a growler which a lot of people do, now it's just pre-mixed.
Greg- Perfect, it makes it easy. Aubrey, tell me a little bit about your role, walk me through a day in your life.
Aubrey- I do a lot of soda planning, and just coming up with flavors. For the first year, we did a different flavor every week, and that was probably what I spent most of my time on. On a daily basis I just do a lot of food prep, peeling lemons, and limes, shredding a bunch of ginger, cleaning kegs, the usual brewery/soda stuff.
John- Yeah the food prep side of it is kind of neat because that's kind of our main pitch to why our soda should be on draft in places. We take the difficult tasks that a lot of bartenders have to do behind the bar, and we bring it back to our soda facility. He's making a simple syrup, he's processing ginger, he's doing everything you'd a expect at a really high-end bar, and we're delivering a packaged, ready to go product. The amount of ginger Aubrey deals with on a weekly basis is really insane.
Greg- The process to come up with new flavors sounded pretty interesting, how do you do that? Once you decide we are going to make this new flavor how do you make it?
Aubrey- Coming up with soda flavors was interesting because there are a lot of craft options out there that no one has really touched, I use ice cream flavors often as a base.
Greg- Can you think of one that you've done recently that is new?
Aubrey- We've been doing a lot of different cream sodas, we did a grapefruit cream recently.
John- A good example is the one we're doing for craft beer week with Homestead. They wanted grapefruit to mix with their lager, they're calling it the Rambling Radler. We talked to their brewer for a while to figure out what the best process would be. In this case, it is going to be giving them the syrup, then they are going to carbonate and blend the beer with the soda. We got 6 cases of grapefruit, so we got a lot of zesting to do .
Greg- Your job sounds like our bartenders going through cocktail iterations. They'll concept stuff out based on ideas and inspirations. They use their background to go through other recipes they've made, but you're probably doing a lot of tweaking when it comes down to it.
Aubrey- I do a lot of sampling to figure out what needs what. We did a root beer tasting, trying to figure out what I can narrow down in our sarsaparilla, to tweak flavors.
John- It was eye opening. We tried 12 different root beers and hardly any of them tasted the same. Some of them if you closed your eyes you wouldn't even know were root beers, one tasted like an oatmeal cookie.
Greg- That's the cool side of the job. What inspires you about this?
John- I chose soda because while I was working for Elevator Brewing Company as a salesman, I had over 150 accounts in Central Ohio. I didn't come from the sales background, I got to know the guys at Elevator and kind of backed into the job one day. I saw how ultra competitive the beer industry was getting. I would have a hard time getting it on shelves because the market got so competitive, and I saw on the other side of the spectrum, that you can walk into the same Kroger I'm trying to sell beer in, there might be an aisle 50 feet long of craft beer, and 2 feet of craft soda. There was just the competitive side of me where I thought I could do this, this seems like a good market to try. Then there is also the side of me that I'm not a huge drinker, I actually like soda. There's definitely going to be a market for it. Columbus is a town that supports local businesses that start up, especially if they want to provide something different so we're pretty proud of where we've started, and where we've come.
Greg- Do you guys feel like you discovered a market for craft soda here, or you created one?
John- I would say we discovered. Maybe if we had started bigger, we could have said we created one, because we could have come out of the gate with a bottling line, and more capital behind us, then maybe then we could have created a bigger market. Right now even after three plus years we still run into people who haven't heard of Rambling House, so we haven't finished doing what we want to do. Whether we have discovered or created the soda market I do think we have definitely discovered and we are on the verge of creating a bottled cocktail market. There are a lot of craft soda options out there, not a lot of Ohio options. There is hardly anybody doing what we're doing with the combination of craft, all natural ingredients, and the price we've been able to get it down to.
Greg- I understand your background with soda. When Dave and I started Watershed we liked a good cocktail, we like bourbon, we like gin, but I wouldn't say that was consuming us by any means. I think for us we wanted to be involved, and bring something cool to the community. We've made a lot of bad gin, we made cornbread in the still once which was awful, what challenges have you guys seen along the way?
John- On the distribution side we've had to really work with each account that's decided to put us on draft because it's not a beer, it can act differently just like beers can. You expect when you go into bars that have 20 beers on draft, they've figured out how their system works with beer, and running at a certain level. I've got to meet a lot of the people who have started their own line cleaning business in the community too because we have to talk to them about what our product is like. Even though we haven't had any kind of problem with our soda tainting lines with flavors, that's something we heard a lot about at the start, they were afraid we'd ruin vinyl beer lines. We aren't using heavy extracts we are using fresh ingredients, it's like if you pour an imperial stout then switch to a light lager, you have to figure that out in a bar. It's the same thing with our sodas, it might take a pint to get the last flavor cleared out.
Greg- Tell me about the network of people that make Rambling House happen, I know there is you two, who else?
John- Two other really big driving forces for Rambling House would be our staff, and the musicians. From the start the bar is very small, if you come in it's an intimate setting to either enjoy a drink or to watch a show, but we've really tried to create a scenario where you walk in you're going to get a great vibe. If we are charging for a show, we are charging probably $5, and 100% of that goes to the musicians. That's us trying to cultivate a relationship with musicians in town, It's not easy to have live music 5 or 6 nights a week every week, but we've done it since we opened. We're finally getting recognized a little bit in town as a music venue which is great for us because it's something we've worked really hard to try to create, we tried to create a niche for a certain genre, kind of like Americana rootsy bluegrass type vibe. The staff has really been amazing, it's a great group of people.
Greg- Why did you choose Columbus?
John- Columbus is my hometown, I love it. My wife and I met here in 2002, we pretty quickly after that moved to D.C. for a few years. I finished college there, and she worked for a member of congress, then I worked for a member of congress, but at the same time we both knew that we wanted to move back to Columbus. We just love the city, it's always going to have a young growing feel to it, it's just great.
Greg- Did you guys know that when you were in D.C. or is it when you got back you felt that? My wife and I grew up here and we moved away for a few years, it was always one of those things where we thought we would move back to Columbus, but as soon as we got back we knew this is where we belonged, there's something about this community that we love.
John- I wouldn't say that we knew when we moved to D.C., but we came back to visit enough that we got the Columbus bug. The member of congress that I happened to be working for got elected Governor so that just ended up being the perfect time to come back and put down our roots. Two kids later I don't think we're going anywhere. It's just an awesome community to start a small business. There is just so many groups that are willing to help a small business startup, especially a food business here in Columbus. There is no shortage of people willing to help you out or to help promote your business. All the festivals are great for products like ours.
Greg- It sounds like you guys have really joined this artist community on the musician side, are there other parts of the Columbus community that you feel that you interact with?
John- We host a lot of events at Rambling House, we do a lot of political stuff, that's mostly my wife and me, but we're pretty heavily involved in the democratic side of politics. We've grown a lot under the previous administration, and now the new administration has got us going in the right direction. We also do a lot of community events, I think partly because it's really easy to tie music into events that you're going to have. We've made that part of our mission to make sure that the community feels like they can come to Rambling House and have a space that if they want to get together it will be available to them.
Greg- For us we always wanted to be involved in the community by starting the distillery. We're involved with restaurants around town, and when we started this kitchen and bar, it's amazing how much closer you feel to the community because they are here every night, you get the feedback, we're hosting events all the time. It's just a really cool way to be tied into the community.
Greg(cont.)- So what's next for you guys?
John- The expansion. We're looking right now at how big the next step is going to be.
Aubrey- I think also with that will come more festivals which are something that I really want to start looking into more just getting in there with the soda and more publicity.
John- The cocktail holds a really interesting possibility for festivals and events. If for some reason you can't hire a bartender, just pop open a bottle, and you have the perfect Moscow Mule poured every time.
Greg- What's next for the Columbus community?
John- With this new space that we're looking at, it is going to be something where we can really start to do some larger scale production. We've kind of seen a need for some co-packaging opportunities for companies so we'd like to go big enough to where we can also offer some start-up beverage businesses in Columbus the ability to come in and use some equipment to co-package. As Aubrey was saying as we expand our business, we'd like to expand our reach into festivals. I know we've partnered with Watershed in a few over the years, those are some of the most fun things we do.
Greg- It's a great way to be in the community and to connect with people. Who else is doing cool things in the Columbus community?
John- Branden Givand has a shop called the Flying Gent, and he does a lot of interesting things in the community. I would say our coffee scene is pretty incredible. Yeah, Me Too is going to have to be my favorite. There's a lot of breweries that are doing awesome. You've got to love what Seventh Son is doing with their expansion plans, that's going to be great, and it's nice to see Rockmill in Columbus.
Aubrey- The climbing community has really taken off lately, especially with our bar. We have a group of climbers that comes in, and they've been slowly expanding into getting a group of climbers together.
John- Since we do a lot with politics, lately we've hosted a few events for women in politics, and I do think that in Columbus particularly there is kind of a groundswell of women getting together to try to support other women running for office. I think that's something that my wife has worked a lot on, something that hopefully we will see growing here in central Ohio.
Greg- That's great, really great connection to the community. Thanks for sitting down with us, and taking the time to talk about Rambling House, anything else you'd like to add?
John- Nope, thanks for having us.
Greg- Thanks John, Thanks Aubrey.
For more information on Rambling House visit www.ramblinghousesoda.com