Business 08 February 2017
Among the many wonders and beautiful experiences of becoming a mother, there’s one that - well, frankly - is kind of a drag: you have to be booze-free for those very long nine months. It was while building her family that Sharelle Klaus got the magic idea to also build a company. “I’m a mother of four, and during those years when I had to skip wine and cocktails, I realized there was a real lack of sophisticated, non-alcoholic beverages out there. Everything at that time was either cloyingly sweet, highly-artificial or lacking imagination,” she shared with SWAAY.
Without any mocktail that lived up to her palette’s preferences, Klaus came up with the idea of what is today DRY Sparkling. “I wanted a flavor-forward, non-alcoholic beverage that could compete with a great glass of wine or a premium cocktail and could also pair with my Thai food or a nice cut of steak,” she said. “When I realized that the ultra-competitive beverage market lacked one, I decided to make it myself— starting in my own kitchen.”
Today, DRY is sold in more than 4,500 stores nationwide, including Target and Kroger. With dozens of flavors and plenty of recipes ideas if you’re currently sans-booze or pregnant, the company continues to grow and feed the health-conscious in everyone. In addition to being at the helm of her company, Seattle-based Klaus is a busy mom of four kiddos (and one pup, a german shepherd named Lennox). Luckily for us, she took the time to sit down with SWAAY to talk about her humble beginnings and what’s next for this sparkling-beverage mega player:
Have you always been interested in your own company? What brought you to where you are today?
From an early age, I had a strong entrepreneurial curiosity and started several little businesses while still in grade school. I did things like make and sell Christmas wreaths around the holidays and sold a community newspaper in Bend, Oregon, where I grew up. I always thought I would create my own company someday. And I have this crazy habit of thinking about how to make “normal” things better or different.
Prior to founding DRY, I worked as a consultant Price Waterhouse. I also served as President of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, driving development of programs, events and fundraising for the organization’s 250+ Seattle-area members.
How is the company growing? How was the past year?
The year 2016 was an exhilarating one for us as we continue to see major year-over-year success! The Craft Soda category experienced a boom in 2016 fueled by greater consumer demand for better-for-you options, and DRY is growing four times faster than the category as a whole. We grew our placements, retail partners and on-shelf offerings with many of our existing retail partners, but also covered new territory in channels like Drug, Club, Grocery, and Convenience & Gas.
Our team is also growing – we just hired a new VP of Operations who will join us at DRY HQ, which is now located in Seattle’s historic Smith Tower. Every day, I’m impressed by the people I get to work with.
Everyone is so passionate about our brand and so driven. Our office has a very entrepreneurial spirit – the whole team works very hard and is super competitive.
For the first time, we saw retailers like Target and 7-Eleven make a commitment to our beautiful culinary sodas, and we’re thrilled to see fans respond positively. We can’t wait to see what 2017 has in store for us.
What was the hardest part about starting your company?
When I started DRY, I understood I was creating a whole new category of soda. I wanted DRY to be more delicious, elegant and sophisticated than any non-alcoholic beverage out there, so I had to challenge the notion that sodas are overly sweet and limited in flavors. I knew if DRY was truly going to be a worthy accompaniment to meals at top restaurants in the U.S., we were going to have to procure the very best ingredients, and then create recipes that made those flavors shine. Our flavors are probably our biggest differentiator. Our ingredients are clean and simple as each of our varieties are dedicated to a single flavor (vs. a mix), so they are immediately recognizable from the first sip.
Speaking of which, where did you get the idea for the soda flavors?
When I first started DRY, some of my favorite foods and herbs served as inspiration for flavors. Lavender was my first idea - it came to me when I was out in my garden and thinking about how great it would taste when paired with chocolate. Rhubarb was inspired by my grandmother, who made me rhubarb pies every summer from the rhubarb growing in her yard.
What your favorite cocktail using DRY Sparkling?
My favorite DRY flavor used to be Lavender DRY, but since the launch of Fuji Apple, it’s really tough to say. Some of my favorite cocktail recipes include creations from Cochon 555 Punch Kings, as well as The Staci, Miami Nice and L&L cocktails from our Cocktail Generator.
What was the moment when you knew you were onto something?
I launched DRY in 2005 after several experiments with extracts, syrups, home carbonators, and help from a few chefs and friends in F&B. The first flavors were nostalgic and surprisingly interesting: Lavender, Lemongrass, Rhubarb and Kumquat. I knew we were on to something when not far out of the gate, DRY became available in some of the nation’s finest restaurants.
When The French Laundry starting carrying DRY, it was a foodie’s dream come true. Through a large community of supporters, former connections, and the wholehearted belief in the need for DRY, we expanded into retail distribution not long after.
What do you wish you knew about being an entrepreneur before you became one?
The funny thing is that I had no experience in the beverage industry before starting my company, and so was blissfully unaware of all the “rules” that come along with being a part of it. Since I didn’t know they existed, I didn’t follow them, which was mostly a good thing. I wasn’t afraid to be headstrong and ask for more. For example, I’d ask for bigger in-store promotions and displays, and probably wouldn’t have if I knew this was something I wasn’t necessarily supposed to do.
In the last 10 years as an entrepreneur, I have learned a lot. I can admit I was not prepared for how much work it would take to trailblaze a new beverage brand, and truly a whole new elevated category of soda. Being the first comes with many road bumps, but being first also allows you to creatively change an industry. We love being innovative at DRY, so while no one may have ever had a Lavender soda before, we knew our target audience would want it. And being innovative allows us to be very creative in our marketing approach, in our distribution model, and even in our company culture.
What advice would you give to female entrepreneurs?
I’ve learned that it’s important to be fearless and creative in your approach, especially in such a competitive industry. My top piece of advice for budding female entrepreneurs would be to always listen to your instincts and never hold back.
What's next for DRY Sparkling? What about for you?
We are always focused on innovation in flavor and design so we can stay one step ahead of what’s happening in the industry. We are launching a couple new products to our core line this year, which is quite exciting! And we are always looking to bring DRY to more stores and more consumers. We are growing quickly, but we are not everywhere yet!
6 Min Read
I live the pain and stress of being black in America every day: I am a black woman, the mother of a black son, sister to black men, and aunt to my black nephews. I remember what it was like as a young girl to be afraid to go to Howard Beach for fear of being chased out. I know what it's like to walk on Liberty Avenue and be called "nigger" and being so young that I didn't understand what the word meant, I had to ask my mother. I know too well that feeling in the pit of your stomach when a police car pulls up behind you and even though you know you haven't done anything wrong you fear that your life may be in danger from what should be a simple encounter. Like all African Americans, I am tired of this burden.
African Americans have a long history of having to fight for our humanity in America. We have had to fight for freedom, we have had to fight for equality, and we have had to fight for our lives. The fight continues to go on. I have often quoted that line from the character Sophia in Alice Walker's The Color Purple, "All my life I had to fight." When I say this to my white counterparts it can sometimes be uncomfortable because it's clear that they just don't get it. They view it as melodramatic. But it's not. It's part of the black experience, and it is the part of the black experience that black people don't want.
I have often quoted that line from the character Sophia in Alice Walker's The Color Purple, "All my life I had to fight."
While I was out yesterday, passing out PPE and talking to people, a woman asked me, "What is it going to take for this to change?" I told her that I think peaceful protesting is a good start. But it's just the start. We can't elect the same people for the past 20-30 years, some in the same positions, and then talk about how nothing has changed in the past 30 years.
This injustice, inequality, and inequity will not spontaneously disappear. It will take bold, outspoken, and fearless leadership to eradicate the systemic racism in our country. We must address the violence at the hands of a police force paid to serve and protect us. We must address the recurring experience of black people being passed over for a promotion and then being asked to train the white person who was hired. We must address the inequities in contract opportunities available to black businesses who are repeatedly deemed to lack the capacity. We must address the disparity in the quality of education provided to black students. We must address the right to a living wage, health care, and sick pay.
While we like to regard the system as broken, I've come to believe the system is working exactly as it was meant to for the people who are benefiting from it. We need a new system. One that works for all of us. I am running to become the mayor of New York City because I can't assume there's another person who has the courage to do the work that needs to be done to create a fair and just city.
We can't elect the same people for the past 20-30 years, some in the same positions, and then talk about how nothing has changed in the past 30 years.
There are some things we may not be able to change in people, but at this moment I think that whether you are black, white, purple, or yellow we all should be looking internally to see what is one thing that you can do to change this dynamic. Here's where we can start:
If we want change, we need a total reform of police departments throughout this country. That is going to require taking a hard look at our requirements to become a police officer, our disciplinary procedures when civilian complaints are filed, and a review of what and how we police. No one deserves to lose their life based upon the accusation of carrying counterfeit cash. We also need to hold police officers accountable for their actions. While it is their duty to protect and serve they should not be above the law. Even at this very moment, police officers are overstepping their boundaries.
If we want change, we have to build a sense of camaraderie between the police and community. A sense of working together and creating positive experiences. We have to be honest about the fact that we haven't allowed that to happen because we have utilized our police department as a revenue-generating entity. We are more concerned with cops writing tickets than protecting and serving. Even during these moments of protest we are witness to the differences made when the police supported the protesters and stood hand in hand with them or took a knee. It resulted in less violence and more peaceful protest. People felt heard; people felt respected; people felt like they mattered.
While we like to regard the system as broken, I've come to believe the system is working exactly as it was meant to for the people who are benefiting from it. We need a new system.
If we want change, we have to be willing to clean house. And that means that some of you are going to have to step up to the plate and take roles of leadership. In my city alone, there are 35 city council seats that are term-limited in 2021. There are some that aren't termed but maybe their term should be up. Step up to the plate and run. If nothing else it will let our elected officials see that they need to stop being comfortable and do more. We don't need you out in the street taking selfies or reporting the problems to us. We need solutions. We need you in a room implementing policies that will ensure that these things don't continue to happen.
If we want change, we need to support grassroots candidates that are not in corporate pockets, who are not taking PAC money, and who really want to make a difference to their community. We need candidates that know first-hand and can relate to the experiences that many of us are going through.
We are at a pivotal moment. It is inspiring to see people from all races and backgrounds in the streets protesting, standing up for justice, and wanting to see change. We must seize this moment, but we must also be mindful that change requires more.
People often ask me why I decided to run for office? I am running for me. I am running for the little girl that was called nigger on Liberty Avenue. For the woman who has been pulled over for no reason. For my nephew who was consistently stopped during the era of stop and frisk. I am running for your son, your brother, and your nephew. I am running so that the next generation will never have to say, "All my life I had to fight." Because although we won't stop until we see justice and changes that address inequality and inequity effectively, this fight is exhausting.