By Deb Boucher Stetson
What began as a simple quest to find an alternative to beer has blossomed into a growing family business for the founders of Spiritfruit. The Rockland-based beverage company, which produces drinks made from premium vodka and sparkling fruit juices, got its start when Caitlin Morris was searching for an alternative libation to enjoy alongside friends and family toasting with beer.
“I don’t drink beer, so I was looking for an alternative,” Morris said, explaining that she wanted it to be something refreshing, but not too light. “It wasn’t beer and it wasn’t a seltzer … I was mostly drinking vodka and soda with a splash of juice.”
In looking around, she realized, “There was nothing out there made with real vodka.”
She got talking with her father, John Burke, and her brother, Sean Burke, and the three decided there was an opportunity to be taken.
“My dad runs his own business and has always been an entrepreneur,” she said, so he was naturally inclined to suggest the launch of a new business. Morris, who works for Fidelity doing brands, marketing and social media, was game. Her brother Sean, a financial advisor who works for John, was also enthusiastic, so the trio got to work.
They got some expert advice from Jason Kane, who founded Mike’s Hard Lemonade and is now part of a consulting firm that helps startups. “One of my dad’s clients put us in touch with him and he just loved the idea,” Morris said. “He put us in touch with other people to do bottling and labeling.”
Having come up with their formula, they worked with a producer to get it right, named the fledgling company, designed labels and got into production by June 2018. “We had our first run in June, and we were in stores by July,” she said.
At first, though, it was only a few stores, because that’s the nature of the business. “It’s a slow build, you have to partner with distributors, you can’t self-distribute,” she explained. But they could self-promote, and the trio decided early on to use a personal touch, visiting each store individually. “It’s a much more powerful sale if you go in personally, then the sales guys follow,” she said.
Morris does all the marketing, as that’s her specialty, and acts as “the face of Spiritfruit.” Sean is in charge of sales, and their father, John, the CPA, handles the numbers. They have a business plan, and aside from one loan they took out for the first run, “we’re entirely self-funded.”
A “slow build” nevertheless had the product in 100 stores by August, mostly in the South Shore area. The firm expanded to the Cape and Islands in September, and launched in Boston in late fall. It also expanded to western Massachusetts, and Morris said that’s just a start.
“By next summer we want to launch in Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York,” she said, and “the following year we’re hoping to expand across the country.”
By Christmas, Spiritfruit was in about 150 stores, according to Morris, who said store numbers are no longer as important to the young company as they were in the beginning. “At first we just wanted to get in any store, but now it’s about getting into the right stores and having a presence in the community,” she said.
To that end, the company does a lot of events and tastings, many of them aimed at millennials, “our key demographic,” she said. She thinks the product hits all the right notes with that demographic, being made with organic, corn-based vodka (which is gluten-free) and fresh juices. “We’re not a selzer, we’re made with real vodka, and real ingredients.”
So far, Spiritfruit is a side gig for all three founders. Morris enjoys her job at Fidelity and said it is flexible since it involves a lot of social media work that is done at all hours. As for her partners, “My brother works for my dad, he does financial advising, so it’s cool how they can divide their time between that and this,” Morris said.
The nascent firm hit one bump in its otherwise smooth growth trajectory when the founders decided to tweak the formula.
“We wanted this to taste really good, really clean and refreshing. But we went a little too far with the juice content,” Morris said. “We actually went to our formula guy to find that sweet spot where it tastes good but people can feel good about drinking it.”
They finally found that “sweet spot,” but at that point, the product was already in a number of stores. “We had to run around to all the stores” to swap it out for the new formula, she said.
Friends and family were only too happy to help consume the original formula, she said.
Right now, Spiritfruit has two flavors, Blackberry and Grapefruit. “Next we’re coming out with Clementine,” Morris said.
Morris, who was a psychology major at Dartmouth, said she especially loves the people aspect of the business. “I just love being around people and seeing what drives them,” she said, noting her brother is “really good with people.”
Asked what it’s like working with family members, Morris said the experience has been very positive. “We’re all invested in it fully and we want it to succeed,” she said.
At 27, Morris has clearly caught the entrepreneur bug. “Building something of your own is a really cool feeling,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like work.”