Lelaneia Dubay didn’t know she was on the road to creating a successful distillery when she began making her cranberry liqueur for holiday gifts back in 2009.
Dubay began experiencing sensitivity issues related to chemicals and artificial flavorings in different types of alcohol. With other diet restrictions, Dubay says she wasn’t willing to give up drinking. “That was not really an option,” she laughs.
An avid gardener, Dubay took her love of herbs, cooking and nature and created a lavender liqueur. She invited friends over to sample the drink, received positive feedback and brought her cranberry and the lavender liqueurs to another party where a mixologist and a restauranteur were in attendance.
“They both tasted my liqueurs and said, ‘Get this to market as soon as you can,’” Dubay recalls. “They told me, it was brilliant and there was nothing else like it.”
Dubay says she and her husband Tom had an “aha moment” within days of that party. The couple decided to go for it and created Hartford Flavor Company. Tom became Chief Executive Officer and Lelaneia became “Creatrix & Infusionary.”
At the time, Dubay was a little more overwhelmed than excited. “I’m a busy girl,” she says. Dubay owns a successful landscape design business, Dubay Design, which she no longer does full-time, since Hartford Flavor Company has taken off. “Trying to balance two businesses and switching back and forth is challenging,” she says, “but I’m doing it.”
Read on to find out how.
Innovation Destination Hartford: You did extensive market research to decide on the flavors for your Wild Moon line of liqueurs.
DUBAY: I made 50 other flavors to sample and for market research. We were advised to only launch one product, but that felt wrong to me. If we were going to have flavorings with liqueurs, why wouldn’t we have several?
We narrowed it down to about 16 flavors and then did additional market research with about 300 people. We took careful notes and used people we knew and people we didn’t know—restauranteurs, mixologists, all kinds of people.
We had them taste the flavors to find out which they liked and to see if we had a viable product. From that feedback, we decided on the six flavors in the Wild Moon product line: birch, chai spice, cranberry, cucumber, lavender and rose. The cranberry is seasonal because I’m making everything from the real thing and I have to wait for that harvest to come in.
IDH: Tell us a little about getting the distillery up and running.
DUBAY: Starting a distillery is a very long, difficult process. You need permission from the state, federal and then all of the zoning stuff that has to happen with the city level.
Hartford Flavor Company rented the space in May 2014. We didn’t start moving in the fall and we didn’t actually start production until February.
IDH: What about funding?
DUBAY: In the beginning, we funded the company through friends and very small investors. My husband and I took a big chunk of it. In June 2015, Harford Flavor Company received a Hartford Economic Development Company $50,000 loan, which we are using to get us to the next level.
Harford Flavor Company self-distributed for the first five months and we got our product into 140 establishments, which is huge. We were pushing really hard. Then we signed with a distributor and they’ve gotten us into another 100 or so establishments—so we’re close to 250.
We’re going to start looking at the next state: we’re hoping it will be New York.
We have to start thinking about the big picture and where do we go to next. We’ve gotten requests for the product from many states across the nation and there’s a distributor in England that wants to have our product.
IDH: How are people finding out about it?
DUBAY: It’s mostly word-of-mouth. Our advertising has been almost minimal—using social media and tastings. Tons of tastings. With a product like this you really have to taste it to understand it.
We haven’t done a lot of advertising on purpose because I wanted it to feel like “Hartford’s own” for a while. Soon enough we will be larger than Hartford. And I wanted there to be a time when it was known as “Hartford’s own.”
I’ve been told by industry people that I’m creating a new wedge of the alcohol pie—“healthy drinking” doesn’t exist. There are heavy chemicals in a lot of things that people drink. I didn’t really set out to change the industry, but it turns out that I am. So that’s kind of cool.
IDH: It sounds like it was happenstance. You didn’t really set out to create a company.
DUBAY: I never dreamed of being a liqueur business owner! It really just kind of happened.
IDH: Do you or Tom either of you have a business background?
DUBAY: Yes. Tom has a Master of Business Administration, so he understands that more than I do, although I have run my own business for 20 years. I get the small business idea of it. But I went to art school. So I have an arts and visual background.
IDH: It sounds like you have a good balance.
DUBAY: We’re a great team.
IDH: As far as the Wild Moon flavor line, do you plan to add additional flavors?
DUBAY: Yes. We will be adding flavors—seasonal flavors and other unusual flavors. Will also add other product lines. That’s why it’s Hartford Flavor Company and Wild Moon is our first line.
I don’t know what the other product lines will be. We have to be careful—I have a lot of ideas but there’s only so much shelf space per brand. So even though I might have a great brand, how many flavors are actually viable?
IDH: Going back to Hartford, let’s talk about your location. Why Hartford and why Parkville?
DUBAY: We love that there’s a history of manufacturing in the building here at 30 Arbor Street. The first pay telephones were made here.
Having a renaissance in Hartford means industry, it means manufacturing. All of New England was manufacturing back in the 1800s. We have that history and sending jobs overseas is really not the answer. How can we make? Like MakeHartford downstairs, there’s a wave across the country of people making again. So how can we do that? And how can we do that in Hartford?
So we carefully chose Hartford as part of our name. We wanted to contribute something to Hartford. It means a lot to us to be a part of the fabric that Hartford is.
How cool would it be to have a national brand that’s actually from Hartford?