Peel Liqueur is on a mission to reinvent Italian liqueurs. The New Britain, CT-based company started out in Managing Partner and Co-Founder Gianfranco DiDomenico’s kitchen and incorporated in 2011. A group of first-generation Italian friends, including Co-Founder Angelo Mastrodomenico, began crafting batches of all-natural, handmade Limoncello based on a recipe from Mastrodomenico’s mother.
“For a few years were just making the liqueur as a hobby,” explained DiDomenico, who is also a mortgage broker. During the holidays, they would make batches of Limoncello for friends and family and give them to clients as gifts. “Everybody really liked it,” he says. “We received a lot of encouragement. People kept saying we should try to sell it.”
What started as a hobby evolved into a business.
The startup brought in a couple of key investors—business partners, acquaintances, friends of family and also managing partners—to help raise capital. “They definitely helped with the launch,” DiDomenico confirms. “These are entrepreneurial people who saw our vision and believed in our cause and decided to get involved with us,” he added.
Peel Liqueur also qualified for a grant and a loan from the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) Small Business Express Program. “That was obviously a big boost,” says DiDomenico.
“All of the partners have full-time jobs in addition to Peel Liqueur,” DiDomenico said. “None of us have taken a dollar out of the company. All of the capital we raised was used to create jobs and acquire tools and machinery for production.”
Peel Liqueur used money from investors and the DECD funds to help bring people onto its staff. The startup hired a director of sales and marketing as well as people to work tastings at events. Another part-time consultant works with the distributors. “We try to divvy up responsibilities,” DiDomenico says. “For example, Angelo is in charge of the production run. He makes sure that the quality, standards and compliance are all in place.”
REINVENTING THE PEEL
“Limoncello is a cultural kind of thing that’s very popular in Italy. In the United States, it’s something people would traditionally drink after dinner as a digestive,” DiDomenico explained. “We really felt that if were going create a product, it needed to be something more mainstream that would be at bars served in cocktails. We wanted to highlight how well the product mixes.”
Peel Liqueur decided to create untraditional packaging to reinvent Limoncello’s image. “Traditionally, the packaging would have a picture of the Amalfi Coast of Italy or a lemon tree,” DiDomenico pointed out, “It’s very basic, old-world looking packaging.”
The company also wanted a fresh, untraditional brand name. “We came up with Peel because you have to peel the lemons and bananas.”
In keeping with the company’s goal of being local and family-oriented, Peel Liqueur hired a graphic design artist friend of DiDomenico’s to create the logo. The two had grown up in New Britain and went to the same high school.
Peel Liqueur had the product and the logo; now they needed production. Starting out, the company created a contract with Westford Hill Distillers in Ashford, CT. “Back then, we were focused on getting off the ground and moving forward,” DiDomenico noted. “We now have our own distillery, which helps improve our margins.”
In June 2015, the company moved its production to Central Connecticut Distillers, a 2,000 square foot facility in New Britain, where it can produce up to 15,000 bottles of Peel’s signature liqueurs every month.
EXPANDING THE PRODUCT LINE
Peel Liqueur realized it had a great product with the Limoncello, but it decided to have a differentiator. The company created Cremoncello, which is a lemon cream liqueur and, after toying with ideas, recipes and taste testings, the company developed its Bananacello liqueur. Peel Liqueur created and trademarked the names “Cremoncello” and “Bananacello.”
Peel Liqueur takes pride in its award-winning, gluten-free and all-natural liqueurs. “We had a lot of success in terms of the quality of the product and the packaging,” DiDomenico adds. Peel Liqueur was a Double-Gold winner in 2013 and 2014 at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. All three flavors took home awards. “In terms of a global quality perspective it’s there. The challenge is being a small local company and trying to overcome all those hurdles and get the product out there.”
According to DiDomenico, the company’s marketing efforts are really grassroots. “We have the most success when we are doing tastings,” he says. “We’re fortunate because in the Northeast most people like to support local.”
As a small startup, the company doesn’t have a huge marketing budget, DiDomenico explained. “For example, we’re not spending a specific budget on magazine ads. We really try to focus on getting our product into peoples’ mouths, networking and working with distributors to get our product on drink menus in restaurants.”
DiDomenico says that being in Connecticut definitely helped shape the business. “Having people around you who are successful and entrepreneurial helped shape the process and helped limit our mistakes,” he says.
“Without that initial funding from our investors there wouldn’t have been the opportunity to be in Connecticut either,” he added. “So it’s a combination of a lot of things: Being in Connecticut, being from Connecticut, being Italian, being of Italian descent and being in a state with a large Italian population.”
DiDomenico also places a lot of importance on getting to know the industry and learning the process.
“You need to surround yourself with people who have been successful, whether in business or in general. In particular, in this kind of industry we saw that it was important for us to align ourselves with our distributors,” he explained.
“Just because you’re local doesn’t necessarily mean that restaurants are going to support you. There’s a system in place. Distributors are the ones who are calling on the accounts. They’re the ones with the relationships, so you have to work with your distributors and try and engage with the sales staff to help you grow and meet your goals.”
Peel is excited about the Central Connecticut Distillers opening. “We’re in the process of working with Avery’s Beverages to create an all-natural, nonalcoholic lemon soda,” DiDomenico says.
“We may create a hard lemonade for another company at some point, too. The goal is to try to grow throughout New England and hopefully nationally, if we are lucky enough.”
ADVICE FOR STARTUPS
“I think it’s important to try to align yourself with good people who are supportive and are where you want to be or can help guide you to where you want to go,” DiDomenico says. “Don’t give up. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. Stay passionate and keep your focus.”
DiDomenico also emphasizes the networking and the learning processes. “I’ve learned a tremendous amount about this industry and how things operate. I’ve also learned about building relationships and networking and meeting people. You never know what doors are going to open.”