Each year, during Tiki Month, I try to do an interview with one of the long-term Tiki-bloggers who helped spark my interest in Tiki drinks and culture in the first place. I call these folks my Board of Tiki Idols, and they all have been helpful to me in many ways as I learn about this fascinating cocktail sub-culture.
This year’s interview is with Blair Reynolds, aka Trader Tiki. Trader Tiki is a former bartender and video game quality assurance manager who lives in Portland, OR. (Yes, that means that when he wasn’t slinging hooch, he was playing video games for a living.) You can read his blog here. You’ll note that his posting is nowhere near as frequent as it once was. (This is sad.) The reason for this is that a little over a year ago, Blair took the leap and went into the cocktail business for real. (This is awesome.) His new firm, Trader Tiki’s Hand-Crafted Exotic Syrups, makes a broad range of excellent cocktail syrups such as his best-selling orgeat, a falernum, a ginger syrup, a vanilla syrup, and more. While he brands himself with a Tiki motif, the usefulness of his products extends way beyond Tiki drinks.
I talked with Blair a few days ago.
My first question was when he opened his doors, and how he came to decide to do so. Blair’s first sale was in December, 2009, and was to a friend who, interestingly, doesn’t drink alcohol! The direct impetus for going into business for himself was that same as it is for many entrepreneurs: a change with his employer that he didn’t like. As he cast about for a new professional direction, his Tiki blogging offered an answer.
I’ve written before that I only go Tiki one month a year because all the prep, ingredients, etc. are a huge pain to keep up with. Even Tiki Idols like Blair are not immune to this issue. Many times in the past, as he piddled around over a hot stove making small batches of all sorts of syrups, he often thought, “Someone should make all this easier.”
At last, Blair, started finishing that thought with, “Hey! I’m someone!” His blogging gave him a serious leg up in the venture. First, he already had a “brand” in place in both the Tiki and general craft cocktail communities. This didn’t hurt with establishing an initial level of business. Moreover, all the time and energy he had spent over that stove gave him a broad base of recipes and knowledge of product development.
He doesn’t manufacture his syrups in his kitchen anymore, of course. He has hired a commercial kitchen (or Co-Packer) to do the actual production and packaging. He has a large role in the production through quality control of both the ingredients and final product. The arrangement let him get off the ground for a manageable investment and is scalable. So, as happened this week, when he gets a giant new customer, his operation won’t veer into a ditch.
Business apparently is good. “Sales are up over 340% over last year,” he told me. “It’s great because I can experiment a little now with an expanded product line.” The first bitters from Trader Tiki is in production and will be showing up in just a short while. When I mentioned to Blair that his website is titled, “Trader Tiki’s Exotic Syrups, Bitters, and Spirits“, and asked what his plans were to fulfill the rest of that mission, he laughed and told me, “Buy more syrups!”
So who buys his stuff? “I’ve got an unusual business model,” says Blair. “I do direct retail sales myself over the ‘Net. I sell to bars and restaurants. I sell wholesale to retailers. and I’m now making some good sales to large distributors.”
His largest segment right now is direct sales to bars. This is both a great potential market for Blair, and a difficult sale.
Lots of craft bars, who use many of the unusual ingredients that Blair makes have gotten used to making them themselves. For some it’s habit, for others, a point of pride, and a few simply don’t want to let their customers see them using commercial ingredients of the sort that cocktail snobs believe need to be homemade. “That’s great for ’em, if that’s what they want to do,” says Blair. “But they need to consider a few things.” First, as I noted above, making your own syrups, especially those like orgeat and falernum, is time-consuming, expensive, and frankly, hard to get right. “If they use my syrups, they can have same control and consistency with these things as they do with their spirits.” A bar that makes its own syrups and like ingredients is going to have a hard time making sure the strength and consistency is always the same, and they would have a harder time managing their inventory to make sure they never run out as well.
Be you a cocktail enthusiast or an owner or manager of a Bar That Cares About What It’s Doing, and you want to give Trader Tiki’s stuff a whirl, you can get it directly from him at his online store. It’s also available at retailers in New York, Washington, Seattle, Oregon, California, and even Indiana. (Someone in Ohio, get on the stick!)
For a complete listing of retailers, online sellers, bars and distributors who have the goods, check out Blair’s Where To Buy page. There’s lots to choose from. Blair’s current product line is: Cinnamon Syrup, Don’s Mix and Don’s Spices #2, Falernum, Ginger Syrup, Hazelnut Orgeat, Hibiscus Grenadine, Orgeat, Passion Fruit Syrup, Peppermint Syrup, and Vanilla Syrup.
As a final note, I also talked to Blair about his fabulous Basement Tiki Bar, though I’ll save most of that for another post. For now I’ll merely note that he calls it Reynolés Galley, and notes that it is wonderful evidence of Tiki’s ability to co-opt a great deal of anachronistic elements, such a Caribbean pirate fables, into the essential glorious inauthenticity of its South Seas exotica.