Jon Basil Tequila, a Chicago based, Black millennial-owned tequila company, is shaking up the spirits industry.
The global tequila market itself reached a value of $13 billion in 2021, making it the US’s most-purchased spirit by value. So with so much money to be made, it’s no surprise that Black people have launched their own spirits and wine brands in record numbers.
Founded in 2018 by Uduimoh Umolu, a child of immigrant parents from Ghana, he developed a passion for spirits early on and recognized immediately that there is a lack of Black representation in the spirits industry. Following an inspirational visit to Jalisco, Mexico, he decided to collaborate with his business partner, Belall Taher, to create a high-end premium tequila that is proudly powered and designed by young millennial creators.
While their brand has amassed a dedicated customer base with over 350 locations statewide in Illinois, the pair shortly started distributing in other states after securing deals with Walmart and Binny’s. In an interview with ESSENCE, Umolu shares the challenges of bootstrapping a spirits brand, the inspiration behind Jon Basil and the value of partnerships in business.
What sparked your passion for the spirits industry?
Spirits have always been a huge anchor in our community. Amongst friends and family we always tend to come together whether we are celebrating or even during tough times for reflection we share a drink. Life has always been about bringing folks together to have good experiences and It was important to have ownership and real partnership with the spirit brands that were pillars during those times.
Tell me more about the name behind Jon Basil Tequila? Why did you choose to honor these two individuals for the name of the brand?
Jon is my grandfather’s name, and Basil is the name of the person who helped support my father during his journey of going to school here in the States. In our family it’s tradition to name your first son after your father but both he “Jon” and Basil were so integral in his life he combined the two names for his oldest son. Ultimately this gave me the opportunity to be born and raised in Chicago, so we always recognize and pay homage to those that have come before us and sacrificed to give us the opportunities we have today. Every sip is a toast to those people.
What are some of the things you considered during that process?
During the process it was extremely important for us to become a student first and learn as much as possible about the spirit that we were creating. Tequila has such a rich culture, fueled by centuries of tradition so learning the right way to do things was the first item of agenda. After that ensuring your creating a unique product that truly tells your story so that it is an authentic representation of your voice and journey was imperative. Paying close attention to every detail, and making sure there is a meaning while still keeping things simple was also crucial.
What were the challenges of bootstrapping your business?
The challenge was not having the resources to execute the vision to the magnitude that we actually see in our heads. You have to sometimes scale down and work with what you have. However, I really see this as an opportunity to get creative with the brand while being patient in finding ways to continue to execute while learning and preparing for when we truly have the resources to scale up to the larger vision.
How did you find and identify the manufacturers that you work with? What makes a successful partnership and what advice can you share for fellow business owners on finding the right partners?
Finding the right partners is one of the most important things. It can make or break you. We failed at this initially and had to start from scratch. Starting over with the knowledge we gained and people we had met the first time helped us to really identify the right partners. When you find the right partner, feeling is very important. There should be a strong level and feeling of trust and ultimately being in complete alignment of vision towards the common goal. Never rush a partnership, so if it sounds too good to be true it usually is.
Do you have a business coach or mentor, and if so, how has this person helped?
It was tough to find a coach and mentor initially along the road because the industry was very untraditional in the communities we are a part of. However over time you realize you can learn from everyone. From your peers, teachers, elders and other builders and innovators that you respect. I have many advisors that are in different industries that I often try to bounce ideas off of or sound board. It’s extremely helpful to speak with folks that have an objective viewpoint and can take a zoomed out approach to situations you’re in. It has also been extremely helpful to have folks just reach back into their network to try and align me with individuals that may be able to lend some knowledge.
How did COVID-19 impacted your business operations? What tactics and strategies did you have you put in place to pivot and ensure your business was successful through this period?
A large portion of our business was on premise initially so We really had to get creative because we were no longer able to have our customers meet the brand in person. We found ways to still build community and host experiences either virtually or safely distanced. But ultimately creating a way to communicate with our customers and open up dialog to share our stories was helpful.
Our supply chain got heavily impacted by covid as a small business as well. We had to switch our strategy to really being focused and intentional with our reach and our delegation of resources. We chose to go deeper and more focused rather than widespread.