Spilling the Tea on Wegmans Kombucha
02/22/2023 · Our Business
When Jeannine Buscher and Sarah Mullins started making kombucha in their home kitchens nearly 20 years ago, their goal was to create a healthy alternative to soda for their kids. Inspired by a recipe from the same cookbook, both women fell in love with the fermented beverage, and began offering it to family and friends, including the teacher at their children’s home school co-op group.
“The teacher came to visit our homes separately, and we both offered her kombucha,” said Mullins. “She was like you guys are weird, you should talk to each other, you both offered me this strange drink. So on the first day of school, I went in and introduced myself to Jeannine.”
Buscher mentioned she was thinking about getting her kitchen certified so she could sell the drink commercially, and Mullins had also been considering going into business with another mom, so the two decided to team up. The next day they met at Buscher’s kitchen, and the business was born.
Fast-forward to 2017, when Mullins met Wegmans’ Joe LoMaglio at a trade show. Interested in breaking into the kombucha market by developing our own product line, Wegmans was looking for a supplier to help us along the way.
“We wanted to get into the business, but we were particular about who we wanted to work with. We met Jeannine and Sarah, and their product was delicious,” said LoMaglio, Wegmans grocery merchandising group manager. “We loved that it was a small, family business, and we loved that they had high standards, and a great product, and so for us it was easy to see there was an opportunity to work together.”
As the Wegmans team considered our options for a kombucha supplier, FedUp Foods stood out for several reasons including the quality of their product, their openness to our ideas and feedback, and our many shared core values.
First and foremost, both companies embrace the importance of taking care of our people. While Mullins occasionally jumps in to assist as needed with production, her focus now is overseeing human resources for the company; she manages internal communications, builds programs for the team, and makes sure everyone is cared for and looks forward to coming to work each day.
“One of our concerns as we scaled was not getting an opportunity to work with companies that felt like families, that felt close, and share the same kind of internal caring for their team and for their customers,” said Mullins. “When we met you guys, it was like, wow, this is incredible. This is exactly what we would want to have in a partnership as we continue to grow. It did really help us preserve the business. Six years later, we still own it.”
Taking care of their team has included promoting from within as their business has grown. FedUp Foods is unique in the manufacturing space in that half of their leadership team is made up of women, and almost half of the supervisors and managers across the organization are female as well.
“Being able to scale has definitely elevated and provided opportunities for the people on our team,” said Buscher. “Our head brewer started out in packaging, our logistics manager started out in the warehouse, so it’s been great to be able to provide opportunities as we’ve grown.”
Caring for the planet is another value that Wegmans and FedUp Foods have in common. Since the beginning, Buscher and Mullins have been passionate about responsible sourcing by seeking out suppliers who meet robust third-party social and environmental criteria. They also focus on reducing their carbon footprint wherever possible, including sourcing from domestic manufacturers and donating a percentage of their profits to reforestation efforts. The process of finding the right suppliers for materials has evolved over time, and as the business has grown, Buscher and Mullins have had more leverage to source items that better align with their values.
“We tried to get bottles domestically for a long time and they wouldn’t even talk to us because we were too small. They didn’t believe we had the potential to grow, but through our growth with partners like Wegmans, it allowed us to have a bigger voice,” said Buscher. “We were able to transition in 2019 to a domestic glass supplier in North Carolina. It saved us so much heartache and stress.”
Developing Wegmans Brand Kombucha
After the initial meeting in early 2017, it took about 18 months before the first bottles of Wegmans Kombucha were shipped to stores in October 2018. The development process involved a lot of collaboration between our two companies, with Wegmans relying on the expertise of the FedUp Foods team, while also providing feedback to create a product that both teams could be proud of.
“Some of the most fun was figuring out how to create something that didn’t exist in the market, with the support of Wegmans and the idea that you really understand your shoppers,” said Andreas Schneider, chief development officer for FedUp Foods. “As we were thinking about how to grow our company, we wanted to make kombucha accessible to more and more people…That was very much the spirit of the partnership early on.”
In the beginning, we were looking for a product that would be both approachable to new customers, but also appealing to core kombucha drinkers. Not every flavor was a hit from the start, and we’ve experimented with different seasonal options and flavor profiles to see what customer gravitate toward. Today, the Wegmans Kombucha line has expanded to include 11 flavors and a line of kombucha spritzers, a product that is unique to Wegmans.
Growth and the future
While Buscher and Mullins continue to create and sell their own brand of kombucha under the Buchi label, they now also oversee operations for FedUp Foods, the parent company of Buchi that focuses on creating private label functional fermented food products for other brands.
As the business has grown, they’ve moved operations from Buscher’s home, to a commercial kitchen, to their own brewery, and finally to their current two facilities totaling 90,000 square feet. Their team has expanded from less than 20 full-time employees in early 2017 to their current staff of 109. They are now looking to the future, eager to expand their offerings within the functional fermented food space.
“When I walk the plant and see what’s in place now that didn’t exist five years ago and consider what we might be able to achieve over the next five years, it’s really inspiring and exciting,” said Schneider. “It’s definitely rejuvenated us and inspired us to think about what’s the next frontier of healthy and functional drinks.”