Hitting The Mark
Conversations with founders about the intersection of brand clarity and startup success.
Ep003 – Matt Jamie, Founder, Bourbon Barrel Foods
Fabian Geyrhalter speaks with Matt Jamie, a self-taught chef from Louisville, Kentucky. Matt is the founder, president, and CEO of Bourbon Barrel Foods, and the author of the EAT YOUR BOURBON cookbook. Bourbon Barrel Foods is the original microbrewer of soy sauce in America and a manufacturer of gourmet food products that represent the rich history and heritage of Kentucky’s Bourbon Country.
Today you are in for a treat. A mouthwatering treat that sadly will remain a verbal-only treat to you and me as we will spend this episode with an innovator in a segment a lot of us would love to dive right into: Kentucky Bourbon.
If you’re a foodie, if you like soy sauce or bourbon, perhaps both, or if you run an F&B business, this is an episode to indulge in. Matt created a brand that is rooted in a romantic story; a story of place, taste, and craftsmanship. A story that created a company that continuously grows between 38-50% a year yet each of the 5,000 gallons of their soy sauce are still being meticulously hand-numbered.
You can peruse Bourbon Barrel Foods’ products via their site.
F Geyrhalter: Welcome to episode number three of Hitting the Mark. By now, you may have noticed that the founders and investors I invite to be on this podcast come from all different parts of the brand spectrum, but they share one thing. When I came across them, I felt that they have an intriguing story, and that they would look at branding in a unique way, solely based on that journey and the offering, and that we can all take away a lesson or two about branding. But also about entrepreneurship, about gutsy moves, and passion that led to perseverance. Today, you’re in for a treat. A mouthwatering treat that sadly will remain a verbal-only treat to you and me, as we will spend this episode with an innovator in a segment a lot of us would love to dive right into. Kentucky bourbon. That’s right, we’re talking bourbon today. My guest is Matt Jamie. Matt is a self-taught chef from Louisville, Kentucky. He’s the founder, president, and CEO of Bourbon Barrel Foods, and the author of the Eat Your Bourbon cookbook. Bourbon Barrel Foods is the original microbrewer of soy sauce in America and a manufacturer of gourmet food products that represent the rich history and heritage of Kentucky’s bourbon country. If words could get you drunk, I would not be able to guarantee any of the listeners to remain sober during this session. Matt, thanks for taking the time to be here with us today.
M Jamie: Thanks for having me on. That was quite the intro. Thank you very much.
F Geyrhalter: Well, tell us a little bit about your beginnings. I’m sure you get this asked more than once, but how does one end up with a soy sauce microbrewery of all things?
M Jamie: Yeah. It does get quite a few weird looks, but I guess the most surprising thing to people is that I’m a blonde haired guy in Kentucky that makes soy sauce for a living. Like you said, I’m a self-taught chef. I worked in the restaurant industry for a number of years, but I was angling for a way out. Wanted to be within the food industry still, and so I was looking at the gourmet food sector and wanted to do something unique in that it hadn’t been done before. I stumbled on soy sauce. For a number of years, my son was born in 2003, leading up to him, I started researching it. I was a stay-at-home dad. While he was napping, I was googling how to make soy sauce. A lot of similarities and parallels between the distilling of bourbon, the brewing of soy sauce, not only in process but also in the history and heritage. 2006 is when I actually started selling product. I designed the whole business to ride the coattails of the bourbon industry’s success. We’ve been in it 12 years, and I feel like we’ve successfully achieved that.
F Geyrhalter: You must have also seen the artisanal food trend pretty early on and found the niche within that that you could actually own, which is not easy to do because there’s many players in that space right now, in the artisanal food space.
M Jamie: Oh, absolutely. As a chef, if you’re any good. I mean, you really are quick to identify trends, whether they’re just culinarily within the restaurant, where you’re sourcing things. Back then had just started to become really important to customers, and then you’re sourcing things from people that are making something that you can romanticize on your menu. People were starting their own bakeries. We were getting artisanal into the restaurant. There were these small fishermen that we would visit the docks to buy fish from, and clams, oysters. All those relationships, all those stories were selling points on the menu. I noticed a lot of that, and I wanted to have a product like that because I’m a romantic. I appreciate things like that, and that’s what I wanted in a company. I worked really hard to identify what wasn’t being done yet, and so soy sauce was it. Immediately when you have an idea that you just think is great, I think smart people, even maybe not-so-part people, will take that initial step to search terms in Google and see if the idea’s been done before. I did that, no one was doing it. Then I guess the next logical question is why, and then I couldn’t find a good reason why I shouldn’t do it, and so I pursued it. Blindly, I might say. I wasn’t gonna not do this idea. I wrote a very thorough business plan. I struggled with what to name it, and then it just kinda hit me. One time when I was driving, I was just like, “Oh, Bluegrass Soy Sauce. That’s silly, why was I trying to name it something really obscure that no one else would know existed.” Like the name of a waterway in Kentucky. I mean, people are more able to identify with the state of Kentucky. We’re known as the Bluegrass State. That was kinda lucky with the branding and the name. Soy sauce takes a minimum of six months to make. We take a year to make ours. I had to figure out how to pay for it. I came up with something called Bourbon Smoked Sea Salt, after I had been shopping in Whole Foods and saw a chardonnay smoked fleur de sel, and it was like 20 bucks for like eight ounces if that. I immediately went home and smoked some sea salt with barrel staves and was like, “I’m gonna do Bourbon Smoked Sea Salt.” Now I have about 13 different spices that we smoke with barrel staves. I kinda hit on something there. The products that we were developing were either barrel-aged or barrel-smoked, and no one else was doing it. I don’t know why no one else was doing this. Maybe no one really thought of it the way we did. We kinda transformed the gourmet foods industry locally and I think on a national level with the way we were using the barrels. No one was doing it. To me it just made perfect sense. I was lucky in that no one else was doing it. When I filed the articles for incorporation at the state for the name Bourbon Barrel Foods, the Secretary of State was like, “I can’t believe this name’s available.” Stuff’s just lining up for me. The person that’s been with me the longest is my graphic designer, and we used to meet during her lunch hour. I mean, I was trying to start a company, and she actually had a real job, so we would meet during lunch. From the very first drawing she did, she just nailed it. That barrel with the fork and the spoon is our look. I mean, it’s our brand.
F Geyrhalter: While we’re at this, because this is fascinating to me as a brand strategist, looking at those really cool label that you produced over the years. They have almost like a medicinal feel to them, and surprisingly, all of them are branded in a kind of anti-brand manner, which makes ’em super legit and quite frankly very desirable. How did you come about that? Like not leading with the big logo and the uniformity to all of your products. Was it organic or was it on purpose? Would you advise others to follow suit to this? Or you just own the segment, so you can actually do that.
M Jamie: Well, I think it’s a little bit of both. I mean, from the get-go, when you’re a startup company, you kinda have to buy containers that are not specific to your brand. They’re not proprietary. They’re available across a number of different markets. What I found out early was that the cosmetic industry has the same sort of standards that the food industry does, when it comes to containers. You shop from a website, or you shop from a company that makes tins or bottles. Companies that are starting can’t afford to have a mold made for a bottle that they want to use as cool as it might be. I mean, you have to work with what you have, and so you dress ’em up. I think you’ll see a lot of products these days that are on the market have that apothecary-type look to them. We utilized some of those containers, but we want to brand it differently. I didn’t want to have that kind of … I don’t want to say hipster, but its hipster look. We try and avoid that craft color in our products. We’re using those containers, but we … I would say that it’s thoughtfully done, the way you mentioned. We do it intentionally now. I’m not sure how intentional it was at the beginning, if that makes sense.
F Geyrhalter: That does make sense. Right. Yeah, and I look at your handcrafted soy sauce, like the full line, all four of them, and each one of them has a very distinctively different label. But that to me is beautiful in a way because you don’t need to have that uniformity, because people must already know you, or they seek this very niche product. You don’t really have big competitors in the US at this point, is that right?
M Jamie: I don’t. I don’t. My company is called Bourbon Barrel Foods, but I don’t think you’ll see any branding on the front of the label on any of the soy products that say Bourbon Barrel Foods, and I did that intentionally. The soy sauce is … It’s the genesis of my company. It was my first product. I wanted to stand alone. The company is Bourbon Barrel Foods, but Bluegrass Soy Sauce is the product that we lead with all the time. That was intentional. On the back label, you’ll see our logo and our address, but I think that a product like that deserves to stand alone and that was intentional.
F Geyrhalter: I love that. I absolutely love it. Because of that, I feel like it looks very desirable. It looks very real. It goes back to what you called the romance, that there’s something about if branding is really empathetic, and it is really honest, then it is about romance in a way. Talking about that, let’s go back to your key product, the Bluegrass Soy Sauce. Let me read this one paragraph from your website real quick, so that listeners can get a good idea of what this about. “By law, bourbon barrels can only be used once to age bourbon; they are then sold for a variety of uses. By using the barrels as an aging vessel, the soy sauce becomes infused with the essence of Kentucky’s finest bourbon and the rich, oaky flavors from the charred barrels. Non-GMO soybeans, soft red winter wheat, and limestone filtered water are combined with solar-evaporated sea salt to create the soy mash. Each barrel of Bluegrass Soy Sauce ages for a year inside the barrels until it is pressed and the final product is bottled. Once bottled, each label is hand-numbered by batch and bottle, our nod to the small batch bourbon makers.” To me, this is just plain brand poetry. But the hand-numbered part, that is fascinating. Can you keep that up? I mean, is that scalable to actually personalize each one of them?
M Jamie: The bourbon industry manages to do it, and I visited those bottling floors, where they’re still hand-lettering bottles. They have it down. We’re not quite doing that volume with that product yet. I’ll say it’s my most popular. It’s not my number one seller. Where we keep busy with it is that it’s my almost 80 year old father that used to do a majority of the hand-lettering on the bottles. We tried to create his hand … He’s left-handed, and I don’t know what it is. He’s just got this really pretty penmanship. He doesn’t do them all anymore, but in order to have that … What is the word I’m looking for? Not everybody is allowed to do it. I have to look at your handwriting. We had one time where we had a young lady that was doing the hand-lettering of the labels, and no one let me see it before it went out, and it was all bubbly. I would have thought you could have seen a smiley face on the label. I was like, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.” I mean, it’s not like a test or anything, but before anybody is allowed to write on those labels, I have to okay their handwriting. But, yeah. It’s something you can keep up, and it’s something that our customers appreciate. It was a topic of conversation a while back that maybe we go to some computer-generated lettering and numbering system. Some of the bourbon makers do that. The ones that are doing extremely high volume that probably couldn’t do a hand-lettered bottle. And it just wasn’t the same, and so it’s just something that we do, and we’ll continue to do it. I mean, we make about 5,000 gallons a year of that soy sauce. I don’t know if that sounds like a lot to your listeners, but-
F Geyrhalter: It sounds like a lot.
M Jamie: It always helps to have a little perspective on things. Kikkoman has plants around the world. They have two headquartered in North America, and those two plants produce 200,000 gallons a day, so 5,000-
F Geyrhalter: They don’t have 200,000 people labeling by each bottle, so that’s the difference, right?
M Jamie: No.
F Geyrhalter: That you actually have those 5,000 that you hand-number.
M Jamie: Oh, yeah.
F Geyrhalter: That’s the magic in it.
M Jamie: Yeah.
F Geyrhalter: Yeah.
M Jamie: Even the bottles that we send to restaurants, we do a 32 ounce bottle for food service, and those get hand-lettered too. The other important part with that, which I think goes to the craftsmanship of the product, is that we don’t only hand-number with batch and bottle number, but they go into the cases in numerical order. So if you buy a six-pack of our soy sauce for your retail store, it’s very likely that you’ll have bottle 001, 002, 003, all the way through 006.
F Geyrhalter: That’s when a founder’s micromanagement actually turns into the romance of a brand. I mean, that’s beautiful. I’m sure that the people that receive it, they notice it. It’s these tiny little moments that you combine, and that’s when you actually create a story around your brand. To me, it seems like the entire story around your brand is really rooted more in the romance in of the bourbon country than it is in actual soy sauce because obviously very different origins. Is it to you, is it a lifestyle brand at this point or just as much as a food brand?
M Jamie: Absolutely, and that’s where we see a lot of our growth happening is becoming a lifestyle brand. There’s no one in our marketplace that has embraced that. We’ve taken that on as our challenge to do it. We’ve grown I think responsibly over the last 12 years. I haven’t rushed things at all. I think looking back we probably had a couple years of really, really fast growth. I think looking at my company compared to some other companies … If I tell you we’re growing right now at about 38% growth for the year, that’s still massive, but I was used to being over 50% for like 10 years. Now it’s a little harder to achieve that. We don’t make everything off the selling of our products. I have licensing contracts with a couple bourbon labels that have really helped us to grow in the cocktail category for bitters and syrups and tinctures and things. Even with that, it allows me to look to really invest in Bourbon Barrel Foods and try and grow outside categories where we’re comfortable. If you look at our product mix right now, I’m in the spice and sauce aisle, but we’ve been developing products either through partnerships and collaborations, or through just programs where I contact a company that is making something that I like, and I get my ingredient in it, and then it becomes mine. And then we sell it. We do that with some charcuterie items and some cheeses. Now I’m in the refrigerated foods aisle with all the cheese and the charcuterie. In the snack food area now, products are just sold locally, but we’re getting them packaged to where we can sell them wholesale to our wholesale customers around the country. Doing popcorn and cookies and different snack mixes. We’re trying to get it so that our products appear in more than just one aisle. On those type items, I’ll take a little hit on margin, but for me, it’s all about growing our brand and our core items, and people starting to see the brand Bourbon Barrel Foods more and more.
F Geyrhalter: Right. Right. To you it’s about reinvesting the money into something else, and it’s also about staying true to your brand because even if you attach your brand to all of these other products, it still goes back to the story of bourbon and to the story that’s at the heart of your brand. When was that big moment? Well, I read on your site that you’ve been in Food & Wine magazine, Bizarre Foods America, all over the map, but you got a call from the New York Times one day.
M Jamie: Yes.
F Geyrhalter: Was that the big moment?
M Jamie: Oh, boy. Yeah.
F Geyrhalter: Or was there any other big breakthrough?
M Jamie: That was October of 2018. I mean, I remember it. We were contacted. I had a publicist at the time. She said, “The New York Times is interested doing an article on you.” The food writer is a really big Southern food writer, and so we were really excited. They gave us a date on it of when the interview was gonna start, and that came and went, and I called and I was like, “What’s going on?”And they’re like, “They’re arguing over who gets to write the article.” Immediately, I’m like, “Oh, wow, very cool.” Anyway, the author of the article is John T. Edge, and he is the founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance out of Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi. This was an [inaudible 00:21:55]. I think it was a year, where the New York Times was getting beaten up over the quality of their articles and the authorship of them. John T. Interviewed me a dozen times over the course of less than a week, I think it was six days. I loved the story. I mean, I loved his writing, and he’s a friend of mine now. I came to find out it was his first New York Times article. Anyway, he asked me questions like … because I was telling him the lore of how I started my company, and where I had that idea. I was like, “I was drinking Budweisers, eating oysters at an oyster bar in Gainesville, Florida after work one night.” He’s writing it down, and I get a call the next day, he’s like, “Were those longnecks or was it draft?” I’m like, “Wow.” We knew that New York Times article was coming out, and my publicist was like, “Are you ready?” I’m like, “I don’t know what that means. Yeah, I’m ready. Let the article roll.”
F Geyrhalter: Let’s see what happens.
M Jamie: We dealt with it, but there’s no better way to find out what’s wrong with say your website, your shopping cart, than to have a couple hundred thousand people try and shop at the same time on your site. My problems have always been good problems. They’ve been very solvable problems. The New York Times article kind of exposed us on some different levels as far as what wasn’t working, but it also really told us that, “Wow, everybody is excited about what we make, and we’ve got something here.” It legitimized my idea as far as I was concerned. We’ve done nothing but grow ever since. The soy sauce is what everybody calls us about. I have over 50 products now that we sell. I’ve visited Tokyo five times since I started my company, but I didn’t visit them until I had actually been making soy sauce for 10 years. When I got over there, and I was talking to a guy who’s now one of my closest business friends, his family’s been making soy sauce for 130 years, and he’s been voted best in the world 12 times, he himself was like, “It’s almost as important in your story that you did not come here for the first 10 years of business because otherwise you’d be making something that we already had and that wasn’t different.” We argued a bit on camera, ’cause I was on a TV show over there with him, about the type of water we were using to make our soy sauces. Like it’s limestone filtered, it’s what the distillers use. It’s a hard water, it has body. He’s like, “Water for soy sauce needs to be soft. It’s gotta be more gentle.” But then when I explained to him why the water is the way it is in my part of the country and in my state. He’s like, “That makes total sense that you do that.” The American soy sauce user is a lot different than the Japanese one. Our white rice becomes brown rice. We use so much of the product. We want that bold flavor in our condiments as Americans. I mean, I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. I mean, but in the Japanese culture, if you taste the soy sauce over say a piece of sashimi, it’s insulting to the fish. It’s supposed to enhance flavor. It’s just like a French chef’s technique with salt and pepper. Salt enhances flavor, pepper changes flavor. So that’s their belief with soy sauce, and my soy sauce is very American. It’s in your face, brash, rude at sometimes, but we make it a very Japanese style. Once you buy it, you can use it whichever way you want. Obviously, we use it as more of a finisher, and it is there to compliment. It’s the product we lead with. The fact that it’s sold in Tokyo again. It’s sold in Tokyo and Osaka.
F Geyrhalter: That’s amazing.
M Jamie: I’ve used the word legitimize once before, but again, I mean, I’ll remind everybody since they can’t … I’m a blonde hair guy in Kentucky that makes soy sauce.
F Geyrhalter: I absolutely love that story. I love your story, and we could talk forever. I kind of have to self-inflict around 20, 25-minute cap on this podcast because I want people to listen to this on their commutes. I guess, not in LA because the commute is like an hour. My last question, so you’re surrounded daily by real bourbon barrels that have actual physical brand marks on them, but what does branding mean to you? Maybe you have one piece of brand advice for founders as a takeaway. I know we talked a lot about the romance of what a brand really can be, and how the story’s being told, but any advice for the listeners of what they should or should not do? Or how they should go about thinking about their own brand?
M Jamie: So branding is like equity in the company. Over the last 12 years, I’ve learned a lot about both. I don’t think in the beginning I held either one of them very dear. I am protective, like very protective, of both of them now. Our brand in particular, we don’t mess with it. We are very particular with how it’s used. It’s trademarked. I’ve sued companies over infringements almost a dozen times, and we’ve won all of them. Once you establish it, and it’s so difficult to establish a brand, you’ve gotta protect it. I think I would hold it in higher regard. Well, at least as in high regard as equity as I would my brand. I’m fortunate to where we’ve achieved that. We’re in year 12. People know my brand. I’m lucky that it’s that recognizable. I’m fortunate. I’m very fortunate with that. Yeah. Does that answer your question?
F Geyrhalter: I love that. No, that’s great. That’s great advice, and it’s also unusual advice because people go leisurely about the trademark infringement cases, and how they actually protect their brand, and I think that’s key especially in your industry. That was a really good share. For everyone listening, who fell in love with your product just verbally, where can they find out more about it?
M Jamie: Well, they can go to our website, bourbonbarrelfoods.com. There’s a store locator option on there, you can see if it’s sold somewhere near you. We also sell, of course, from our website. Sold on Amazon as well, but you’ll find more options on our website.
F Geyrhalter: Perfect. Awesome.
M Jamie: If they visit Louisville, I have two retail stores here.
Fabian: Oh, that’s great. That’s really great. Congrats. I actually visited Louisville, and it’s a trip I don’t remember too much besides having really great bourbon. Thank you. Thank you much, Matt. This was tons of fun and greatly insightful. Really appreciate it.
M Jamie: No, I’m glad it worked out.
F Geyrhalter: And thank you, everyone, for listening, and if this episode provided you with insights and perhaps even a bit of joy, then please hit the subscribe button and give the show a quick rating wherever you listen to podcasts. It sure is much appreciated. This podcast is brought to you by FINIEN, the brand consultancy creating strategic, verbal, and visual brand clarity. You can learn more about FINIEN and download free white papers to support your own brand launch or rebranding efforts at finien.com. The Hitting the Mark theme music was written and produced by Happiness One. I will see you next time, when we once again will be Hitting the Mark.