Brian Harke and Matthew Winks had done their share of working for others. The idea of creating their own company meant a chance to not only be their own bosses, but to apply their work experience to a completely new venture.
“We both spent our entire careers helping build other organizations and working within their structure,” Winks says. “We really wanted something where we had independence and some ownership without that corporate structure. The idea was immediately appealing. Even though the process was difficult, at least it was our process. So that was enjoyable.”
Two years ago, the Palm Springs couple started Racquet Club Spirits after speaking with several distributors, producers, and creators of spirits.
“We didn’t know anything about the liquor industry going into it, but we certainly learned a lot,” Harke says. “So, it wasn’t planned.”
In their conversation with Palm Springs Life, Harke and Winks chat more about how Racquet Club Spirits went from a concept to actual bottled vodka and bourbon appearing on the shelves of Coachella Valley stores.
How did launching a business in the liquor industry differ from other entrepreneurial opportunities you may have pursued?
Brian Harke: Creating something from scratch. A whole project — from the spirits and the flavor profile to the bottles and the label, and how we were going to market it. All of that made up of a whole series of things that we were really drawn to, versus some other entrepreneurial ventures we looked at, where there were only bits and pieces of those kinds of things.
Describe the feeling of seeing your actual product in a bottle for the first time?
Matthew Winks: Oh, it was cool as hell. I mean, the first time we saw it on the shelf was at Total Wine in Palm Desert. We made a little movie for social media. It was exciting, for sure. And we paid full retail price for a bottle, just so that we could have one of the original runs. We’re never going to open it. We have the original bottles dated.
BH: And more than seeing it in a bottle, the real thrill was actually seeing it on the shelf somewhere.
What’s one of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned along the way?
MW: Having good partners [is important]. We really have a good distributor and a good distiller. And we rely heavily on our distributor to help us navigate a lot of the paperwork. We’re right now going through a lot of forms to get into some larger grocery stores after the first of the year. And they’ve been educating us on how to do that. They’re helping us with the language. It’s a different language than we’re used to.
If you could rewind a couple of years to when this venture first started and offer yourself some advice, what would you say?
MW: In hindsight, we would encourage ourselves to have patience. A couple of the road bumps along the way were just working with difficult people, and it takes minutes to realize that you don’t have to do that if it’s your own business.
But in the moment, the first time it happens, you’re gutted, and you wonder, “What did I do wrong, why are they being difficult, and did I screw up?” I think what we are learning is we just want to work with like-minded people who are supportive. And as a result, we have a community of people around us who support us, and we support them, and we drive business back and forth to each other.
At any point, did you think, “You know what, this isn’t going to work. We should just try something different?”
BH: We had been dealing with a vendor for almost a year, and it just was not a productive relationship. That caused a lot of doubt for us, because we heard so many good things about them and how they were going to help us out, and it just never materialized. We were like, “Why are we doing this if we’re not seeing results?” But for every bad partner we found, we’ve found a good partner. And all of a sudden, we’re back to, “Let’s continue doing this.”
I remember hearing from our spirit maker, who was very encouraging and said, “You guys are doing great, 90 percent of the startups jump ship by this point. You have to be persistent, you’re doing good work, and you have a good brand — stick with it.” So that was encouraging.
What’s the most common question you hear from people?
BH: “Where can we buy it?” In addition to racquetclubspirits.com, our marketing efforts are hyper-focused on those retail locations where people can go out and purchase it today — Mirage Wine and Liquor in Palm Springs, Bouschet in Palm Springs, and five Total Wine & More locations including in Palm Desert. As we get into more retail stores and bigger grocery chains, then the next part of that equation is to ramp up our marketing to all those places. It will, I think, happen organically.
MW: We’re also at over 30 bars and restaurants, which we’re so proud of. Our customers love having the option to choose a local, handcrafted spirit over a standard commercial brand when they dine out.
Do you feel you’re on the right path?
MW: I do. We are really confident in the brand and our spirits. We’ve heard great feedback from the beginning on that. We’re really gratified with the tasting awards we’ve received; that tells us we’re on right track. And looking back, I’m glad we did a vodka and a bourbon. Those are both doing very well. When the time is right, we’ll think about expanding the line.
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