Jackie Summers: Founder & CEO of Sorel Liqueur of Jack From Brooklyn Inc.

Episode 328

In this episode of The Kara Goldin Show, we meetJackie Summers. He is best known for the award winning Sorel Liqueur and is the Founder and CEO of the parent company Jack From Brooklyn. Jackie is also a James Beard Finalist. We hear from his story super valuable lessons he has gained through his entrepreneurial journey. His story of launching a new product and company, challenges along the way and getting back up make me so inspired. I know they will help you as well. And of course so much more. This episode is a gem! I can’t wait for you to listen and take his wisdom all in. On this episode of #TheKaraGoldinShow.

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be, you just want to make sure you will get knocked down. But just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone. It’s Kara Goldin from the Kara Goldin show. And I am so excited to have my next guest with us here today. Jackie Summers is the founder and CEO of Sorel. The core, which is a product, the product of Jack from Brooklyn, Inc. and Jackie is just so so awesome. In addition to being an incredible founder and CEO, he’s a James Beard finalist, whose product Sorel has won many, many, many awards. And I can’t wait to speak with him to learn a lot more about his entrepreneurial journey, his lessons, his story of launching a new product and company challenges along the way, and getting back up when some of those things didn’t work out. Without further ado, I will be quiet and welcome Jackie

Jackie Summers 1:36
Kara, it is great to see you.

Kara Goldin 1:38
Yeah, you too. So excited that you’re here. So before we get started speaking about your company and your product that you have launched incredible product, I would love to hear a bit more about you. Who is Jackie, and what makes you tick. I’m

Jackie Summers 1:55
a native New Yorker, I am the grandson of Caribbean immigrants. And I found out very, very, very early in life that I self identified through my food culture.

Kara Goldin 2:06
Very interesting. And you did not start out in the spirits industry. You were in the publishing industry for 25 years. What made you decide to leave the publishing industry and do what you’re doing today?

Jackie Summers 2:23
Oh, I had a cancer scare. In 2010, my doctor found a tumor inside my spine, the size of a golf ball. He said, You have a 95% chance of death and the 50% chance of paralysis. If you live you should organize your paperwork. That’s the phrase that always gets your attention. Short versions I lived, but the experience will adjust your perspective. I had a chance to think about my priorities. You know, you, you survived experience. You’ve made peace with death. But the question is, how do you want to live and like you said I had 25 years invest in corporate America. But when I thought about it, I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life sitting in an office. What I really want to do Kara is day drink. I just want to hang around interesting people. In the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, I want to have great conversations about things that matter over great food and beverage, and what I couldn’t think was going to pay me to do that I launched liquor brand. And here we are

Kara Goldin 3:28
so interesting. So if you had to point to one moment when you knew you had a brush with death, but I guess what was the inspiration really behind Serral.

Jackie Summers 3:41
So the beverage which became so well has been around for centuries. If you went back to Africa 1000s of years ago, the Africans are making a tea from hibiscus flowers because it’s medicinal, full of antioxidants full of anti microbials to natural antifungal. It’s a natural aphrodisiac. And this is part of this ceremony and tradition fast forward to 500 years ago, and the Transatlantic Trade starts. And now bodies and spices have been stolen from the continent of Africa, shipped across the ocean in the bottom of boats and sold in ports of trade in the Caribbean. So the actual flower had viscous takes root in the Caribbean and the people who know what to do with this flower happen to be inhabiting these islands. As I mentioned, my grandparents came from the Caribbean in 1920s. And my grandfather on my mother’s side was a chef. So I grew up with this beverage I’ve always known it I made a version of in my kitchen for friends and family for almost 20 years. Like a good Caribbean boy. Every Caribbean family has a version of this. Everyone thinks this is the best mine actually. So when it when it came time to launch liquor brand really wasn’t anything else I wanted to do. I wanted to be the first person to make a shelf stable, alcoholic version of this beverage I grew up with. And this is the part where I mentioned that I am not a food scientist 623 failures in my kitchen, before I came up with the recipe that we now bottled version 624 is essentially the same exact version from my two gallon kitchen version, except now we do 1000 gallons at a time.

Kara Goldin 5:33
Wow, that’s amazing. You are the first African American in the US to get a license to make alcohol. I mean, let’s just stop right there. How crazy that is when I was doing that research. I mean, that is nuts. Is it’s crazy.

Jackie Summers 5:52
Yeah, I want to say that, that speaks more about the obstacles that are in place than it does about me. I hadn’t intended to be first I didn’t realize I was the first person for a long time. But I didn’t see anybody else that looked like me doing this. Now there are half a dozen of us here. So we’re doing this throughout the country. So we progress. But we still have a lot of work to do.

Kara Goldin 6:18
Yeah, no, absolutely. And how difficult? Was it just talking about the hurdles? I mean, you’re also looking to produce this in, you know, the area where you’re living right around New York, I mean, could Was it difficult to find a place to actually do it? Oh, it’s

Jackie Summers 6:35
pretty much impossible. But impossible stuff getting in the way. I kept in mind as I was going to the process, everything it took for this beverage to survive. It really was a concerted attempt to destroy a culture. And somehow this cultural identifier survives colonization, I thought about all of the people who carried the knowledge forth with them. I thought about all of the generation to pass on the technique of how to make this beverage from grandparent to parent to child, because the people who were making it weren’t allowed to read or write so they weren’t recipes. So I try to always keep a sense of perspective about things. Things are difficult. But you can’t let that get in the way.

Kara Goldin 7:26
No, absolutely. So how did you fund the company?

Jackie Summers 7:30
Oh, this is a great story. So there are lots of things that can be said about fortune and preparedness. About six months after I left corporate America forever. I got a call from a buddy of mine who was a vice president at Hearst media. He said to me, we’re buying another media company, don’t tell anyone. There’s going to be layoffs, there’s going to be overlap. But I want my people wanting my magazines come back. Carrie says to me come back when one of my magazines, mid six figures corner office 32nd floor overlooking Central Park, in my heart, I read No, I’m going to tell him no, but I take the meeting. Because a friend of mine, we’re having burgers at a little shop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. And I reach into my bag and pull out a bottle that I’ve made in my kitchen. Because at this point, I don’t have my license, I don’t have my labels. I don’t have a fiscal space. I just have my grand ideas. And I pour for him and I’m describing what I intend to do to him. And as I’m telling him this story, the gentleman at the table next to us stands up and says, So are you looking for investors. So I stand up, I shake his hand, I give my business card, I tell him who I am and what I do, I reach into my bag and pull out a second bottle because I know be prepared. And I hand it to him and I say please take this home, enjoy it with your family. If after you’ve tried it you like it. We’ll talk later in the week can I didn’t even look at his business card. To be perfectly honest. The next morning I’m rifling through my wallet. And I’m trying to figure out why the name Aleksandr Bernstein sounds so familiar. It’s Leonard Bernstein son who runs the Bernstein Foundation who became the first person on paper through us and the rest is history.

Kara Goldin 9:14
I love it. And so did you. You continued to raise them after that? What? Yes. And mostly angels or did you use any venture or friends and family? Yeah, that’s, that’s amazing. So what are a couple of the big things that you learned since starting Serral and 2012 Is that the original date will be launched

Jackie Summers 9:37
in May of 2012. The most important lesson I learned personally is you are not you accompany and the success of your company is not a measure of your worth as a human being. In May of 2012 we launched our brand and it just got to reflect with us and then in September of 2002 of Hurricane Sandy destroyed my distillery six feet of sea water in the basement, five feet on the first floor. There all the commodities destroyed all of the equipment destroyed, the building was 160 years old took major structural damage. FEMA didn’t pay a dime, insurance did not pay a dime. That should have ended the story right there. I rebuilt with nothing but volition, and my life savings, relaunch it in February of 2013. And between myself and my vice president built it up to 20 states and four countries in a couple of years, got big enough so that we got a call from the big boys. So in 2015, I negotiated the multimillion dollar contract to take the brand national that reneged, and so I don’t negotiate it a second contract with two thirds the 16. For millions of dollars, you take the Grand National, and they reneged as well, companies don’t function for long with no income. So I ended up homeless, I was homeless for a year and a half. And the entire time I was homeless, I was investing in community and speaking to different investors about the value of the brand and bringing it back. And pretty much everyone I spoke to loved the brand agreed. It had a fantastic track record and just great sales and great packaging. And the general response I got was good luck with that kid. And the thing I found out and it sticks with me is although this brand is something I started, my value as a human being is not intrinsically tied to the success or failure of the brand. If the brand does well, I have value. If the brand does not perform, I still have value, I have my own worth independent of how my company performs. And I think that’s a lesson that a lot of Intrapreneurs need to remember.

Kara Goldin 12:06
Absolutely. So you touched on this, I think in your response just now. But Serato was an immediate hit with bartenders and critics as well. But I’ve heard you talk about your journey defining your story as part underdog part, train rap comparte comeback story. People don’t always hear the backstory. So what happened? I mean, you talked a few times I heard you mentioned about, you know, you were gonna get major distribution with a couple of different large companies to take you national, you obviously had a horrible situation with your distillery. But when you look back on those points, do you know kind of what happened and sort of what are the lessons learned?

Jackie Summers 12:51
There are lots of things that you can take away from this. And there are things that I will never know, I’ll never truly understand why people who believed in the brand, for whatever reason stopped believing in me as a person. But the big takeaway that I got from that is, you can’t let anyone in anything interfere with your belief in yourself. You have to know in your heart of hearts, who you are, if you haven’t taken time out to do that. That’s super important. That is the thing that will propel you forward. When everything else around you fails.

Kara Goldin 13:30
Yeah, that is so so true. So you relaunch Serral and 2021. And what was the story behind the relaunch? I mean, how did you kind of gather your your things and and really get back up again.

Jackie Summers 13:45
So at this point, I was no longer homeless. I’d actually written an essay when I was homeless that won an award for best food journalist in 2019. And in 2020, we had a combination of a global pandemic and a global Black Lives Matter movement. And a buddy of mine named Jeff Gardner, who used to be the restaurant critic for Esquire reached out to me and he said, Jack, do people know that you’re the first legal black distiller in country? I said, Jeff, no one cares. And Jeff, what, well, you know, black lives matter, maybe somebody will care. And he arranged for an article to be written about me in Esquire magazine, and there was suddenly a renewed interest from investors. So I’m in conversation with an investment group to bring the brand back and the conversation I feel is turning south. So I did the thing that I’m not good at and that I’m still working on up and I reached out for help to a colleague named fawn Weaver, who is the CEO of the brand uncle nearest, which is just the most awarded whiskey of the last four years. That’s when whiskey random in American history. I reached out the phone and I said something simple to the effect of phone I fit a stumbling map in mind. vestment group, can you offer any advice? What I didn’t know. And what I could not have known is that literally the day before, Ford was doing a podcast interview with somebody. And speaking with the interview about all the brands, she was helping the pockets interviewer said, Are you helping Jackie and forced response was a guy from Brooklyn, he don’t need my help. And the interviewer said, You should speak with Jackie, he could really use your help. And, again, by coincidence or by circumstance, literally, the next day, she gets an email from me. And then they after that, we had a guarantee of funding. So now we are under the uncle Newsom, Bill. And it has been a fantastic partnership so far.

Kara Goldin 15:42
That’s amazing. So I think the the moral of the story is, if you need help ask for it. Right? Because I think, especially when, you know, as we were talking about earlier, that when you’ve got these hurdles, sometimes you don’t know who to talk to about the about these challenges. And once you actually lay them out for people, and obviously there’s a way to lay them out for people where they can actually say yes or no versus you complaining about the situation, you’re actually asking, can they help you? Do they know anybody that can help. And I think people do generally want to help if they can.

Jackie Summers 16:23
When I was a child, I read a book about intrapreneurship that drilled the point into my head that I never forgot, once you have your big idea, whatever it is, you need two things. You need other people’s experience. And you need other people’s money and singularly the skill of being able to convince other people to dedicate their time, their resources, their energy, their network, to your big idea. That might be the single most valuable tool any intrapreneur has.

Kara Goldin 16:57
Yeah, absolutely. So how did you get the word out about the relaunch?

Jackie Summers 17:02
Ooh, social media. I love social media, it is an absolute platform leveler, you can actually compete with brands that have budgets, the size of small countries, through word of mouth, and this, I still believe, and I’m, I’m a little guy, but I’m going to stay with this belief. There is no more powerful motivator for consumers, then good word of mouth.

Kara Goldin 17:26
And which platforms did you use? I’m just curious,

Jackie Summers 17:29
a combination of Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, with comments on LinkedIn as well.

Kara Goldin 17:36
And what have you enjoyed most about being a founder and entrepreneur,

Jackie Summers 17:41
what I enjoy most about being a founder is this company only works. If every day I become a better version of myself, whoever I was, when I started this, that guy, he was crazy. And the joke I tell at this point is going crazy is easy. Staying crazy, takes commitment. So I have learned to surround myself with a team of incredibly sane people who can not only harness my crazy, but to execute on the ideas. So for me, the really big thing is to make sure that every day, I’m a better version of who I was yesterday that I am more tuned into my team’s needs, that I’m more tuned into my audience’s needs, that I am taking care of myself physically, spiritually, mentally, if I am the best version of myself, my company will perform when I neglect me, the company suffers.

Kara Goldin 18:44
Now it’s so so so true. How many people now in your company,

Jackie Summers 18:49
officially working for the company, there’s two, but we have about 10 people on contract. So we’ve got graphic design, we’ve got operations, we’ve got accounting, we’ve got all of our services outsourced at the moment, I’m looking to after my second raise next year, bringing on some people full time and building up my staff.

Kara Goldin 19:07
That’s awesome. What are sort of the top things for you for next year that you really want to work on for the brand?

Jackie Summers 19:14
Oh my goodness, there’s so much fun stuff going on. The government of Barbados reached out to me last year, they love this. So I had a meeting with the Ministry of Finance, at some point in the next year. The government of Barbados wants me to build a distillery there. So surreal can be made by local ingredients and local hands. And they will get behind it as a government as a country and make sure that it’s an every hotel bar, every restaurant, every duty free shop across the Caribbean. So that’s something I’m really looking forward to the other four. I’m looking forward to doing this. I’m really looking forward to building the distillery in Brooklyn again, so well at the moment is being made at Labs in New Jersey. They are America’s oldest distillery, they’ve been doing it For 20 years, and it will always be made there as long as I’m alive. But I would love to have a home for Jack from Brooklyn in Brooklyn again.

Kara Goldin 20:09
Yeah, no, that would be terrific. Well, your packaging in addition to the product is great, your packaging is terrific as well. And you know, you’ve done such a nice job, people forget that the packaging is so important, especially when you’re in a liquor that maybe it’s behind the bar, you’re not. But but it’s important, it’s super important. And I think you’ve done such a nice job.

Jackie Summers 20:32
So I have a design background. So that helps. But the real thing I try to remember when I put this budget together is it is representative in a certain way of the entire Afro Caribbean diaspora. And I know my people, and they can be judgmental, it had to be a certain level of quality, it absolutely had to be the best version of whatever I could do, would not have been embraced. And I’m nothing more than the awards more than the accolades wouldn’t seeing us in print. Nothing is more validating than seeing the people who are familiar with this. Embrace it, that really feels good.

Kara Goldin 21:11
Yeah, absolutely. One of the things when I was doing research on you, I saw you started happy hours for bartenders during the pandemic, and supplied 1000s of dollars to those who needed it. So can you share more about this, I couldn’t find too much more, but I loved the concept.

Jackie Summers 21:29
So I have a good friend named Yannick Benjamin, who’s a disabled Somalia. And he always says, Start where you are, do what you can with what you have, when the news that the shutdown hit, I thought to myself, what I have is high speed internet, and a bunch of friends who are suddenly unemployed. And since everyone’s home, everyone’s going to be drinking, but maybe they don’t know how to make cocktails. So I was the first person to organize a virtual happy hour, where we literally had bartenders Come on, they were paid by brands, to show people who didn’t have anywhere else to be because everybody was stuck home, how to make cocktails, people that join the happy hour got to hang out with each other, they got a social aspect, it was an educational aspect, and everybody tipped out. So I think we put about 50,000 bucks in the hands of bartenders over the course of a year and a half. So that was, again, the commitment to community. There are lots of ways you can measure success. Being a contributing member of my community is one of my biggest measures. I love knowing that I get to help people be better versions of themselves. I’d love to help the community out.

Kara Goldin 22:40
I love it. So what is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Jackie Summers 22:45
My grandfather had a saying that my mother passed down to me, it’s been in our family for generations, he would say good, better, best. Never let it rest to your good is better, and your better is best. And that is drilled into my DNA. I don’t let it anything, any word, any product, anything I do, leave my fingertips until I can feel in my heart. I’ve done the best job that I can do. And good enough is never, ever good enough.

Kara Goldin 23:17
There was such a pleasure to speak with you, Jackie, you are doing some amazing, amazing things everyone needs to get a bottle of Serral not only for yourself, but also gift it will have all the info on Jackie and everything that he’s doing and more information on Serral not only where you can purchase it, but also learn a lot more about it. But thank you again, Jackie. And thanks, everyone for listening. Goodbye for now, an absolute pleasure. Bye. Thanks all for listening to this episode. We hope you enjoyed it. And I want to thank all of our guests and our sponsors. And finally our listeners keep the great comments coming in. And one final plug if you have not read or listened to my book undaunted, please do so you will hear all about my journey, including founding, scaling and building the company that I founded hint we are here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Thanks everyone for listening and goodbye for now. Before we sign off, I want to talk to you about fear. People like to talk about fearless leaders. But achieving big goals isn’t about fearlessness. Successful leaders recognize their fears and decide to deal with them head on in order to move forward. This is where my new book undaunted comes in. This book is designed for anyone who wants to succeed in the face of fear, overcome doubts and live a little undaunted. Order your copy today at undaunted, the book.com and learn how to look your doubts and doubters in the eye and achieve your dreams. For a limited time. You’ll also receive a free case of hint water. Do you have a question for me or Wanna nominate an innovator to spotlight? Send me a tweet at Kara Goldin and let me know. And if you liked what you heard, please leave me a review on Apple podcasts. You can also follow along with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn at Kara Goldin. Thanks for listening