The urge to create led Paul Kubiski out of one industry and into another. A sculptor by training, he ran his own successful graphic design studio, Firebox Creative, for 20 years. Now, as the founder of Bootblack Brand, he invents complex soda and cocktail syrups for home-based entertaining. Paul’s Cranberry Jalapeño Lime syrup was honored by Yankee magazine in its 2018 Editors’ Choice Food Awards, the only Rhode Island company it recognized last year. His other natural flavors – Ginger Cardamom Lime, Classic Citrus Tonic, and Traditional Old-Fashioned – are available on spirit shelves throughout New England.
So what compels a graphic designer to start producing small-batch specialty cocktail mixes? “To me, cocktails are like a great meal,” Paul says. “It’s not about the alcohol, it’s about the flavor profiles and the socializing.” A few years ago, when he found himself entertaining more at home instead of going out, he started experimenting in his own kitchen, coming up with flavors to test on friends and family. In 2014 he reached out to Warren-based food accelerator Hope & Main for help in developing his product.
“I love just playing with ingredients. It’s about uniqueness. How can I take flavors and create something that somebody hasn’t tried before?”
He had no experience in the food industry. “That’s the whole premise of the name Bootblack Brand,” Paul says. “A bootblack, besides being a shoeshine, was also someone who was not formally trained in their occupation. I have no formal training in food, except working for my mother’s catering business back in my teens. I had never been in a commercial kitchen in my life.”
Hope & Main changed all that. They walked Paul through the puzzle of licensing. They provided kitchen facilities where he could make his product. They shared their knowledge so he was able to sit down and pick the brains of people with experience in the food industry. By spring 2016 he was licensed to sell his syrups. By the following summer, Paul was selling Bootblack Brand at local farmer’s markets. After four months, he had found a distributor. Six months later, his business had over 60 accounts.
At that point his question was, now what? How would he grow? He connected with Betsy Santarlasci, who had left Hope & Main to join Social Enterprise Greenhouse, and enrolled in SEG’s 2017 Food Accelerator.
The SEG Network Effect
Paul was immediately impressed by the caliber of business knowledge available through the SEG Accelerator. His mentor was Gil MacLean from Bottles Fine Wines. “Everybody we got to meet was awesome because everyone is so willing to give you information,” he says. “I really wanted Gil to be my mentor because prior to Bottles he had owned Stirrings. I quickly found out how much he knew and how much more I needed to understand. There’s a lot more to developing and running a product-based business than a service-based business, which I had always done. I wasn’t nervous about starting a business because I had already run a business, but I didn’t realize they were two different animals. Completely different.”
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is to take a deep breath and narrow my scope down and understand there’s only so much a person can do and to pick my battles. SEG gave me a positive attitude.”
There was a lot to learn. “In food and beverage, you have to create a shelf-stable product. You have to buy all your ingredients and your packaging, brand your product, understand your cost of goods, understand wholesale and retail pricing. So there were all those facets, so many things I just didn’t understand.”
Feeling out of his depth, Paul confronted his lack of product-based business skills. “It was a good lesson learned,” he says. “It gave me insight into what it really takes to run a business. I do a lot of talks for Hope & Main now, and the first thing I tell people is, I don’t care what your product is, I don’t care how good it is, if you’re not a business person this is going to be a daunting task for you. Because at the end of the day it has nothing to do with what you sell. You need to know your core business. You need to know the numbers.”
The Accelerator kept him moving forward with Bootblack Brand. “Coming to SEG and getting to meet all the great people that you meet in this industry that are on the same level as you are, you learn, okay, let’s re-center again, let’s really think about what that means,” he says. “The biggest thing I’ve learned is to take a deep breath and narrow my scope down and understand there’s only so much a person can do and to pick my battles. SEG gave me a positive attitude. I came out in a better place, personally, which I think was very important. So there was a change in my perspective about myself and what I do.”
Paul’s passion for Bootblack Brand is at the bottom of everything he does. “I do think we have something,” he says. “To have people know who we are and what our business is and know our brand is pretty cool. The challenge is, how do we grow at the right scale and how do we make a profitable business?” In addition to his regular distributor, Paul is now using a specialty distributor to place his product throughout New England. He is looking closely at ways to bring down costs in order to increase distribution while maintaining his brand as a specialty product. He’s had some large orders, including a sale of 7,000 bottles to Bespoke Post. Bootblack Brand also has an online store.
Paul is also working out the mission of his business as a social enterprise. “My vision starting out was to bring awareness of ageism and the bias against older people in the workplace,” he says. “That not everyone can sail off into the sunset and retire. It’s something I’m passionate about, but how do you get that across? How do you educate people?”
As the founder of two businesses in two different industries, with an award-winning product brand to his name and exciting potential for growth, Paul himself may be the answer to that question. He’ll be launching Bootblack Brand’s fifth product in November 2019, just in time for holiday celebrations, and there are new things coming in spring 2020. He knows objectivity is vital to make a business work, but the artist in him is never far from the surface.
“I love just playing with ingredients,” he says. “It’s about uniqueness. How can I take flavors and create something that somebody hasn’t tried before? Or didn’t think could be put together. It’s about piquing the consumer’s interest. Right now I’m working on something with smoke in it. I could go out and buy a smoke extract and be done with it, but is there another more natural way I can develop smoke in my product and still be cost effective? It’s like making art. I have to figure it out.”