It all started with board games and canapés, which could have led to a rather boring Saturday night, but not with Melanie Goldsmith and Emile Bernard on the scene.
Friends for over ten years, the two came together from highly different backgrounds to create a product that took London by storm: edible alcoholic sweets. Drinking your drink? A thing of the past. Emile and Melanie brought what started as an experiment in ‘adult play’ for organized dating nights, into retail stores across Great Britain, and into the salivating mouths of thousands in just two short years with their brand Smith & Sinclair.
Edible alcohol isn’t a new concept—think liquor-infused chocolates or your aunt’s boozy rum cakes and even poached pears dripping in brandy. But Smith & Sinclair’s alcoholic pastilles are a step up: bringing an instant sweet treat, compact and portable, with a hefty 6-8% ABV alcoholic bite. Their signature flavors are six: whiskey sour, cake icing, berry daiquiri, spiced rum, gin & tonic, and a spring clean. After a year of hawking their concept in street markets, putting their product on retail shelves and catering their unique edible experiences at events across London, they wanted to celebrate their success with an incomparable Christmastime experience. The team, who by then had brought on board head strategist Hannah Bruce, conceptualized and executed the self-described “world’s first edible alcohol shop”. With the help of a crowdfunding campaign put together in just two short months, Smith & Sinclair raised over £23,000 in 49 days, to be exact.
In a chat with co-founder Emile Bernard, we got the inside scoop on Smith & Sinclair’s takeover of the edible alcohol world.
Tell us a bit about how Smith & Sinclair got started.
I’m a chef by trade. I was cooking for 8.5 years and I had just quit my job as a chef. As you might know, chefs work crazy hours and I was fed up. Melanie had also just finished some unsatisfying work with a PR agency. Her background was in theatre—theatre production and the arts, and at the time she was running ‘board game date nights’. They were trying to get people to lose their inhibitions by playing board games and acting like kids. She asked if I could make a canapé that embodied the spirit of these nights: ‘adult play.’ What I came up with was an edible alcoholic sweet. And that’s how the first pastilles were originally born.
How did you decide to take your pastille idea to the next level?
Melanie had been involved with a lot of art and theatre events, and was constantly feeling let down that you had these amazing productions, but the food options and ‘take aways’ were quite disappointing. It didn’t equate to the production level that encapsulated the audience. You would have super fun events, and then the takeaway was just not up to par.
At these dating night events, we noticed people were coming just to try and take away our adult pick ‘n’ mix of edible alcoholic treats. From there, it was a huge snowball effect. We knew our concept was popular, so in December 2014 we decided to bring our product to the general public. We opened a market stall in Central London, and we managed to make £3,000 in three weeks. We knew we were actually on to something!
Who were your customers?
The market we were selling at was not even a gift stall. It was a food market on Berwick street in SoHo. PR people were coming in to get their lunch, and we were selling alcoholic sweets. We didn’t fit the target market. But we were really successful, and with the money that we made we launched our website. Three days after our website went live, we had an order for 20,000 sweets. There was no option to back out. We had to make it into a business. With that initial order, which was for Imbibe, one of the largest alcoholic drink shows in Europe, we gained a lot of exposure. Industry people knew about us, and retailers reached out, included Harvey Nichols.
At what stage did you decide to do your crowdfunding campaign?
It was October of 2015. We had a year of events and selling in retail stores under our belts. We were gearing up for Christmas and wanted to do something big for our second holiday season in stores. We had brought on Hannah Bruce as head of strategy. She saw that we needed to be a lot more measured with what did. We didn’t have a true Smith & Sinclair physical presence. We were part of other people’s events, like Secret Cinema, but we didn’t have our own brand presence. That’s when we started to come up with the Eat Your Drink store. We wanted to have our own physical space so people could come and experience our brand, with our own story. Up to that point, and even now, we were completely self-funded. We had a loan. We had a lot of success and a lot of awards, but our cash flow was incredibly tight around the seasons. That’s when crowdfunding came into play.
What did you do leading up to the campaign?
From the idea of the store to the actual store, we had had less than three months. That meant our campaign was fast. We had some amazing alcohol brands, who we had worked with previously, that were equally enthusiastic to be on board with a new idea so we were able to secure product for the bar. We secured our space with Benefit Cosmetics who are an incredibly supportive cosmetics company that put customer experience at the forefront of their strategy and understood what we were doing would add a huge amount of value around their peak season. They offered us space and an amazing window at their global flagship store. We put together the concept, secured a designer, Emile set to work on new product innovation. We decided that crowdfunding would be the best way to not only raise the money but to build peer to peer PR for the store. It all happened fast.
How did you structure your crowdfunding rewards?
We wanted to have everything we were giving away through crowdfunding in sync with our vision and our reality. We saw a lot of crowdfunding campaigns where the investment didn’t seem to match the reward. It was like, if you pay ten pounds, you get a high five. We wanted to make sure that if you paid ten pounds, you got ten pounds worth of product. We turned it into a rewards based retail platform. People were more incentivized to invest and their rewards were tangible, thanks to our sweets and the help of the alcohol sponsors we had on board. And through the campaign they also found out more information about what we’d be doing, meaning we were building return customers into the crowdfunding strategy.
How did you spread the word about your campaign?
We tried to get as many people involved in the campaign as possible. A lot was word of mouth. We did two big events during the time. And we love talking during the events. We were creating new products for each event, getting more experimental, and at the same time telling each person about our crowdfunding campaign. Also, obviously social media was massive. We were lucky as well to have a lot of media hype because our concept was unique. (Post opening, Smith & Sinclair saw around 100 plus media articles in just a couple of weeks.) And because of the alcohol sponsors we had, they were pushing our campaign as well. We just used every resource we had, every connection we could, to push the crowdfunding.
Any advice for smaller start-ups planning a crowdfunding campaign?
Planning. Know what you are offering, and that you’re going to have to back things up. We had a lot of tenacity, but we could have prepared a lot more. It goes by really quick! Also don’t forget, that whilst the crowdfunding is happening, you need to be putting your plan to action, so use your resources. Try to take advantage of the resources relevant to your brand, and be savvy. For example, we had connections with theatre companies, so we had stage designers help us set up our physical shop, and hired actors to help us staff the store. But mostly, just tell everyone.
Anything you would have done differently with your campaign?
When working with sponsors or partners, you’re bringing on another team with their own agenda. They won’t always be doing the job the way you imagined. So it’s just about having your ducks in a row and having a plan. If we had been a bit better prepared and had all the sponsors on the same page, it might have been better. In our case, they weren’t always ready by the time we were ready. Being hosted by a particular store for our pop-up, they had their own separate brand rules we had to navigate. There’s a lot of research to be done before you dive into a physical operation.
Does the F&B industry bring particular unique challenges to start-up success?
Your overhead is a lot more prevalent. When it’s food or drink, you have tangible things that can go wrong. You have to think about stock, and space and transport and perishability. There’s definitely more logistics and difficulty when you have a physical entity you are trying to sell.
What’s next for Smith & Sinclair?
We are currently going through a pretty massive rebrand. When we started it was an “alcoholic sweets company”. And now we’re working toward “consumable experiences for adults”. We’re working on color-changing cocktails, a bubble machine with alcoholic edible bubbles, and pushing our alcoholic sweets through much larger routes to the consumer. We, of course, want to continue expanding. Then we’re also getting ready for Christmas at the moment. We hope to have another physical presence like last year. Who knows, it might be crowdfunded!
What about for edible alcohol in general, do you see it continuing in popularity?
Edible alcohol is a huge trend. Alcoholic ice lollies, marshmallows, vapours. It’s a greatly growing market. But the one thing that we found is these types of edible alcohol are the restrictions around where and when you can consume them. We see the growing market for edible alcohol as people are always craving something more and the restrictions around liquid alcohol are becoming more constricting, but it’s all down to consumer education and brand positioning.
Best of luck of Smith & Sinclair with their continued success!
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