Strong Relationships Are the Secret Ingredient in McClary Bros.’ Success

Jess McClary, a chef and runner-up in our Make Your Idea Happen contest, was looking for a business idea that would let her put the spotlight on local ingredients. Then she happened upon the concept of drinking vinegars, a colonial-era beverage that goes well in cocktails or with sparkling water. Today, her business, McClary Bros., remains loyal to the farmers in the Detroit metro area who inspired the business, and sells fancy and drinking vinegars wholesale and out of a weekly popup shop.

Staying local is essential to McClary Bros.’ mission, but Jess says she’d like to grow the business beyond Detroit, and to open production facilities in multiple locations around the country, where she can showcase local fruits, vegetables and herbs from other regions. In this interview with Staples, she explains her plans to make that dream a reality thanks to her strong relationships and hard work.

How did your business get started?

While in culinary school, I was running a small bakery from home (McClary Bros. Bakehouse, named for my twin 3-year-old boys), using many locally sourced ingredients. Over time, I grew unhappy with baked goods. I felt like I was taking delicious fresh local fruits and vegetables and drowning them in flour, sugar and butter. I began researching other types of products I could make that would still showcase the incredible ingredients I was able to get from the farmers I'd developed relationships with while baking. When I came across the old-fashioned idea of drinking vinegars, traditionally known as "shrubs," I fell in love and McClary Bros. Old-Timey Drinking Vinegars was born.

Drinking vinegars are not a well-known type of product. What makes them different?

Our delicious drinking vinegars are a Colonial-era cocktail mixer. We're planning to expand them into shrub sodas at our Detroit-metro shop. Unlike traditional sodas, our shrub sodas do not contain any artificial ingredients or colors. We use premium-quality organic apple cider vinegar, organic sugar and delicious local fruits, vegetables and herbs to create an unparalleled flavor experience. We began our cooking vinegars line as a way to introduce our customers to a new take on a familiar product. With flavors like Detroit Cayenne and Michigan Shallot, our vinegars can complement or complete any meal.

What challenges you the most, and how do you handle it?

The seasonality of our business can create some confusion, especially among our restaurant and bar customers. We only produce a flavor while the ingredient is in season, so you won't find Peach or Sweet Basil on our shelves in January. We've had some customers disappointed when they learn a flavor has sold out.

Our solution to this is two-fold. First, we try to offer customers our newest flavors (past season flavors are replaced by a current season flavor). Sampling all that we're currently offering is part of the fun we have in our shop every week. Second, every month we're doing the best we can to increase our production to keep up with demand and keep our flavors in stock longer. If after all of that you still miss your favorite flavor, don't worry! It'll be back next year.

How do you define success?

One of the most important principles in this company is fair pay. I want anyone working for me to be receiving a thrive-able wage. As a result, I think that if my family and the families of my employees can live comfortable lives and be proud of the product that they're making, it’s a success!

What is your secret for making more happen?

When you’re trying to grow a small business like this, you sometimes wish you could spin straw into gold. But since I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon, I do the next best thing: using personal relationships and connections to do a lot with a little. My husband heads up all of our sales because his decade-plus experience in sales has made him a dynamo. We use friends and friends of friends to get free or lowered costs on design work, labels — even help at sampling events. Sometimes the people closest to you have talents that can help you and they’ll cut you a break since they know you’re working hard to succeed.

What is one thing you can’t run your business without?

Hands down, without a doubt, it would be our network of local farmers’ markets. With the exception of the winter and very early spring (before harvest begins), our ingredients come from local farmers inside Detroit and around the Southeast Michigan area. Our vinegars are so good because we use produce at the peak of the season. Many times these ingredients will go from "dirt to vinegar" in less than 24 hours. I rely on these farmers and their expertise throughout the season.

Is there a quote you live by?

When I was 17, my grandmother gave me a paperweight that read "What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?" I think it kick-started an entrepreneurial bug in me that's persisted ever since. I may have been too idealistic back then — now I understand that "failure" is always a possible outcome for any endeavor, but "success" is never a possibility without that first attempt.

What role does Staples play in helping your business succeed?

It wasn't until our business really started to grow that I realized how much we relied not just on products, but services from Staples. Signage, marketing materials, business cards, labels — it starts to get overwhelming after a while! That doesn't even begin to scratch the surface on office equipment, kitchen equipment, etc. It can become pretty challenging when capital is so vitally important to our growth, but we're less efficient than we'd like to be because we just can't afford to upgrade! The list of "needs" becomes the list of "can't do withouts" and "desperately wish I had, but can manage through a little longer withouts." I'm certain that Staples could help us not only make these much-needed updates to get our expansion in place, but help us with some guidance about the direction we see our company growing in over the next many years.

If you could go back in time to the day you decided to start your business, what would you tell yourself?

Don't underestimate the value of networking! Between school and raising my twin boys, I wasn't making any time to network and go to events with others in the industry. I put it low on my priorities list. As our business has grown over time, I’ve been able to spend more time networking. I've been able to make some excellent connections and get great leads on everything from sourcing to packaging, marketing to wholesaling. It continues to be an important aspect of our business's growth.

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