Kickin’ Kombucha founder and Houston native Robert Lopez has big ambitions for his homegrown beverage company, but they don’t include being everywhere.
Lopez and his team recently got bottles of their fermented drinks—flavors like Passionate Pineapple and The Grape Divide—into beverage cases at Central Market, in addition to Whole Foods. If Lopez were on the traditional path trodden by so many beverage industry entrepreneurs, he’d now start pushing to take his homegrown brew into neighboring states and then across the region. But Lopez is on his own path.
Rather than be everywhere, he wants to be great right where he is, and really be there. A major reason Lopez, a reluctant business owner, started Kickin’ Kombucha in 2010— helping to kick off Texas’ kombucha craze—was to forge closer community ties. He wanted to connect with local, like-minded business owners, ones who care about the environment, ones who want to build a strong community.
Since then, his company has taken off. Sales have doubled in the last four years, the company’s seen revenue growth every year, and its brew is now sold across Texas in 85 independent stores, 16 Whole Foods locations, and by July, in nine Central Market stores.
“Sometimes, it’s easy to get lost in daily business chores,” says Lopez, sipping an iced coffee outside Boomtown Coffee in the Heights. Inside, patrons down bottles of Kickin’ Kombucha. “But we always try to circle back to our roots, and to why we started this. We want to support sustainable agriculture and organic products. We want to have a small footprint. We want to keep it simple.”
LOVE AT FIRST SIP
It was 2005 when Lopez first tried kombucha, a fermented tea drink said to help maintain a healthy gut, and he was hooked. Fast forward five years later: he was bed-ridden for three months after he broke his leg in a Jiu Jitsu competition and a staph infection set in. A culinary school grad who competed professionally in Jiu Jitsu, Lopez enjoyed dabbling in the kitchen and wondered if kombucha could help his body as he healed.
“I wanted to try to heal naturally, and to do it through diet,” he says. So, he started making his own fermented tea, and when his initial quart grew to 12 gallons, he began sharing it with friends and family. “I never intended for this to be a business,” he says.
He partnered with a gym buddy interested in kombucha, John Ermis, and together they launched the company. Their first thought was to take their brew to a local farmers market, and Lopez was excited for the chance to bond with like-minded entrepreneurs. But not all of their ingredients were locally sourced—the tea, for example, is grown overseas—so they were turned away from the market. “It was very disappointing,” he says.
Two more friends soon came on board, Andi Cooper and Carlos Perez. They started out slow, selling to independent Houston businesses—coffee shops, juice bars and cafes. Their initial investment was $3,400, and it’s still a lean operation, with one delivery van and two drivers.
“We were forced to be very innovative and tight with everything we’ve done,” Lopez says. Production also was—and still is—a labor of love. In a small space in a strip mall in the East End next to a donut shop, Lopez and his now eight colleagues bottle and label kombucha by hand. Whole Foods came knocking six years ago. “You have to be in a grocery store to survive,” Lopez says. But growth doesn’t mean compromising his vision of keeping things simple, of giving back.
CUTTING DOWN ON WASTE
Every week, Lopez and his team haul barrels of spent tea and used mint and berries to the Last Organic Outpost in the Fifth Ward. The community garden initiative uses the leftovers as compost. Kickin’ Kombucha also buys the majority of its ingredients locally. “I like to know the people I work with, to see them face to face,” Lopez says. The company has also kicked off an initiative to support local non-profits.
Through its Cultivate series, Kickin’ Kombucha is giving 25 cents for each bottle it sells of a new line of flavors, “Cultivate,” to a local non-profit. It’s choosing one non-profit in four sectors—the arts, community, wellness and youth—and prints each group’s story on the inside of the Kickin’ Kombucha label. Folklore Films, which produces films of Houstonians making a difference, is the art recipient. Lopez hopes to choose the next Cultivate recipient later this year.
Lopez and his team are also committed to cutting down on waste. He was disappointed when Houston decided to discontinue its glass recycling program, he says, and signed up with a private recycling company so customers can recycle their bottles through Kickin’ Kombucha.
KOMBUCHA ON TAP
He’s hoping a new event at the factory will help reduce waste as well: Kombucha Sundays, where customers can fill their growlers with new, inventive flavors that never make it into stores. “I’m big on new experiences and new flavors, and I’d like to see people move to a tap system,” he says, instead of buying individual bottles.
On a recent Sunday, Lopez and Cooper, who’s also an owner and the only other brewer, man the taps at their East End factory, two doors down from their production space. Rolls of Kickin’ Kombucha labels line shelves; boxes are strewn across the floor. They’ve brewed three flavors for the day: Kiwano Melon, Hibiscus & Lime and Kumquat & Jasmine. Families come, kids in tow.
“People will drive out every week just to see what we made and fill their growler,” Lopez says. “They’re excited about what we’re doing. We love this time; we get to have these great conversations with interesting people in our community. We finally got our farmers market.”