Seattle Elderberry: Small Beginnings to Global Challenges (Part 2)

Written by: Holly Cooper

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We're here to continue sharing the story of Seattle Elderberry. In our first part of the story, I shared Seattle Elderberry has a heartwarming origin story that dates back to the early years of my family's life in Cincinnati, Ohio. 


In this edition of the Seattle Elderberry story, we're exploring Seattle Elderberry's growth, from foundational years in 2017-2019 to the unforeseen challenges of 2020. Uncover the our  journey through pivotal decisions, expansion of product lines, and a global connection with our elderberry farmers in Poland. Dive into the highs and lows of entrepreneurship, and learn more on how we navigated a surge in demand, logistical hurdles, and global uncertainties.



founder Holly Cooper of Seattle Elderberry

"One of the biggest highlights of the early days of Seattle Elderberry was traveling to Poland in 2019 to meet our elderberry farmers. We stayed in their home, shared meals and learned about their family and farming practices."

- Holly Cooper, founder of Seattle Elderberry

EVOLUTION OF PRODUCTION

As the demand for Seattle Elderberry soared from 2017-2018, I faced a crucial decision about the production process. Washington's regulations presented two options: renting a kitchen space and personally overseeing production or partnering with a contract manufacturer. Given the demands of parenting three young children, the latter choice was a no-brainer. Despite its higher cost, outsourcing production allowed me to focus on meeting the increasing orders from our newly launched website.  Even with the help of my family, it was time to take the next step for the business to hire out production. But where to begin?

Using hair dryer to seal shrink bands

CONNECTING WITH A MANUFACTURER

In the fall of 2018, armed with fresh labels, I embarked on the search for a production kitchen. Emily, the owner of Puget Sound Kombucha Company and a helpful friend, introduced me to a food professional in her building who showed potential in assisting with production. This unexpected connection proved to be invaluable, with the kitchen staff displaying a willingness to learn the ropes of elderberry syrup production. After a successful initial run, we established our production process, production schedule, and a collaborative partnership.

 

I'll admit, I was nervous about outsourcing my production! I was a part of a few Pacific Northwest Food & Beverage groups and had seen some horror stories of people who worked with contract kitchens because you lose a level of control over your products. Still, I knew it was the best decision for the business in the long run!


Early batches of Elderberry Syrup

LEARNING CHALLENGES

While working with our contract manufacturer was fruitful, it wasn't without its challenges. Some batches faced inconsistencies due to inadequate stirring, leading to variations in sweetness. However, these hiccups played a crucial role in shaping Seattle Elderberry's commitment to exceptional customer service. I coined the years 2018-2020  “The Restock Years” There was a big learning curve to this new-ish business, marked by restocking challenges and logistical hurdles, but they laid the groundwork for the brand's future success and allowed me to share the highs and lows of business ownership on social media.


At the beginning of our working relationship, I was also still doing all of the Seattle Elderberry shipping. I spent many an afternoon lugging my kids and wagons or strollers full of packages to the post office down the street. While I will cherish the memories of the side of my house and my stroller being filled with Seattle Elderberry shipments, it was also EXTREMELY relieving when my contract kitchen also offered to take on all of our shipping (they were shipping pros).



seattle elderberry packages for shipping
stroller of Seattle Elderberry packages

EXPANSION AND EXPLORATION

By January 2019, with a solid production team in place, Seattle Elderberry expanded its offerings by introducing the Original Do-It-Yourself Elderberry Syrup Kit. This addition aimed to provide a budget-friendly option for customers to enjoy the benefits of elderberry syrup while maintaining flexibility in customization. Plus, the DIY kits make 24-32oz of syrup which was a LOT more than our 16oz bottle!


2019 was big confidence building year for me.  Stepping away from production and shipping allowed me to focus on expanding brand awareness through pop-up events, social media engagement, and even participation in Seattle's VegFest. I was able to network with so many business owners and it was fun to build new friendships and connections. In spring of 2019, the product lineup grew yet again with the launch of the Seasonal Support Do-It-Yourself Kit, catering to those seeking additional herbal support during specific seasons. I have suffered from seasonal allergies for YEARS and elderberries are a great natural anti-inflammatory, but I added nettle (natural anti-histamine properties) and elderflower (sinus-soothing capabilities) to boost the effectiveness of the Seasonal Support Kit!

A VISIT TO POLAND

One of the highlights of 2019 was a journey to Poland to meet the elderberry farmers, Greg and Joanna, who supplied the business with our elderberries! In the early days of Seattle Elderberry, it was actually really difficult to find high-quality elderberries. There are a LOT of dried elderberries available, but let me tell you what- bad elderberries are reminiscent of old socks. I was determined to find the best organic elderberries to use because I knew that would not only impact the taste of my products, but I also wanted a personal connection with who was growing them! 


Out of all the places in the world to find a supplier, I found our elderberry farmers randomly on eBay. I was BLOWN AWAY by the very first package of elderberries I tried. Greg and Joanna from Poland were my sole elderberry suppliers from 2018-2020. I communicated regularly via email with Greg and Joanna, and then I got the inkling that I wanted to visit! I took two friends along and in July of 2019, we flew to Poland and stayed with Greg and Joanna and got to see every single part of their farm, their lives and how they cared for their land. The visit became a testament to the dedication and authenticity embedded in Seattle Elderberry's supply chain.

NAVIGATING GROWTH CHALLENGES

Upon returning to the United States, the positive momentum continued for Seattle Elderberry. The kitchen I collaborated with underwent a change in ownership, but the new team eagerly embraced the partnership, ensuring the seamless continuation of our operations. The addition of an assistant with expertise in online search marketing further streamlined our processes. I even secured a desk space at the kitchen/warehouse, providing a centralized workspace away from home to enhance my involvement in the production process. As orders surged and our visibility expanded beyond Seattle, I gained flexibility to participate in farmers markets and promotional events, fostering the growth of the brand.

Using hair dryer to seal shrink bands

However, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 brought unforeseen challenges. Our sales skyrocketed exponentially, a result of scaled-up production during the previous cold/flu season. Yet, the pandemic's impact surpassed our expectations. Faced with delays in receiving elderberries from our overseas farmers, we pivoted to alternative suppliers to meet the soaring demand. Compounding the situation, difficulties in securing bottles prompted changes in labels and sizes. The evolving circumstances also prompted our contract kitchen to prioritize the safety of their employees. The strict lockdown measures in Seattle meant only one person could be in the kitchens at a time, placing a considerable strain on our production process. Despite these challenges, the commitment of our kitchen team during this tumultuous period remains a testament to their dedication to Seattle Elderberry.

2020 was a blessing and a hardship. It was incredible to see people flocking to natural immune supporting supplements. But 2020 also revealed many “leaky holes” in the Seattle Elderberry business. It exposed many issues with our supply chain, and it really illuminated how important it was going to be to be able to better predict orders and manage supplies, inventory and the lot. While 2020 was a strong year for Seattle Elderberry, it was also the year that I made some of the worst business decisions! But we’ll save how I lost $10k  on a failed elderberry gummy partnership for the next chapter in the Seattle Elderberry story.