Laughing Glass moms get the last laugh – SF Gate
The three Ross Valley moms always joked they should mass produce their famous school-fundraiser margarita recipe. No one thought they would.
But last year, Sydney Rainin-Smith, Jill Korst and Carey Clahan, who were up to their elbows in limes for yet another parent-teacher association party, started to get serious. In May, they launched Laughing Glass, a company that makes a low-calorie, organic agave-sweetened premixed margarita.
The unlikely alcohol producers, from divergent backgrounds, are realizing the market for their concoction – which they call “something women don’t have to hide in the kitchen” – might extend beyond the PTA.
The cocktails are selling out at 50-plus Bay Area storefronts where they are carried, and the founders just ordered a double production run and are getting five to 10 calls a day from grocery stores across the country.
“This is a bigger industry and a bigger market than I was prepared for,” said Clahan.
“But that’s true of any startup,” added Rainin-Smith.
Korst agreed, pouring herself another margarita. “Everyone said we’re not gonna be able to do it, and we’re like, ‘A-ha – in your face.’ ”
Juicing and mixing
A year and a half ago, the three women – who met at a house party in Bolinas after college and bonded over PTA events – were spending hours juicing and mixing for school events, local fundraisers and Ross Valley house parties when they thought of starting a company.
“We wanted to make a premixed cocktail that women can actually use, that they can take to a barbecue and not be embarrassed about,” said Laughing Glass CEO Rainin-Smith, a former voice actor.
“And it doesn’t have the connotations of most big, bright green margarita mixes that are made for the 25- or 15-year-old tastes and are basically Kool-Aid.”
They ordered beakers and white gloves online. Chief Operating Officer Korst, who previously worked for Joe Biden in Washington, D.C., asked her husband, a mechanical engineer, to set them up with an elaborate Excel spreadsheet so they could play with ingredients while keeping the calorie count low (they ultimately got to 41 calories per 1.5 ounce serving). With the recipe settled, they started looking for a distributor.
“The alcohol business – bottling, distributing – is all these gruff men,” Rainin-Smith said. “We’ll call these guys and they’re like, ‘Yeah, honey, right.’ Once we started the real bottling and distribution side, it was hard.”
Discouraged, they called the small and local Monterey Bay Bottling Co. in King City (Monterey County). A woman answered the phone, and Rainin-Smith said she almost cried with happiness. And they officially had a bottling partner.
Buoyed, she started looking for a distributor.
“These gals call me up one day,” said Ken MacKenzie. “I mean, so enthusiastic. I tried to talk them out of it, and the gals never flinched.
“Alcohol distribution is a different world – it’s a boys’ club,” he said. “Our business is strictly built on relationships. And those relationships go way back, so it all works by introductions and handshakes. It’s very old school, but you’re starting to see cracks. I mean – these gals.”
He set them up with a small, high-end distillery in the lowlands of Mexico. The founders recently made a trip to visit the distillery and stayed with friends of MacKenzie.
“I think they had some fun down there,” said MacKenzie, laughing. “And it’s fun for me because they’re not doing this for the money, you know? And yet I think they’ll end up making quite a bit.”
This is not the first bottled margarita for a more discerning demographic – Skinnygirl, a low-calorie premixed cocktail line launched by “Real Housewives” star Bethenny Frankel, has been wildly popular, although it was recently pulled from Whole Foods.
‘It tastes homemade’
The Laughing Glass founders could get the last laugh. A friend of theirs recently reported that her husband, on his own, had purchased and consumed an entire 750-ml. bottle one night.
“I don’t want to sound like an alcoholic, but yeah, I did,” said Brad Clark, 44, a vice president at Bank of the West, who seemed a little amazed that his taste for the mix had spread around the women’s social circle.
“It was delicious, and I’m as surprised as the next guy. Most premixed drinks are real sugary, and I kind of think of ladies’ wine coolers, but this stuff, I mean, it tastes homemade.”
“I have five to six regular customers who are cleaning me out every week,” he said. “Matter of fact, I’m shipping out a case to Idaho today. It’s an excellent product, and I think it’s had good word of mouth.”
The founders meet daily and share Google calendars. (Trying to find a time for a group portrait, one knew when the other’s son was going to the dentist.) “Personally, I think you can work a lot more efficiently when you’re our age,” Rainin-Smith said.
Korst added: “The startups around here are created in a vacuum by boys around a computer. Maybe it’s good we were a little naive about it all.”
Clahan, the former manager for Johnny Love‘s nightclub in San Francisco, pulled another bottle out of the fridge.
“Listen, this is alcohol production and distribution. We dove straight into the deep end,” she said. “We didn’t start a yoga studio.”