Click the arrow to listen to the mother of Mother Kombucha herself, Tonya Donati, talk with Catalyst publisher Joe Hamilton in the Catalyst studio. Donati shares the naming of Mother Kombucha, the evolution of its brand and the larger kombucha industry, and slips some hints at an upcoming expansion.
The fizzy, living probiotic goodness that is kombucha was, not so long ago, well outside of the mainstream of the beverage industry. Though the fermented tea has been brewed in homes for centuries, its commercial counterpart first launched in the U.S. just over 20 years ago.
From its niche consumer origins to the mainstream, kombucha has taken a similar arc to that of craft beer and cold brew coffee before it, making moves onto brewery tap lists and grocery store shelves, and into coffee shops and consumers’ appetites at a surprising pace.
St. Petersburg was formally introduced to kombucha more than four years ago, when occupational therapist turned mother of St. Pete’s kombucha industry, Tonya Donati, launched Mother Kombucha. The bootstrapped operation began selling its tasty fermented concoctions at the Saturday Morning Market and small businesses around downtown and beyond.
As a mother and a 20-year veteran of the healthcare industry, Donati found herself breaking away from the traditions of the industry. Increasingly, her patients were concerned with finding ways to keep healthy, avoid sickness and avoid traditional healthcare practitioners and long-term medication regimens in the first place.
Donati considered a number of alternatives to her career, including yoga therapy, but the magic moment happened when Kelly Lessem, the founder of Squeeze Juice Works, opened her business’ doors for the first time. When Lessem mentioned to Donati that she wanted kombucha on tap, Donati agreed to make it happen – though she had no idea how she would do it at the time.
The rest, it seems, is history.
After four months of research, Donati realized that she could not only help out Lessem, but create her own full-blown business, filling a yet-untapped niche in the Tampa Bay area, and bringing healthy, probiotic beverages to the community she loved. She created a business plan, and with a few clients and almost no money, Mother Kombucha was born.
Bootstrapping from the very start, Mother Kombucha began with a tiny space in an industrial kitchen. The operation was draft-only for its first 14 months, as the space was too small for bottling. At the original location, Donati could brew only on nights and weekends, she and her husband would work “like elves” brewing kombucha in their little test kitchen workshop, due to childcare needs. As the business’ client list grew, so did its operations. Donati brought on employees very early, a brewmaster and an operations manager to run the day-to-day. Both are still with the business today.
Eventually, Donati and her husband secured an small business association (SBA) loan to move into their own space – all 2,600 square feet it – and begin bottling, the biggest game changer in their business so far. They’ve since moved to a larger facility.
And good things keep on coming for Mother Kombucha. They now have nine full-time employees and six part-time. The company launched three new flavors over the summer, and began its first round of angel investment funding.
Donati says there’s plenty of room for the industry to grow.Despite many avid kombucha aficionados, the industry has not even scratched the surface of most other niche industries like craft beer – and miles apart from the soda industry. She believes only about 10 percent of the community has tried kombucha at this point, despite its growing and fervent popularity.
As Mother Kombucha looks to the future to expand their offerings of fermented foods and products, look out for exciting updates from the Catalyst.