Elixir G founder Bill Tocantins has traveled the world in search of ingredients to craft the perfect ‘liquid ginger.’ Since stumbling onto the idea for fresh ginger syrup nearly 10 years ago, Tocantins has become a thriving entrepreneur, expanding Elixir G’s outreach to save restaurants millions in ingredient costs and give consumers the opportunity to make their very own ginger beer at home.
Tocantins took the time to discuss Elixir G’s development, as well as the peaks and valleys that come with launching a new product in the F&B world.
How did you come up with the idea for Elixir G?
“Some people I knew had an Indian restaurant and moved to a location with a liquor license. When I took over the bar program, they had this ginger [syrup] and I decided to make a margarita out of it. It was a big success. I had people getting up out of their seats to ask me ‘how did you make this?’”
“I knew that people were flocking to this stuff. I asked [the restaurant owners] if they wanted to bottle it, and they said no. They responded that ‘we’re in the restaurant business, and that’s not what we do.’ I saw the opportunity and decided to pursue it.”
What went into the product development process?
“There was an enormous amount of trial and error. I explored gingers from across the world. After some time I found that far and away the best ginger source is Hawaii…It’s amazing, I looked at nine competitors and only three of them are using fresh ginger.”
“Originally, Elixir G was called Gingerita. I took on a partner who had a marketing background. We went to three designers and gave them the description of what we were doing. After 15 – 20 different ideas, one designer eventually came up with Elixir G and that’s what stuck.”
“We started our first version of Elixir G in 2007. My partner was on board until 2011. Since then I’ve been CEO as well as a Chief Bottle Washing Officer [laughs].”
Who drinks Elixir G?
“Women, age 21 – 39. Women are the change-makers. Men will find what they want to drink and stick with it for 20 years. Women are always looking to try something new and see what’s out there. Women have always responded positively to our product...based on the length of time they spend with us, either on the phone when they’re ordering or at one of our booths during a fundraiser or expo."
How are you building Elixir G's customer base, and what have been some of your biggest challenges so far?
"Our first target is to go to the restaurants rather the retail stores. It’s one step easier. When we educate the restaurant, they can use it right away. The stores are tougher. First you have to convince the store to buy, then you have to convince the public how to use it.”
"Our biggest success recently has been Longhorn Steakhouse. We started in Yard House, where they used it for their Moscow Mule and saw so much success that they expanded to three cocktails. Then [Yard House] got bought by Darden Restaurants. Once we were in Darden’s system, we jumped to Longhorn’s 450 restaurants. They started cooking with it, making a ginger-flavored steak. They’ve had so much success with it in their drink program that they’re also offering three variations of Moscow Mules."
"We started to look into Amazon to retail directly to consumers. With a new product it’s very expensive to get off the ground. With some retailers, they will require a free case for every store to offset the risk for their selling the product. We’re looking to target those regional stores who will make room for the smaller labels like ours."
"The hardest piece of the puzzle is the distributor. Distributors usually won’t take a new product until it has a demand of more than 200 cases a month. That said, since we're a nonalcoholic product we’re lucky that we have two choices: liquor and food distributors."
What are the next steps for Elixir G?
"We're pursuing restaurant chains right now as hard as we can. For a restaurant chain that has 1,000 locations, we can save them $1.2 million a year. Eventually…we’ll target various areas for retail and come out with a plan to saturate the media and inform the public. We're also open to a liquor brand partnership several years.
Big food companies across the country have been hit hard by what can only be described as a serious loss of trust by their consumer base. Coca Cola, Kraft, Nestle and Mondelez [parent company of Nabisco] are just a few food giants that have seen their CEOs resign. Granted, these companies are alive and well and likely to perform just fine moving forward, but their age-old model of mass-scale, low-cost production is not resonating like it did decades ago, back in the day when all you needed at a baseball stadium were hot dogs and nachos.
So what does this mean for restaurants? Big things, all revolving around modernization. All consumer trends right now point to the little guy, the mom-and-pop-ish, locally sourced, small-scale production center where business is made up of guests who know and trust the product. To many, ‘big food’ is synonymous with chemicals, additives, fillers and other elements that consumers are sick of putting into their bodies. A growing clientele is ready and willing to pay a premium for ingredients they trust. This means going to restaurants that embody these same qualities.
Each of these big food companies has extended great effort in building their product portfolios to include more ‘trusted’ brands. Kellogg, for example, recently purchased RX Bar, the ‘No BS’ protein bar maker, for a whopping $600 million. Why? In all likelihood, to help modernize the Kellogg brand with a product that has clearly resonated with a newer-age clientele. For restaurants, this means you may want to take a look at your menu mix and assess whether your approach truly appeals to your guests today.
Does this mean that as a restaurant you should drop everything, revamp your menu and change out your suppliers all at once? Of course not. Coca Cola will never relinquish its soda business because that’s the core of the brand—they’ve simply built onto that brand by acquiring names such as Odwalla and Zico. As a restaurant owner, this means taking a step back, assessing what’s truly at the core of your business, and finding simple ways to modernize so that you can retain your identity while coming across as new and revamped.
This may not always be a food-related change. I recently visited what many would call a local dive in Santa Monica. The place was sitting on prime real estate, just steps from the ocean, and served a modest-yet-comprehensive menu of quality food at low prices. A true gem amidst its over-hyped and over-modernized neighbors, but the atmosphere here was akin to a run-down Irish pub. What an outdoor patio and natural light would do to this place! Yes, this would entail a significant remodel, but at the end of the tunnel would emerge a new, improved version of this restaurant that nobody would consider a dive. A transformation like this leads to higher demand, and a resulting lift in the bottom line.
This restaurant is the exact kind of seasoned mom-and-pop establishment that stands to benefit the most from an internal assessment and immediate action steps to bridge the gap between product offering and consumer needs. Moving the focus back to the menu, if you see that an item, or even an entire category, isn’t selling like it used to, then it’s time to revise the ingredient mix or even just your guests’ overall perception.
If you hand-grind your burger meat and roll the patties daily, then promote the heck out of that process by detailing it on your menu and table collateral. If you source locally, make sure your guests know. If you notice that more and more guests are subbing out American cheese for gouda, then you’ve found a good replacement or upsell opportunity. The list goes on.
If big food companies relied on classic soda flavors, ready-made mac ‘n’ cheese and processed snacks now like they did ages ago, they’d be going the way Sears and K-Mart have gone by not innovating with the rise of online retail. To put it bluntly, it’s just a matter of getting with the times, but thankfully it can be done quite handily. It’s all a matter of observation and small steps to follow what your guests are looking for.
Next time you’re at the grocery store, browse through some of the healthier brands you’ve become familiar with and look to see if you can find a name like Mondelez or Kellogg nestled on the package. Another example of small steps and necessary modernization.
The art of plating has gone hand-in-hand with the craft of cooking for ages, but presentation is more important as ever in the restaurant world. The reason why can be summed up with a simple, yet alluring phrase: free marketing.
As rude as it may be at times, guests that obsessively photograph their food at the table are essentially handing you cash every time they snap and share a picture. Social media marketing can cost you big time; CPM [cost per mil, or cost per thousand impressions] may only be a few dollars, but think about how often guests can share photos of your food, to all of their friends and followers. If you want to reach the same number of people, those dollars add up fast.
With this in mind, some restaurants may want to encourage people to post their food photos on social media. There’s a few fun ways to do this…
Make your food beautiful
Seems like a no-brainer, but food that’s pleasing to the eye will not only be viewed as more delicious, but will inspire guests to take out those smartphones. No ingredient changes needed; all that may need to be done is some simple rearrangements on the plate. Follow some simple steps to do this:
Add color, depth and height
Just like any piece of artwork, food is enhanced with color. Radishes, carrots and herbs are easy ways to add vivid color to many savory dishes. A contrasting sauce, dabs of oil across the plate or a smear of spread are more common practices that chefs employ.
Depth and height are catalysts for social media-worthy food. Fries stacked log cabin-style, rack of lamb with crisscrossed bones and sandwiches with one half peeking over the other are all methods to add something special to traditionally two-dimensional items.
Use interesting plates and glassware
If you’re in the market for these materials, you may consider spicing things up beyond the basic circular plate and tumbler glass. Serving items that allow photos to capture more food and less ceramic are always preferable. Asymmetrical bowls, for example, can help capture photos of soup and salad. Specialty cocktails in specialty glasses command a premium presence.
Keep aspect ratios in mind
For the non-photographer, aspect ratio is the photo’s width-to-height ratio. Instagram, for example, works using square photos, or a 1:1 aspect ratio. This means that ‘rectangular’ items, such as three sliders and a basket of fries presented in one long row, are difficult to fit within the frame. A chef may want to consider presenting the sliders in a triangular pattern with the fries in the center or on one side.
Beer flights are another example. Bars will often serve beers in one long row, whereas shifting to a more square display cold capture more of the product in a shot.
Own a hashtag
Perhaps most important in your efforts to create a social media buzz is being able to monitor the results. How else are you going to know if the time and energy you’re dedicating is paying off? Come up with a hashtag and promote it around your restaurant—entryway, menus, table tents, receipts and other touch points are all prime real estate. Keep the following in mind when creating a hashtag.
By encouraging guests to use your hashtag when posting, they’re self-sorting their posts directly into a virtual folder that you can open up and monitor whenever you want. This approach to marketing is free and convenient…not a common find.
Then there’s the idea of creating social media contests to promote this marketing effort even further. That, however, is a conversation for another time.
Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.