Siren Shrub Co., which takes drinks up a notch with an old-but-new concept, has taken its company up a notch in just a few short years.
The women-owned business based in Stevens Point makes flavorful combinations with its shrubs — nonalcoholic syrups, not to be confused with small bushes. These concentrates are made from apple cider vinegar, fresh fruits, roots and herbs, then sweetened with cane sugar or maple syrup.
The idea came about when Layne Cozzolino was pregnant; she and friend Mindy McCord found shrubs were an ideal replacement for alcohol. As they shared their recipes, they found the flavors also appealed to drinkers as something novel and fun as craft cocktails and mocktails started growing in popularity.
First leap: A product
The co-founders approached the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at UW-Stevens Point in August 2019 because they both were working on Siren Shrub as a side hustle and wanted to take things to the next level. Specifically, they sought assistance with diversifying revenue streams via wholesale distribution, ecommerce and new product development. They received a $50,000 working capital loan through a local Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), which allowed Layne to make the leap from her nonprofit job into full-time entrepreneurship.
To advance those skills, Layne also attended Financial Management Boot Camp and consultant training through the Food Finance Institute (FFI) in 2019.
“I did not go to business school, so business in the technical sense was not a part of my background, but throughout my professional careers, and now Siren Shrub Company, I have gained the lived experience necessary to run a business, and I lean on the resources and expertise available when there is more to learn,” Layne said of things like cash flow, projections and inventory.
Second leap: Another product
Next, the pair was encouraged to apply for the Ideadvance Seed Fund, funded by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) and the UW System. Ideadvance, run by the Center for Technology Commercialization (CTC), is a rigorous program that combines money, mentorship and progress toward milestones to move innovative ideas into feasible businesses.
Siren Shrub received phase 1 funding (typically up to $25,000) in 2020 and phase 2 funding (typically up to $30,000) in 2021.
The focus of their phase 1 Ideadvance work was to produce, promote and distribute a canned shrub product. In August 2020, it was determined this had strong interest from both consumers and distributors to move forward, and they officially launched it in the fall of 2020.
(Hear their takeaways from the program in their own words: video)
Third leap: Funding and more
The focus of phase 2 in Ideadvance has been to position Siren Shrub for investment.
This has meant focusing on their next big leaps, Mindy said: “What are we going to do to raise money, where are we going to go next and what parts of our operation need improvement?”
Siren Shrub is not pursuing the somewhat popular “unicorn” model of rapid growth through large investments. “We are interested in growing as a national brand, but much more in a niche way,” Layne said. “We are not ready or necessarily interested in mainstream markets. There is an educational component to what we offer that will take time for the market to embrace. We have talked more about crowdfunding as a better platform. Our business is based on building relationships: small distributors, small shops and mom-and-pops. We have been fortunate to work with Ideadvance consultants who have been supportive of letting us look at our commercial viability through our value lens. They listen to our business needs. Brian (Walsh) and Idella (Yamben) have been so supportive and amazing in this process.”
To support their growth, Mindy shifted her work emphasis to Siren Shrub in September 2021, and they even hired a part-time employee to assist them.
Today, Siren Shrub has expanded to a line of five bottled shrubs (honeycrisp, basil, lemongrass, maple ginger and tart cherry) and three canned sparkling beverages (basil, rhubarb and tart cherry). Their products are available online and in more than 200 shops.
In 2022, Layne and Mindy’s hard work has attracted prominent attention. In January, it was featured on the season opener of Wisconsin Foodie on PBS Wisconsin.
In February, they released a second limited-edition collaboration flavor in partnership with Black Oxygen Podcast — a cacao nib shrub, which benefited the Madison365 podcast. Layne and Mindy plan to continue producing bimonthly special flavors as an opportunity to get back into the kitchen and give back to their community. “As a company, we are very community wealth focused, and these collaboration flavors allow us to put immediate/tangible actions behind our values,” Mindy said.
What else is exciting as they look ahead to the future and continued growth?
Mindy said, “There is an exciting trend occurring in the beverage industry, and if you’re paying close enough attention, you’ll begin to notice people are looking for interesting and tantalizing beverage options that are just as tasty as their boozy counterparts. Nonalcoholic doesn’t mean boring! And a bottle of Siren Shrub allows you and your guest the flexibility to decide whether you want a cocktail with or without alcohol without compromising flavor.”
Shrubs open an opportunity to “create room for inclusive beverages” in Wisconsin’s heavy drinking culture, especially as more people consider going dry full or part time for a healthier lifestyle.
What’s it like to be in business as friends and women?
Layne: “People say, ‘Don’t go into business with your best friend.’ But we’ve built a business on transparency, trust and understanding. Things come up; we adjust. We get it all out on the table when necessary, and this has really worked for us. As a company we have found that supporting one another is key. We would love to see a world that gives women the support they need to be successful in and out of the workplace, and in our own small way, that starts with Mindy and I doing that for each other.”
Mindy: “Our personalities are very complementary. Layne is more comfortable taking calculated risks; I am more risk averse. The two traits are strengths in their own rights, but having both sides of the coin has been essential for us in our decision making. Being friends in business has really been an incredible support. I feel very lucky to have found and so far succeeded at that balance.”
What’s it like to juggle entrepreneurship and parenthood?
Mindy: “I’m grateful to have a business partner who understands that part of life, to have that flexibility to work when we can. Unlearning the habits of a traditional 9 to 5 job has been interesting. Even though we have the flexibility I still catch myself apologizing or feeling guilty when I utilize the freedom of flexibility; it’s something I think Layne and I are both working on.”
Layne: “It’s not the traditional lens that we hear about. We’ve had to make decisions that work for us as mothers and women. Sometimes that means pushing against ‘the way it’s always been done’ and paving a path that works for us.”