CHAMBERSBURG – When Hope Bigler officially launched Undone Kombucha in March 2017, she admittedly didn’t have all of the answers. But with lots of energy, hard work and the support of those around her, she has dealt with every problem and overcome every obstacle that she has encountered.
Over the last two years, she has taken her company from a spiritual vision to a regional success story. Today, her kombucha can be found on tap at a growing list of restaurants, coffee houses and wellness centers throughout Franklin County — or you can pick up a growler in the retail space of her New Franklin brewing facility.
On March 23, Bigler and Undone Kombucha celebrated their second year in business with a party that included the Falafel Shack food truck and floats made using “Concord Crush” kombucha and ice cream from Trickling Springs Creamery.
The attendees that cycled through were enthusiastic — many getting their growlers refilled — and it was clear that both the customers and the business community have turned out for Bigler and her kombucha with a loyalty that can’t be bought.
How did all of this come about, and what is kombucha, anyway?
Bigler explained that the simplest definition of kombucha is that it is “fermented tea.” It is an age-old ferment that has been passed around the globe for centuries.
Despite its age, kombucha is definitely having a moment.
In a 2018 industry report, Orbis Research predicted that the kombucha market “will grow from USD 0.97 billion in 2017 to USD 3.81 billion by 2023.” The report attributes this growth primarily to a change in customer behavior due to an uptick in health consciousness, a prevalence of chronic diseases and disorders, a shift away from unhealthy drinks such as soda, and a shift in work-life balance that requires — but fails to accommodate — healthy living choices.
In other words, we haven’t experienced “peak kombucha” yet and there is still territory to be staked out by entrepreneurs who can tap into the right markets.
And, based on the businesses that currently carry it, Undone Kombucha is successfully pursuing these markets with their tagline: “Drink Rawsome.”
Kombucha certainly appeals to the health-minded, fitness-oriented, clean-eating crowd, and it is carried in Chambers’ Apothecary in Chambersburg (which made its own substantial investment in the wellness market in 2018 with Chambers’ Wellness Center featuring a Himalayan Salt Cave) and R. T. Henry Pharmacy in Shippensburg. Undone Kombucha has also been a mainstay at the North Square Farmer’s Market in Chambersburg.
The Undone Kombucha retail space has the clean, curated vibe of a smoothie bar, and they are partnering with Power Train Sports and Fitness (Chambersburg) to hold fitness classes in it.
Because of the nature of the brewing process, kombucha also presents a unique opportunity for Undone to appeal to the connoisseur crowd.
Connoisseurs are interested in everything from the fermentation process to the sourcing of local ingredients — farm-to-bottle. Customers in this category can be tough to impress and can veer to the side of snobbery (think: craft beer devotees, wine sommeliers, and coffee fanatics), but once they learn your vocabulary they are very loyal and often quite evangelistic about your product.
Bigler describes her facility using the language of a brew pub: The batches ferment in tanks; they are stored in kegs and they are served from taps. Undone focuses on about eight primary flavors of “raw craft kombucha” that they rotate across four in-house taps.
She describes her kombucha with the specificity of a winery: Fermenting times need to be carefully controlled (Undone Kombucha is raw, which means that it is unpasteurized, so refrigeration is critical) and, whenever possible, she sources local fruits from the orchards surrounding her facility.
Accordingly, Undone is also on tap at places that emphasize quality ingredients: Falafel Shack (Chambersburg), Denim Coffee Company(Chambersburg and Carlisle), Brio Coffeehouse (Waynesboro), Pure and Simple Café (Greencastle), One North Coffee and Bake Shop (Mercersburg) and at Orchards Restaurant and Relax Lounge and Grill, which is where Bigler got her start (more on this in a moment).
But because it’s not beer, wine or coffee, kombucha avoids direct competition with those crowded categories. Instead, it offers a “blue ocean” alternative to those beverages.
While all entrepreneurs take a leap of faith of sorts, Undone Kombucha’s origin story is as much a business biography as it is a spiritual testimony. And, like with Moses and the Promised Land, the initial vision was clear on its objective (the business idea and name were “dropped into her spirit” fully formed) but vague on the details (she had never actually brewed kombucha before that moment).
While she might have been new to kombucha, she had previously run her own photography business, and she had acquired valuable direct sales experience with a multi-level marketing company.
“When I had my photography business, it was just me,” said Bigler of the transition from being a solopreneur to running product-based business with a staff. “I didn’t know anything about kegs. I didn’t know anything about brewing.”
She added: “I’m more of the visionary-risk-taker, and I’ve had to work really hard at understanding all of the administrative things that go along with this.”
Fortunately, it hasn’t taken Bigler forty years of wandering to find her way, but there was definitely a learning curve. She is surprisingly open about the fact that when she first tried kombucha in 2015, she was not impressed.
Her first SCOBY (an acronym for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast”) was gifted to her by a friend, and the first batches that she produced in her home kitchen were, to quote the Undone Kombucha website, “ewwwww.”
But after much experimentation with both the process and the ingredients, she finally had a product.
In 2017, she formally launched the business with the guidance and resources of the Orchards’ shared kitchen license space, and she sold primarily through the North Square Farmer’s Market.
“Michael [Kalathas] and the team at Orchards were so gracious and generous,” said Bigler. “I brewed in the morning before the restaurant opened, and then we got our start through the market family downtown.”
She brewed there for her first year before relocating to her current facility, which includes separate rooms for washing, filling and fermenting, plus the retail space.
“This used to be a deli, and this building sat empty for years,” said Bigler of the approximately 2,000 sq. foot facility. “It actually went to auction and the township was wonderful to work with to allow me to come in and create the brewery space that it is today. The walk-in cooler was here, which was huge. I needed all of the fridge space for the kegs. I had a brilliant team of friends and family surround me to help me figure out the best way to lay it out and how to work with what was here.”
Her warning to entrepreneurs following in her footsteps is don’t wait until the plan is perfect because it never will be. There will always be surprises that you hadn’t counted on, and there are some problems that can only be studied and solved when you’re “in it.” If you wait until you’re ready, you’ll never go at all.
“You gotta’ go. You just gotta’ take the first step. Maybe you don’t see the whole picture, but you know the next step you could take. Sometimes it’s just focusing on what the next step is. It’s easy to go wrong with ‘What do I do about this and what do I do about that and what about this?’ I realized that I don’t have to have answers to all of those questions. I just need to take the step that I know I need to take next. You’ve gotta’ go before you’re ready.”
Looking back on the last two years, Bigler has put her faith in God, her community and herself — and all three have delivered.
“It’s been really intensely difficult, but I’m so grateful for every piece of it. We have been really embraced with so much support and encouragement from the community, which is very humbling and incredible. So while it’s been extremely difficult, my heart is just so grateful.”
Learn more about Undone Kombucha at www.undonekombucha.com.