Behind the Bar Bar Talk

Jomaree Pinkard on Building a Brand While Advocating for Diversity

The Hella Bitters co-founder talks about growing a business and how the drinks industry can implement meaningful antidiscrimination measures.

Jomaree Pinkard

Tamara Beckwith

Jomaree Pinkard co-founded Hella Cocktail Co., a wildly successful bitters and canned cocktails brand that can be found on the shelves of Whole Foods and Walmarts nationwide. We bootstrapped our startup with $2,500 from a credit card and some minimal bank account savings,” he says. “We now serve thousands of bars, restaurants, hotels—even airlines.”

But as a Black entrepreneur, Pinkard has encountered hurdles along his journey. He’s now using his position to facilitate change, pointing out alarming systematic issues Black industry members face and advising brands on how to support diversity and foster real change in the spirits industry.

How did you get started in the business?

My parents raised three sons in the Ravenswood housing development in Queens. I credit my parents’ discipline and work ethic—my mother, a military vet and child care development director, and my father’s 30 years at the MTA. With them as role models and my hectic baseball schedule [he woke at 5:50 a.m. daily for practice], I avoided the inner-city youth storyline that ends with dreams deferred. I earned my undergraduate degree in commerce and my MBA at The Wharton School.

Then after years in corporate America (brand management and sports marketing), I no longer wanted my life’s work to be the product of others’ perspectives of my capabilities.

With that in mind, my friends turned business partners, Tobin Ludwig and Eddie Simeon, came up with the idea of making craft cocktail bitters. Not satisfied with the existing cocktail bitters on the market, the two started creating batches of their bitters in Mason jars and giving them away to friends and family in old hot sauce bottles.

With Craigslist, you never know what you’re going to get. In this case, it was kismet: I hired Eddie and Tobin through a Craigslist ad to produce a music video. The rest is history! With my business acumen, Eddie’s design and content-marketing savvy and Tobin’s production expertise, we launched Hella Cocktail Co. in 2011.

How did Hella Cocktail Co. grow?

Growing up in the inner city, I knew it would take a special driving force of curiosity, autonomy and community to reach success. My way of doing that was through entrepreneurship. 

Our team faced two major challenges: We lacked funding and access to networks, and we were relatively new to the industry. As a solution, we worked other full-time jobs in the beginning and reinvested every dollar of profit into increasing production. We continually listened to what bartenders valued and delivered a range of quality products to add balance and complexity to any cocktail. We pulled up a seat at Bar Convent, Speed Rack and Tales of the Cocktail to share our story but more importantly to listen, learn and support all things community and cocktails.

What are some challenges you’ve faced as a Black entrepreneur, particularly in the beverage industry?

There are numerous challenges I’ve face as a Black entrepreneur, but there are four big ones built into our industry: systematic discrimination, differing communication styles, differing networks and lack of access to traditional capital.

As a Black man in business, I have to be extremely careful in both professional and public settings. There is an unwritten rule for Black professionals that asks us to speak in a language that others might find more appealing to their sensibilities. When I’m trying to make a point, I often have to decide whether I should be direct or performative in my delivery; either can come across as too assertive or even intimidating in the workplace. My passion in presentation can be mistaken for aggression.

How can drinks companies implement real change when it comes to diversity?

They can build a continuous diversity evaluation process. Being proactive in fighting racism and bias means creating structures and systems that ensure the voices of all our workforce are heard and that the needs of our employees are met. Avoid systematic jargon that checks off the diversity box. If it sounds like “we will provide anti-racism/bias training” or “we will bring in a third party to help conduct company-wide diversity workshops,” you haven’t finished listening. The system, including how you evaluate and dismantle systemic barriers, should be reassessed with frequency. It’s not a person, it’s a process.

And they can commit to accountability. All organizations who are now publicly saying that Black Lives Matter should have a similar commitment to holding themselves and their peers accountable. This means being more transparent about where they are in terms of the diversity of their teams and portfolios, benchmarking themselves against their peers, explaining their strategy, adopting KPIs and milestones and then sharing their progress openly and transparently. From entry-level merchandisers and restaurant servers to editors-in-chief and board members, be accountable for how you operate as a business and seek out opportunities to reflect the diversity of the community. Commit to equity on all levels.

They can also invest in their donations. Like all other business initiatives organizations make, donations need to be looked at through the lens of a business investment rather than as a charitable contribution. Those steps include but are not limited to cultural and historical research, consumer insights and how they impact your community, the alignment of team values, concept development, idea testing and fit, measurement of successes and failures and most importantly, reinvestment. 

Because Black people in the U.S. make up nearly 15% of the population, drinks companies can pledge the following:

  • Investment proportions that align with the population over a one-, two- and five-year time horizon
  • Minimum of 15% of coverage to Black talent and businesses
  • Minimum of 15% of retail shelf space to Black-owned businesses
  • Minimum of 15% of bar and restaurant menu placement to Black-owned businesses
  • Minimum of 15% of a portfolio of investment, innovation and distribution network to Black-owned businesses
  • Minimum of 15% of an investment portfolio to fund food, beverage and hospitality entrepreneurial ventures to Black-owned businesses

Do you have any advice for fellow entrepreneurs?

Expand your network and continually ask for advice. Mentorship is vital to the success of budding BIPOC-owned businesses because it helps to combat overarching inequalities in the working world. 

Entrepreneurship is a journey, not a moment. Realize that the pathway will have twists and turns and may result in a slightly or completely different version of your vision.

Support Black-owned and Black-led businesses. Small businesses and entrepreneurs have been longtime wealth builders in society. By supporting more Black-owned businesses, you can create more opportunities for meaningful savings, property ownership, credit building and generational wealth.