A wickedly cool beverage that’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue, with Ghia Founder Melanie Masarin

Joining me on the show today is Melanie Masarin, Founder of the spirited booze free brand, Ghia.

A Glossier alum, Melanie launched her brand earlier this year during the pandemic and it’s been on the tip of everyone’s tongue ever since.

We talk about the lightbulb moment she decided she was going to launch an aperitif, what actually happens in the lead up to the launch, the steps to doing a friends and family round and how her special vision was brought to life through branding and language.

With a super cute background story that involves Italy, her grandmother and all the good things in life Ghia has quickly grown into a brand that’s needed in our social lives, now more than ever.

Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!

Doone: Melanie. Hey, thanks so much for being on Female Startup Club today.

Melanie: Thank you for having me. Very excited.

Doone: Me too. I'm super excited. Do you want to start by giving us a quick overview of what it is and who it's full?

Melanie: Of course, so was really designed to be for everyone, but we're non-alcoholic aperitif inspired by the Mediterranean and a Tebow culture. We have zero point zero percent alcohol in our drink and no sugar added, which is very different from most aperitifs. But the tasting notes are very similar. It's a bitter drink that is very adult, really prepares your palate for that dinner or is really good from sunset to sunrise. And it's made entirely of botanical extracts.

Doone: It sounds so delicious and my favorite drink of the moment is Apple, and I was reading it's quite similar in terms of flavorings to that. So I'm so excited to to try it and give it a whirl. We usually start by going back to your life before Gayo and what you were doing in your career and just generally in life that inspired you to launch your own business and jump on the entrepreneurial train for sure.

Melanie: So I actually grew up in France and I moved to the US to go to college. So I went to Brown and at Brown, I was actually working for a dining services because I needed a job on campus and they were one of the biggest employers of students on campus. And I guess that's sort of where I got my first experience working in hospitality. I graduated and I worked in finance for a couple of years at Goldman Sachs, which was a great experience, but not for me at all. And I ended up working in retail for a little bit at American Eagle and was really interested in food and the supply chain of food in the United States. Why a lot of people had food issues, food deserts, all of that. And I ended up being put in touch with the CEO of a restaurant group in New York called Dig In that really wanted to make farm to table food more affordable to people. And I ended up joining their team and staying there for a few years. There were six restaurants when I joined and I think there were about 20 when I left. So we we worked really hard for just a few years. And it was it was an incredible experience. And I subsequently left to join the team. And last year, which is a beauty brand that was born on the Internet and led by Emily Weiss. And at that time, Glossier was really trying to figure out what it meant for them to be an Internet brand.

Melanie: And it was really a need for more engagement with the brand and the demand for more engagement with the brands from their consumers. And so I joined in and they asked me, what do we do with retail? Everybody expects that we're going to open all these stores. We don't really want to do that. And so from there, we started really defining that third dimension of the Gulf. You brand with really experiential stores in different cities that would really cater to their local audience and would be like a trip every single time. So a different experience, a little bit actually, like you would design a restaurant group. There are not all the same. They're they're all hyper local and they all live really listen to their customers and they're all a very different experience. So we designed glossier retail that way. And I ended up living in. December two thousand and eighteen. Not really knowing what I wanted to do, but I knew that I wanted to get back into food, I cook a lot and it's really kind of where my passion lies. But I knew I didn't want to open a restaurant. I'm not a chef. And so I have been kind of thinking about how to bring all the factions together and really creating these experiences. And I grew up spending every summer by the Mediterranean. My grandmother was a host to host with the most, and I learned a lot from her.

And she would always make these incredible drinks, whether it was Limoncello, which is basically 50 percent sugar and 50 percent alcohol or much lower ABV, her cereals and other things that she would dilute before dinner. I was very inspired by the ways that we gather in Europe and I had not been drinking for a few years because I actually was I was able to do the United States. I started to really have stomach issues and I didn't really know where they were coming from and which is probably why I was always gravitating towards food so much that I was really trying to understand. Sometimes you think you keep a very healthy lifestyle and you still have a lot of pain. And I was hearing so many of my friends saying they had IBS and I was just always trying to figure out what it was about our lifestyle and about the food that we eat that made us feel this way. And one of the triggers I realized was alcohol. It was very clear to me that if I drink alcohol, I feel. Very foggy the following day, and I operate that maybe 60 or 70 percent capacity, and so I had really early on the kind of wean myself off of booze, first on and off. And then just I couldn't tell you when I stopped drinking, but it just never felt like worth it to have another drink. So it's been a few years now of not drinking.

And for a few years it was something that I always had to justify. I had to explain myself all the time and I had to hear people say, oh, you're boring, you're no fun. You come on, just have one hour. She doesn't drink. And it was a little bit annoying, obviously. And then I realized the past few years that more and more of my friends, more and more of the people that I considered to be fun, but also very high functioning individuals were not drinking. And it really made me think about how there just needs to be better options. That paired with the fact that independents really unveiled some of these issues. But how difficult it is to run a restaurant today. If sixty six percent of millennials, according to studies they are trying to get them on, they're drinking, then that makes it really hard financially for restaurants to stay in business. And the PennyMac really uncovered that this year. So I really wanted to create a product that would also work in a hospitality setting because the number one tenant for our brand is exclusivity. And if we're telling you that you can own the injury or another drink from the comfort of your home, then it's not truly inclusive. I wanted to be able to go out to dinner and really participate, order a drink that would make me feel like I was fully included in the conversation and the social setting, even if it didn't have alcohol in it.

Yeah, I can't tell you how many times my husband and I or even my friends and I have spoken about like, what do you just drink at the bar when you don't want to drink or even friends who are pregnant?

My best friend just had a baby, and it was a conversation all throughout her pregnancy because, of course, she wanted to be social and she wanted to be included and involved. But it's such a there's just no real I mean, they're all coming onto the market now, new new options. But it just felt like there was no one really ticking the box in a serious way that people were excited about. I mean, obviously, you're lack of you know, I don't want to drink a soda because it's packed with sugar and it's not good for you anyway. So, like, what's the point? I may as well just drink water, which then you're like, oh, this is boring for sure.

And, you know, it's interesting actually, because the UK is where all these brands really started, I think because drinking is so ingrained in the culture with pop culture and drink starting even before dinner, I would have thought that it would be the last country to maybe move to fully known alcoholic beverages. And actually they were really the leader with I think there's something like over 100 brands that have started over the past few years. So that was kind of our case study.

Yeah, that's crazy. Wow, how interesting. I definitely would never have picked the UK. I though it's really, really cool.

And so you've kind of got these different things going on. You're feeling that you want to stick with inhospitality, you're interested in food. What's the light bulb moment when we like. Aha, I've got it. Now I know what I'm going to do.

So I see the light bulb moment really happen when I stop putting pressure on trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. So I started consulting for a number of brands. It was great. I was I had just left glasses, so I was very in demand. A lot of people really liked the glossy retail experience and a lot of newer brands were wondering, you know, the same questions, how do we create this third dimension? What does it look like for us from a brand experience standpoint? And so I had a lot of clients and it really allowed me to breathe for a minute and say, I really want the next thing to be the thing. So I'm not going to put pressure on it. I also, by the way, was not wed to the idea of starting my own company, that felt very scary, but I actually ended up going on a trip to Italy, which is just my favorite place in the world. And like many other people, and it's on this trip that I realized that I wanted to do this because we were our days were guided by looking at design. We were there for Design Week and then figuring out where we were going to eat and what we were going to eat, which is pretty much like the perfect trip in my book. And I was with some friends and they were wondering if we should get an extra order of pasta or not. I was like, well, of course we must take the extra order. And they're like, well, yeah, but we were ready for lunch. I was like, Yeah, but you also on your fourth for it. So that's so much worse than the pasta. And we kind of started talking. They work in food.

We started having this conversation about what we eat versus what we drink and how this kind of health and wellness movement has really impacted our plate and how we think about food on the every day. And it's had a really positive change, but it just hasn't moved at all to drink like alcohol. Brands don't even have to disclose what's in it. And you have to say it's X percent of alcohol, but you don't have to say what you are. You don't have to say what the sugar content is. There's just nothing is disclosed. They don't even have to label. That's why you can have these really pretty bottles and you are subjected to a completely different set of standards when you you produce non-alcoholic drinks. So I thought that was interesting. And we started talking about it and that's when it hit me. And he said, you have to do this. And we talked a lot about the social stigma, how people say a real drink. And to me, a real drink is is a drink that has real ingredients. But for a lot of people, to drink is a drink that has alcohol in it. And so I wanted to create a real drink that would not be about using you, but I would be a better for you drink that would not be branded as healthy. I think it's it was really about just an invitation and we always say is an invitation because it's really the idea of participation is like if you have a guy in your hand, you don't need alcohol, but it's just kind of a good decision for your body. And in terms of, I would say, vibe, we wanted it to be just as fun, if not more fun. It's about that extra connection.

Yeah, and I definitely feel that through all of your branding and tone of voice, which I definitely want to get to, but I want to stick with where you are now in the process.

Do you have that meeting?

You're not meeting your over lunch in Italy, enjoying some moments with friends and the moments box where you've got this idea.

How do you stop building a brand? Do you have to think about how much money you're going to invest, what your personal savings commitment is going to be, what it's going to be called?

How did it develop after that moment for sure?

Well, first of all, I was also really busy with clients. And so I started doing research slowly but surely, as if it was another project. So I think at the time I had six clients that I was designing stores for or helping with some strategy for retail or even just doing kind of other projects. And so I started looking into it and found this case study of the UK and how there were all these brands there. I started ordering a number of bottles to my mom's house and friends because they wouldn't deliver to the US or ship them over here. And I realized the opportunity is huge. And so I started asking people about it, asking I have a lot of friends who are chefs, like, what do you think of this? And they really needed to be convinced by the product because a lot of there's a lot of craft in alcohol and there is a lot of tradition. And so how do you break away from that? In a way, they also were not convinced that they could charge as much as alcohol. So I realized one of the challenges was figuring out a drink that would be as credible to the food industry as an alcoholic drink. And then from a consumer standpoint, also really convincing chefs or the people that we would tell to drink to and bars that this was not trying to sell from an alcoholic drink, but rather really catering to an audience that was trying to drink less.

And there were all these surveys that had started coming out about people trying to get them on their drinking. And even anecdotally, I was really seeing it's people not wanting to go to dinner on a Tuesday because they didn't want to drink, which these things don't have to be exclusive. So from there, it was a lot of research and it was a lot of whiteboarding. I'm a very visual person and so I wanted to really get a sense for what the child would be visually. And the challenge was, you know, you have all of these labelling requirements for the bottle. You want a bottle that will stand on its own in the shelf, but you also want to drink. That's recognizable when it's in the glass we speak about. Apple rolled it out. Apple has is like neon orange. There's nothing natural about it. But when someone's having spread through a bottle of apple and you can recognize it. And so a lot of it was like, how do you create this drink that I knew had to be Mediteranean? Because I was so inspired by all the recipes of my grandmother. I have her cookbook and any time I look for inspiration, that's where I can delve into and I started looking into that. But there's something about the 70s, Italian disco postmodernism that was also very wide and very exclusive in the way it's not adapted.

And we're talking research from two years ago. So not quite as recent as these events from the summer. But even then it was very important to me that the brand felt like it was for everyone and didn't feel like this luxurious name Erens cliché. It was it had to be adapted somehow. So how do you make something that's like a non-alcoholic upper teeth? That's very nice, very approachable. And so that's where we started playing with color and and all of that. And so there was this big wall in my house that had just been on the wall and it wasn't even the name and the time. It was just like we didn't have a name. It was like new beverage company, maybe set everywhere. And then I started working on this. It's all I wanted to do. So I didn't really want to do the consulting for other clients anymore. I just knew that that had to be the thing. And and I was just consulting during the day so I could work on Ghiyath Night. I was still funding for many months and started figuring out how to find a formula. Later we had to make the product first and we had to make a great product and they didn't have that expertise. So figuring out where my blind spots where and how I could bring them to help to help me bring the product to life.

And how did you find a formula like what did you do? What do you have to look for? If it's a beverage, of course.

And especially this specific of a beverage that doesn't really exist yet? I asked all my friends who work in food if they knew anyone. I got a few referrals and I met with five or six people that had more of a. Variance across categories. A lot of food, chemists and formulators, they will do the kind of beverages across categories that they will do alcohol. And so I spoke to some people who work with fermentation and I spoke to some people who work in narcotic. And I spoke to some people that do food and drinks in general. And then I met this one guy who said, I believe non-alcoholic operatives are the future of beverages and his favorite drinks are bitter. And all of these things that felt very cosmetic. And I just knew I had to work with him.

Wow, and so when you're finding a manufacturer that is able to bring your idea to life, how how many bottles do you need to order? What's the minimum order?

It's in the thousands for sure, it was definitely a big order or what felt like a big order. I think our first batch we made. I think our first batch, we ended up making five hundred bottles of the product, but that was for product development, so it was with the idea of making more in the future. They were not even our final bottles yet. They were just friends and family samples because we really wanted to get a lot of feedback and we were so grateful to have been able to do that before the pandemic. So we finalized our formula. It took us a year to finalize the formula. Wow, that's crazy. Eighty seven iteration. We got a lot of feedback. It's very difficult to create a beverage that will have many notes that will be very complex, but that will be made entirely of extracts. And we're also trying to figure out how we make a drink that people can actually afford. And it's not really crazy expensive. So a bottle of retails for thirty three dollars, but it's only extracts and only ingredients in there. There are no flavors and that's very difficult to do. So it was also hard to create something that is concentrated but that provides value for the customers. We ended up concentrating on more so that people could spread it so that it would be a better value per serving for them while remaining really, really clean. But then you have all these really potent extracts and they interact with each other and you don't have booze to preserve it. So how do you create a formula that's chemically stable? And that was a big challenge for us.

Yeah. Wow. It sounds such a big challenge.

It's I learned so much. It was an incredible year, but it was definitely stressful. You know, we were still working during the day and trying to pay for the formula and then our first employee to work for the first year before we brought the product to market.

Who was your first employee and how did you identify what you needed and who to hire?

So at first, I think a lot of startups are like you hire people, you know, because you've worked with them before or you kind of grab onto the network that's around you. And so it wasn't even a formal recruiting process, but I ended up hiring a CEO very early on, a few months in to help me really figure out the operations and the legal part of the business. We knew that there would be a lot of trademark challenges. We want to be global eventually. And so we wanted to protect our intellectual property and there was just so much to do. So I ended up hiring Henry, who was a friend that I have known for many, many years, who actually used to run an agency that had worked with us on the glossier flagship. And he left after eight years on the job and he said, I thought he was going to help me with my consulting projects because he's also a very talented designer. And he said, I need to go on vacation. I've been in my job for eight years, but when I come back, I'll take some of the retail work off your plate so you can focus on the beverage company. And he happe