Maker Stories

This Just In-spiration: Meet Leah Monaghan and Barb Stauffer

August 29, 2017

Names, like looks, can be deceiving. After all, there’s nothing “simple” about the syrups that UG newcomers Leah Monaghan and Barb Stauffer create together in Columbus, Ohio. Crafted using organic cane sugar and ingredients sourced from local farms, Leah and Barb’s concoctions are all-natural, made in small batches, and, quite frankly, delicious. But that’s not all. Despite being busy moms—that’s how they met, after all—Barb and Leah have grown their business with their own two—er, four—hands, waking at the crack of dawn to get cooking, crossing state lines in the name of distribution, and hand-packing their fair share of tasty mixers, all as part of their first ever joint entrepreneurial endeavor.

When we learned of Barb and Leah’s successes (and saw what tasty flavors they’ve thought up), we knew we had to give them a welcome the only way we know how—that is, with their very own interview. We sat down on a real live phone line and spoke with the duo all about how they got started and how much they’ve grown, touching on victories, troubles, and touching mementos. Read on for more.

How did you guys get started making syrups?

Leah: It’s kind of a convoluted story. I guess it was almost three years ago that Barb and I started talking. We have kids that go to school together, and both of us would make smoothies for the kids, and we’d make popsicles out of those—you know, for healthy treats for our kids. And we got to thinking that maybe there could be a market for upscale, inventive popsicles with more of an adult focus. We started working on all these ideas, and we would make some great flavor combinations, and every time we’d do that, we would be like, “Oh, this would be really good with bourbon,” or with vodka, [but] then, because we would then freeze them, they wouldn’t taste quite the same. And we figured out pretty quickly that the frozen food distribution business is tough. So at that point we decided to pivot and get into—well, we were making drink mixers.

Barb: We were [already] making some syrups to go in the popsicles, to get some of the flavors, like basil and rosemary, into them without actually having bits and pieces of the herbs in there. So we started changing all those flavors and adding them into the syrups as tests. That kind of happened by chance. We created about fifteen flavors and invited about fifty women from our kids’ classes—the moms that we’re friends with—[to] a big party and put the bottles out and just let them go to town creating different drinks with them.

Leah: We didn’t give any input, we just saw what they gravitated towards. And they gave us feedback, and that helped us come up with our first four flavors that we took to market in June of 2015.

Do either of you have a culinary background?

Barb: No. My background is in retail, but I was in the apparel industry prior to having kids. I’ve been staying home for a number of years since then, but Leah’s husband is actually a food scientist, so that’s kind of how the whole conversation started. I wanted to talk with him about flavors, [and] he helped us along the way with answering some questions while we worked at this.

Leah: And connecting us with people—things like that. My background is in higher education.

So what’s your favorite thing about having your own business?

Barb: I would say for me it’s the flexibility. We both enjoy being able to spend time with our kids and being there to pick them up from school or be at their activities. We can work around those needs.

Leah: I completely agree. We’re not boxed into an eight-to-five kind of situation. We have a lot of flexibility, but it’s also been really fun, I think, for our kids to be present through this and make something. It’s growing, and exciting, and they help us. They help us label. It’s [been] a very long process of growth, but it’s been a good experience, I think.

What is a typical day like for you guys, assuming one exists?

Leah: I don’t think there is a typical day, or a typical week. We just deal with things. It’s the two of us, and we do everything.

Barb: We’ve had pretty rapid growth in two years, a lot more than we anticipated, so things have evolved pretty quickly. It started [with] us going into the kitchen [we rent] at 4AM in the summer so we’d be back in time for our husbands to go to work. And then labeling—afternoon and night—and putting the boxes together. Now we work with a co-packer to help produce [the syrups], because we were also self-distributing, driving all over Ohio.

Leah: And Indiana.

Barb: Yeah. We’ve evolved enough that now we have distributors helping us with the stores, and somebody helping us produce. So now it’s more the logistics of trying to make sure we have all the supplies we need and [know how] to service our clients.

Leah: We’ve grown, so we’ve been hiring brand ambassadors to do tastings and demos, and coordinating all of that. Those are the kinds of things that we’re managing now.

Has there anything that’s been particularly challenging to handle as your business grows?

Barb: We had a lot of road blocks along the way. You start gaining some steam, and then somethin’ happens—you know, like, “Ooh, we didn’t know we needed that,” and it sets you back a little bit.

Leah: I think the biggest challenge was the distribution piece. It really proved to be a lot more difficult than we thought it would be. I think last summer there were times when we didn’t think it was going to work out, and we just weren’t sure if we were going to be able to move forward. We really felt like we were swimming upstream. And then things kind of came together.

Barb: And the co-packer, too. Once you get to the point where you’re growing enough you can’t do it all yourself, it’s hard to let go of that control and let somebody else do it. We’re in the process of changing co-packers now, because we want to ensure that the end product looks the same as it would if we were making it ourselves.

When you first started out, did you keep any sort of special objects around you while you were working?

Barb: We… we did not. We were in a commercial kitchen.

I figured it was probably a more… sterile operation.

Leah: Yeah. It wasn’t our own space, so we would have to bring the things that we needed to produce. We would just go in, work furiously to get our work done, and get out as quickly as we could.

Barb: We still don’t have an office space, so we’re doing all of our logistics from our homes.

Leah: [There is] one thing we do have. When we were in the process of getting the business going, we had a really hard time coming up with the name. It was right around Christmas 2014. We had gone over to one of our girlfriends’ houses. There were probably ten of us. We were drinking wine and talking, trying to come up with names, and we had this little paper plate that we wrote name ideas on. I still have that.

Is there any kind of quote or mantra that keeps you going?

Barb: I don’t know if we have a specific quote. I feel like, OK, we know we’ll get through it, and when I’m getting stressed, Leah calms me down, and when she’s getting stressed out… we just help push each other through.

Leah: Yeah, you know, we’ve figured this out—we can figure the next thing out. We know that things get tough, and we manage to figure it out.

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