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In Edible-Alpha® podcast #92, Tera chats with Henry Aschauer, co-founder of Forage Kombucha and Forage Kitchen in Madison, Wisconsin. What began as a single healthy fast-casual restaurant on State Street has expanded to include two more local eateries plus a budding beverage brand now sold in nearly 800 retail doors across 18 states.
In launching Forage Kitchen in 2015, Henry and his partners hoped it would be the first of many locations. After some slight menu tweaking, the restaurant became a hit, attracting a broad clientele with its fresh-made salads and grain bowls—and proving that the concept worked. This paved the way to open a second outpost in March 2019 and a third in September 2019.
Originally, Forage Kitchen crafted its own juices and lemonades but brought in kombucha from elsewhere. “Maybe being young and naïve, we began to tinker with the idea of making our own, not knowing full well what that entails,” Henry explains. Once his team developed a HACCP plan and got the proper regulatory clearance, they began brewing and bottling kombucha in the Forage Kitchen basement and selling it to customers in January 2017.
Just like the restaurant, the fermented tea beverages were also a hit. Plus, producing and serving them onsite allowed them to trial different flavors in a real-life setting, giving them excellent feedback. They secured a distribution partner and established retail sales outside of Forage Kitchen.
To build capacity and grow the brand, Henry and partners looked to move kombucha production into a dedicated facility. Additionally, intent on offering a convenient, approachable and affordable—yet still high-quality—kombucha, they switched from bottles to cans. They contemplated the co-packer route, which is notoriously difficult for small beverages brands, especially those involving fermentation, but no suitable partner emerged. Ultimately, they found production space locally and began self-manufacturing in October 2018.
From there, Forage Kombucha grew tremendously, having expanded capacity and added a few more regional distributors to widen its territory beyond Wisconsin. After banner kombucha and restaurant sales in 2019, Henry expected sustained growth in 2020—but a certain virus had other plans. Though COVID-19 pandemic hit the restaurant industry hard and made it tough for beverage brands to land new retail accounts, both Forage Kitchen and Forage Kombucha managed to grow.
Now that the pandemic is winding down, Henry says more doors are opening on the retail front. Currently, Forage Kombucha is in the process of gaining USDA Organic certification, which should broaden its appeal further. Henry and Tera talk about the valuable interplay between the restaurants and kombucha business, in terms of consumer recognition, brand proposition and cash flow management. He hopes the future includes an even broader reach, additional Forage Kitchen locations and more brand-aligned beverage launches.