Elevating Home Bartending | Crescent Simples

Elevating Home Bartending | Crescent Simples

As we welcome the Christmas season, there’s an excited buzz in the air as we prep for all the parties and gatherings. What better way to bring on the holiday cheer than the perfect cocktail or mocktail to enjoy with your family, friends, loved ones, and peers.

In this episode, I’m bringing back Megan and Bill Miller of Crescent Simples, a craft food company that aims to elevate the home bartender experience through accessible high-quality cocktail products made from fresh ingredients. 

As former bartenders from New Orleans, Bill and Megan were inspired by their passion for creating great gatherings to create a brand that allows people to re-create great cocktails at home. Their vision to elevate the home bartending experience for everyone brought Crescent Simples to life. Their story of how they took this startup business and partnered with other businesses and then expanded production to a new location is truly encouraging. It’s noteworthy that they have managed to grow their brand and business in just a few years despite the pandemic.

Listen to learn about what bartending tips and essentials you should always have in your home, the importance of packaging and branding in a business, and how their commitment to stay under five ingredients has led to their growth. 

Virginia Foodie Essentials:

  • Our philosophy was that we want to help people do the things that they do in restaurants at home and our simple syrups are a way to bridge that gap, especially with them being all fresh fruit, raw herbs and no preservatives. - Bill Miller

  • The biggest way that I create those relationships with the farmers and make sure that they have enough to provide for us is just by meeting people at the farmer's market. - Megan Miller

  • We both want to live that life of owning a business that creates those experiences, interactions, passions, and good times that people come back on special occasions for. - Bill Miller

  • The logo and packaging update is the single best investment we've ever made. I'd say both personally and professionally, it changed our business entirely. - Megan Miller

  • Design really is a function of business. - Georgiana Dearing

Key Points From This Episode:

  • The vision of Crescent Simples

  • Working with a commercial kitchen

  • Crescent Simples flavors inspiration

  • How the pandemic affected their business

  • Sourcing local ingredients 

  • What inspired them to be a food creator

  • Why design is an important function of a business

  • The importance of building relationships with farmers and providers

  • Their process of finding and experimenting with new flavors

More about the Guest:

Megan and Bill Miller are the owners of Crescent Simples, a craft food brand that's on a mission to elevate the experience of the home bartender to accessible high-quality cocktail products made from fresh ingredients.

You can now find Crescent Simples in more than 80 stores across 14 states, and they are currently located in Richmond, Virginia.

Connect with Crescent Simples:

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Click Here for Full Transcript:

[00:00:00] Bill Miller: Our biggest philosophy is creating those recipes, whether it be original or creative, or something that we've come up with on our own, and giving people the recipe to do it at their house.

[00:00:13] Georgiana Dearing: Welcome to The Virginia Foodie Podcast, where we lift the lid on the craft food industry and tell the stories behind the good food, good people, and good brands that you know and love. If you've ever come across a yummy food brand and wondered, "How did they do that? How do they turn that recipe into a successful business?" Then we've got some stories for you.

Today's episode is a repeat. But I hope you listen through to the end. I reached out to Bill and Megan, and I have an update to share with you. So stick around and hear the rest of their story. Hello, Foodie family. We're in the thick of the holidays. And while our gatherings may be much smaller this year and much closer to home, there's nothing more festive than a quality cocktail or mocktail to make the season bright. And with that in mind, I reached out to Megan Thomas and Bill Miller of Crescent Simples, a craft food brand that's on a mission to elevate the experience of the home bartender through accessible high-quality cocktail products made from fresh ingredients. In today's conversation, Bill and Megan share how their time as bartenders in New Orleans, planted the seeds for their line of simple syrups. And with just 18 months under their belts, their new brand is growing strong. Plus, Bill shares some tips for holiday beverages. And you can find the links to the recipes in our show notes.

Hi, welcome to the podcast. Could you take a moment and introduce yourselves to our audience?

[00:01:49] Bill Miller: My name is Bill Miller. I'm part owner with Megan Thomas of Crescent Simples Simple Syrups.

[00:01:57] Megan Thomas: And I'm Megan Thomas, the other side of Crescent Simples Simple Syrup.

[00:02:02] Georgiana Dearing: So where is Crescent Simples located?

[00:02:05] Bill Miller: Right now, Crescent Simples is located in Richmond, Virginia. We moved here at the end of September from Charlottesville where we've previously been operating out. We've been a business for a year and a half now, and have been really making strides as a small boutique simple service company.

[00:02:23] Georgiana Dearing: Well, I can hardly believe it's a year and a half because I think I've been watching you for a while and looking at your products. So that's exciting. You just had your anniversary, I guess.

[00:02:34] Bill Miller: Yes, it's been really good. We've hit a lot of benchmarks over the last couple of months, and it's been growing faster and at times feeling out of control. But I think that's how small businesses work. You hang on until you get to a point where everything just makes sense, and it's starting to click for us.

[00:02:53] Georgiana Dearing: You talk about things being a little bit crazy. I mean, it's 2020. You started in business in 2019. How has this year been? How's it been going for you just in general?

[00:03:04] Megan Thomas: 2020 has been just a crazy ride. So last year in November, we did our first commercial bottling run. So we had been bottling syrups before then, but it had only been a couple of months and we were just selling at the farmer's market. But it was getting to the point where we had people who were interested in carrying our product in their stores, and so we needed to make sure that we were doing it in a commercial kitchen and doing it in a larger scale production.

So we started with Virginia Food Works in Farmville, and they've worked with a lot of other small Virginia products. And when the pandemic hit, Virginia Food Works actually shut down until about, I want to say July or August of this year, so we didn't have a kitchen anymore. And at the same time, our website was going nuts. Everyone was drinking at home and everyone wanted to make cocktails. And so we realized like, oh, everyone else is shutting down but we're ramping up. So we ended up looking for another kitchen and finding Hatch in Richmond. And that is actually why we ended up moving to Richmond, just to be closer to the kitchen, and we do a lot of sales here and whatnot. But Hatch was a total blessing in disguise of like, we had to come here because our old kitchen shut down. But Hatch has one of those situations where there are so many other small food businesses that we've made a ton of friends through there. And they also are able to grow with us. So they have a commercial bottling line whenever we're ready to do that. And then they're starting a food hall in Richmond as well, so that gives us space to pitch to those people and whatnot. But yes, so Hatch has been wonderful, but it's just the two of us working out at Hatch right now.

[00:05:10] Georgiana Dearing: Yes, so I was going to ask a couple of questions, and the first one was to explain the commercial kitchen. And I think you did that when you started talking that you're renting space in a bigger kitchen right now. You don't own it, and they are not doing co-packing for you. You're using someone else's equipment. Is that right?

[00:05:32] Megan Thomas: Right. So Virginia Food Works was a co-packer, but we still work in the kitchen with them. So it was just like us with their employees and their equipment. And then Hatch is not a co-packer, Hatch is just a commercial facility. So they have all the equipment there as far as like the large scale things like the stove and whatnot. But we had to buy all of the bottling equipment. So we own 16-gallon containers that we boil syrups in and all of the things that we use to do that.

[00:06:04] Georgiana Dearing: Yes. Hatch is really interesting. I was down there, I think it was last summer, and they've got quite an operation. They've got all of those warehouses. They've got some people who built out their own kitchen space inside there. They've got that food truck corral, I guess, where the trucks have access. really interesting. I'm curious, I was going to say, how do you like it? But you said it was a blessing in disguise, so that's cool.

[00:06:31] Megan Thomas: Yes, Hatch's been great to us. Honestly, even down to like, they had a reporter in there doing a news article about someone maybe two months ago. And the owner was talking to him and then he goes, do you want to meet these people? This is Crescent Simples. They make simple syrup. And then two weeks later, we were featured in an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. So Hatch has definitely done a lot to help us grow.

[00:06:59] Georgiana Dearing: They're a great model. I think it's pretty cool. And a great asset for Richmond and surrounding areas. One of the things I wanted to ask you is, how many flavors do you have? You have seven flavors in two sizes, so like 20, 14. I can't do the math. Fourteen products.

[00:07:17] Megan Thomas: So we have seven flavors currently. We have one seasonal, lemon chamomile. We're about to run out the inventory on that, so we'll be down to six. But we'll probably just replace that with another seasonal at the beginning of next year. But we do 4 and 8-ounce bottles, and then we also do 16 and 32-ounce bottles for foodservice like bars and restaurants. And there was a lot more of that at the beginning of this year. There's a lot less of that now. But we work with some breweries and distilleries and things like that and provide them with those.

[00:07:54] Georgiana Dearing: Your website is direct-to-consumer, and then you're doing retail channel into stores. I saw you had 20 stores in and around Virginia on your website. And is there really one in Oregon?

[00:08:07] Megan Thomas: Yes, we're on a fair marketplace. Sometimes I'll just get a random order from some other state, and we just ship it out.

[00:08:19] Georgiana Dearing: Okay, and then you got food service or what there is of it right now in 2020. And it's so sad, but yes.

[00:08:28] Bill Miller: Since the pandemic started, we were working with a few bars and restaurants in Charlottesville. And when the pandemic struck in mid-March, everything just closed. And as far as wholesaling to those entities, that essentially ceased to exist because they weren't operating in any way other than takeout or delivery. And so, all of their bartenders now have time to do the tasks that they wouldn't normally want to do. So making their own simple syrups, creating their own cocktail recipes. And so for us, our biggest thing has been creating a home bartender who has that knowledge. And so, we're trying to focus on that because, with the pandemic, you just can't really count on bars and restaurants right now because they have all the time they need to create the things that we're creating.

[00:09:18] Georgiana Dearing: Yes, their numbers are down. This year is the year of numbers like all over for the food industry.

[00:09:24] Bill Miller: Yes. Especially with the pandemic, I've come to memorize all the different capacity numbers like working in restaurants still we're at 25%, so really, really hard year. And we're just really thankful that things are progressing forward for us, way for our business, that it's really helping us.

[00:09:41] Georgiana Dearing: Yes, that's talking about working, trying to cultivate that home bartender. And we see a lot of businesses are turning right to the direct-to-consumer line because much is happening online right now. You seem to be very, very craft for the craft food business. If you're doing it all yourself and you talk about making simple syrups. We're not growing sugar in Virginia, but I do know that you have a pretty strong focus on local ingredients. Can you talk a little bit about your flavor inspirations and your sourcing, or where that's coming from?

[00:10:18] Megan Thomas: Yes. So as much as possible, we do try to keep it in Virginia. We have a couple of mainstays that are always flavors that we have. And then we have some seasonal ones. So for example, our Peach Hibiscus is only made from Chile's Orchard peaches. And we bottle that at the height of the peach season this year. We have, how much we have, and we won't have it again until next year. And that works out really well for us because we buy the peaches from them, and then they turn around and they buy the syrup from us and they sell it in the Carter's Country Store. So that's a really great partnership that we have, and we hope to explore that more next year with some of the other things they offer.

But as far as the berries go during the summer, we get all of our berries from Agriberry, so strawberries, blueberries, blackberries are all from them. And then for everything else, we use 4P Foods and Cavalier Produce. So they're really great, Cavalier Produce always has anything you would be looking for that is available. But if they can get it locally, they are getting it locally. And then 4P does a lot of sourcing. So grapefruits and limes and lemons, might not be coming exactly from Virginia, but they still know what farm they're coming from. And they're making sure that they're having those relationships with the farmers. So we just rely on those two companies to fill in the gaps when we're not able to source locally.

[00:11:47] Georgiana Dearing: That is one thing that American consumer expectations are so used to having everything. People want that grapefruit even though it's not here. great philosophy to be able to work with partners who can keep that smaller farm smart or direct-to-farm path for you. So you talk about cultivating that home bartender. Tell me, what things would you tell them to What should we have as staples in the house?

[00:12:16] Bill Miller: So as far as being a home bartender, when we first started the business, our philosophy was that we wanted to help people do the things that they wanted to do in restaurants at home. And our simple syrups are a way to bridge that gap, especially with them being all fresh fruit, raw herbs and no preservatives. We want people to have the idea that they can do everything at home without going out. And the pandemic really just generated so much love for that. And so, all of our flavors are based on really simple recipes. So, I guess I should backtrack a little bit. The hardest thing when you're trying to make a cocktail is seeing a picture online of a beautiful cocktail and there's no recipe with it. Our biggest philosophy is creating those recipes, whether it be original or creative or something that we've come up with on our own, and giving people the recipe to do it at their house.

We try and stay under five ingredients. We try not to have liquors or liqueurs or extravagant recipes that would take away from what the home bartender is. You need to have a basis for what you're trying to create before you can get creative. And so I think that that's been the biggest thing for us as far as creating cocktail recipes. And so, recipes that we're looking forward to right now, posted a Hot Toddy the other day, and it's super simple. All you need is the basic ingredients for every cocktail, and it's liquor, sugar, and lime or citrus. And with that, we just added a little bit of apple cider and heated everything up so it's nice, warm, and comfortable for this time of year.

[00:13:51] Georgiana Dearing: Oh, that sounds delicious.

[00:13:54] Megan Thomas: Bill's really good about it, he really loves to create cocktails but he really tries to focus on just like, you can have a bar that just has gin, vodka, bourbon, maybe like tequila or mezcal, and you can create from there. And all you're going to need is our syrup and some lemon or lime juice, and then maybe some basil or mint, or something like that. He really likes to keep things simple. And like you said, on our Instagram and on our website, we posted a bunch of recipes and we never have cocktail pictures and stuff that don't have the recipes in them. So we're always trying to provide that. You don't need to have blackberry liqueur that you can't find. You can just have a very simple home bar and make something delicious.

[00:14:38] Georgiana Dearing: Oh, that's great. Do you have gift packs or starter packs on your side, or planned somebody started?

[00:14:45] Megan Thomas: So right now, we do not have the gift pack. We are in the process. we're really excited about the very beginning of 2020. We have been working on a project for the last six Working really hard, putting everything that we have into it with Watermark Design in Charlottesville, which is a design firm that focuses on alcohol-related products. So they do wine and beer, and things like that. And we've been working on a project with them for a long time and that's coming out in January. And that will be a whole big thing to show to people, and there will be gift packs to follow with that. So we're really excited for that to come out.

[00:15:29] Georgiana Dearing: Oh, okay. So stay tuned for something exciting because you've been heavy in product development, so all right, that's exciting. What about new flavors? Do you have any new flavors coming in? You said the chamomile's probably going to go out. And is there something coming in on for winter?

[00:15:48] Bill Miller: So as far as winter goes, we have been working really hard with Watermark. And Meg was saying, we have something really fun coming out in January. But winter won't have a new flavor this year. Spring will definitely have a new seasonal flavor, and we're looking to do two to three flavors this year that are going to be fully seasonal as far as locally sourced and everything. going to be a lot of fun this coming year for us, especially if we're ever getting out of the pandemic.

[00:16:16] Georgiana Dearing: No kidding. So here's a question. When you're planning a new flavor, and I won't make you tell me what that is, but how do you go about getting a provider who's got enough quantity for you to go into a commercial run? Do you have to start that relationship with the farmer early, I guess, is what I'm trying to say?

[00:16:35] Megan Thomas: We are still selling at farmer's markets. And so I think the biggest way that I create those relationships with those white farmers and make sure that they have enough to provide for us is just by meeting people at the farmer's market. Chile's still sells at farmer's markets and Agriberry still sells at farmer's markets, so that's pretty much where I've met everyone. Even down to the lemon chamomile, was a flavor that we created because there was a farmer at the market who was growing fresh chamomile flowers. And I was like, okay, let me take some of those homes and see what we can do. But yes, so we just meet people there and just take things home and play with them until we find a recipe that we're really happy with. But honestly, we run through it times with different variations of it before we release it. So by that time, we can usually talk to the farmer and figure out what they're able to provide and how big or small batch we need to be with.

[00:17:32] Bill Miller: So I think one of the biggest things that we do with everything that Meg just said, we have the relationships after working with these farmer's markets in Charlottesville and in Richmond, we always support all of the farmers we work with. Just going through, picking out some of their freshest produce, and then just trying it out on what we would want for flavors. But one of the biggest things, I think, is product testing. It's a months-long process where we're constantly making, I mean, our mini-fridge right now is so full that we can't fit another thing in it because we've got 25 bottles of simple syrup in it. Honestly, we're probably going to wind up gifting away or jumping most of it, but it's the syrup that we're trying new things. There are new flavors. There are different variations of how we have our herbs interacting with our fruits, the quantity of fruits that we put in to pull out maximum flavor. One of our biggest things is never having preservatives or citric acid. And so we're always trying to find the most acidic fruits that are going to pair well with another herb because we always want fresh fruit and raw herbs.

And so, a tedious process. But once we feel that we've hammered down a recipe, to the moon for us on that. And we don't want to ever change it. We're just sad right now to see lemon chamomile go but make a comeback later on because it's one of my personal favorite flavors.

[00:18:54] Georgiana Dearing: You sound like part alchemist part, I don't know. All that mixing and experimenting, it sounds like it's a real passion project, and I'm just curious. Is there something in your history or something growing up that inspired each of you or both of you to choose to work in the food industry like be this kind of food creator?

[00:19:19] Megan Thomas: We didn't. Neither of us had parents who are necessarily great at cooking or anything like that. I think we both fell into the food industry out of necessity thing. I mean, it's good money, it's flexible with your schedule. Most people start working in the food industry in college, but I think for both of us, we truly enjoy interacting with people. And so I landed in New Orleans, I was bartending there and I just loved creating those relationships, whether they were regulars who came to see me once a week, or it was tourists from all over the world. And it's a really, really fun job. And that grew for me up until I became, I was GM of a distillery and restaurant in New Orleans before we moved back to Virginia. But it's just a place where you're able to connect with people over a really enjoyable experience. It's one of those jobs where if everything's going well, everyone should be having an absolutely wonderful time.

Bill and I both love to entertain. We love to have people over and to cook and make drinks and just have a good time. So for us, what we're doing now, we couldn't be happier just messing with recipes and making cocktails and talking to people about cocktails. It's a dream come true.

[00:20:42] Bill Miller: And for me, my food and beverage, I think comes from like growing up, my parents were always cooking. When I first left the nest, I thought my parents were the best cooks in the world. And then after I left the military, I landed in New Orleans and realized that no, everyone in New Orleans is the best cook in the world. And I've always had a passion for food and beverage. My grandparents had a restaurant named after my grandfather's name. And I wanted to go to culinary school when I was in high school and I just didn't have the way. I didn't understand how to get there. And so, landing in New Orleans, going to school, and having the flexibility of working in restaurants, reignited that passion for me. And that progressed into working at the restaurant distillery where Meg and I met, and then moving in and then moving to the French Quarter. Working in the French Quarter, one of the most historic districts in the world and getting to meet those people and sit down with those people and have those conversations.

When I was in school in New Orleans, I studied Political Science. And so with that, I started studying people and interactions and understanding how the communication system works with all different demographics. And I love that. I love people as much as I love food and industry. And I think that those two things created this passion where, now, we have a foot in the door, and eventually we both want to live that life of owning a business that creates those experiences and interactions and passions and good times that people come back on special occasions for. And I think that a true passion is something that understands those things. There are variables where you look at, and you have a couple sit down at a table and you make their night. That makes my night as well. And so I think that with our simple syrups, we're trying to be nice and easy. We're not trying to be pretentious in any way. We want to let you have a good time. And our biggest thing is just having a good time. Being able to understand what you're doing, how you're doing it and trusting that the people who created it may know what they're doing a little bit.

[00:22:53] Georgiana Dearing: Where can people find you? And so they can find these great recipes and ideas, and buy your syrups.

[00:23:02] Megan Thomas: So we're at crescentsimples.com, and then we're on Instagram and Facebook as well @crescentsimples. And then we're also at the Richmond GrowRVA Bryan Park Market every Saturday. And something we're really passionate about is getting people to access the products as much as possible. So if you go on our website and you live in Richmond, you can use code RVA, and it will get rid of your shipping costs, and we'll actually drop the service off to you usually either that day or the next day. So that's a great option for like, if you're trying to do some kind of, you know, having a drink with some people or virtual happy-hour these days as people do, we're able to get it to people pretty quickly.

[00:23:54] Georgiana Dearing: So that was code, RVA, and that takes shipping off for Richmond residents.

[00:23:59] Bill Miller: All of Richmond's customer service is such a huge thing that people appreciate so much. And bringing a doorbell and walking away with a little bag on your porch and walking out not seeing anything and looking down and seeing your order two hours after it's dropped off, I imagine it's a pretty good feeling. So we like creating experiences, and that's something that they're going to remember us by.

[00:24:22] Georgiana Dearing: That's really nice. Well, I really enjoyed learning more about your company and the two of you. Thank you so much for coming on today.

[00:24:32] Megan Thomas: Thanks for having us.

[00:24:33] Bill Miller: Yes, thanks for giving us this opportunity. We really enjoyed this.

[00:24:42] Georgiana Dearing: My original interview with Bill and Megan took place in November of 2020. So I thought I'd reach out to find out how they fared over the past year. That big project that was underway was a complete package overhaul with Watermark Design out of Charlottesville. The new packaging was launched at the start of 2021, just a few months after our interview. This is a direct quote from Megan Miller. "The logo and packaging update is the single best investment we've ever made. I'd say both personally and professionally, it changed our business entirely." She reports that once the new packaging hit the shelves, their products sold much better in stores that already carried them, plus the new design helped them land new opportunities as well. With my roots in graphic design, this news just warms my heart. The design really is a function of business, and I love to hear success stories like this.

The team also uses Stella's Grocery and Ellwood Thompsons out of Richmond as local representatives of their target retail relationship. Megan feels that landing those new accounts is definitely attributed to the new label system, and winning them became a springboard to other markets. You can now find Crescent Simples in more than 80 stores across 14 states. They had some personal news to share too. They got married in June of 2021. And as I record this, they're traveling in France on a belated honeymoon. For the first time for this small business, they have someone back at home running the business while they're gone, because it's gotten too big to stop all the orders for two weeks. This is a major achievement for a small business.

Now bottling in a week what they used to bottle in a month, Megan and Bill are looking toward their next big step for growth, finding their own production space. Having that space will allow them to expand their business beyond simple syrups to other bar products, which is all part of their plan. I'm so pleased with all of their news, and I hope you found some inspiration in the story of a company that's moving slowly but steadily from a small home kitchen to farmer's markets, then a co-packer, and now on to bigger and better things.

Thanks for listening. And if you want to learn more about how to grow your own food brand, then click on Grow My Brand at vafoodie.com. If you're a lover of local food, then be sure to follow us. We are at @vafoodie on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Join the conversation and tell us about your adventures with good food, good people, and good brands.