We are officially in the thick of the holiday season! While our gatherings may smaller and closer to home this year, there’s nothing more festive than a quality cocktail or mocktail to make the season bright. With that in mind, we 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 gave them the inspiration to create their own line of simple syrups. And with just 18 months under their belts, their new brand is growing strong. We also talk about their process for sourcing ingredients, their methods for discovering and experimenting with new flavors, their minimalist ingredient philosophy, and more. Plus, Bill shares some tips for holiday beverages and gives us a rundown of the bartending staples you should always have in your home! Tune in for more with Megan and Bill and all your holiday cocktail needs!
Get to Know Bill & Megan:
Names: Megan Thomas & Bill Miller
Location: Richmond, VA
Years in the food industry: 9 years for Megan, 5 years for Bill
Favorite food: Megan’s is sushi, Bill’s is fried chicken
Least favorite food: Megan’s is licorice, Bill’s is Brussels sprouts
The last thing you ate and loved: We can’t agree on which of our recent roast chicken dishes was our favorite! Bill loved some jerk chicken thighs we made, and Megan loved a more classic preparation of whole roast chicken with butternut squash purée and roasted vegetables
Key Points From This Episode:
Bill and Megan introduce themselves.
More about Crescent Simples.
How their 2020 year has been going as a small company founded only in 2019.
They explain the concept behind a commercial kitchen: Hatch.
Megan shares more about their different products and flavors.
More about how the pandemic has impacted their business plan and growth.
We talk flavor inspirations, sourcing of ingredients, and their focus on buying local.
Cultivating the at-home bartender: Staples you should definitely have in your house.
Our philosophy and why we try to stay under 5 ingredients.
More about their anticipated project coming out in January 2021.
New seasonal flavors coming in for Spring 2021.
We talk about relationships with farmers and providers: The key role of farmer’s markets.
Bill shares more about their process of finding and experimenting with new flavors.
What inspired Megan and Bill to work in the food creator industry.
Where you can find Crescent Simples: Simple Syrups.
Links Mentioned in This Episode:
Click Here for Full Transcript:
Bill Miller 00:00:
Our biggest philosophy is creating those recipes, whether it be an original or a creative or something that we’ve come up with on our own, and giving people the recipe to do it at their house
Georgiana Dearing 00:09:
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 did they turn that recipe into a successful business,” then we’ve got some stories for you.
Georgiana Dearing 00:41:
Hello, foodie family. We’re in the thick of the holidays. While our gatherings may be much smaller this year and much closer to home, there’s nothing more festive than quality cocktail or mock tail to make the season bright. 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.
Georgiana Dearing 01:34:
Hi and welcome to the podcast. Could you take a moment and introduce yourselves to our audience?
Bill Miller 01:40:
My name is Bill Miller. I’m part owner with Megan Thomas of Crescent Simples Simple Syrups.
Megan Thomas 01:48:
And I’m Megan Thomas, the other side of Crescent Simples Simple Syrup.
Georgiana Dearing 01:53:
So where is Crescent Simples located?
Bill Miller 01:56:
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 of. We've been a business for a year and a half now, and have been really making strides as a small boutique simple syrup company.
Georgiana Dearing 02:14:
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 kind of exciting. You just had your anniversary I guess.
Bill Miller 02:26:
Yeah. It’s been really good. We've hit a lot of benchmarks over the last couple months, and it's been growing fast and at times feeling out of control. But I think that 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.
Georgiana Dearing 02:45:
Well, you talk about like 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?
Megan Thomas 02:57:
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 like July or August of this year — so we didn't have a kitchen anymore, and at the same time our website was kind of going nuts. Everyone was drinking at home and everyone wanted to like make cocktails, and so we sort of 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 like — this like 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's so many other small food businesses that we've made a ton of friends through there, and they also are able to kind of 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. That kind of gives us like space to pitch to those people and whatnot but yeah — so Hatch has been wonderful, but it's just the two of us working out of Hatch right now.
Georgiana Dearing 05:09:
Yeah, so I was going to ask a couple questions, and the first one was to explain like commercial kitchen, and I think you kind of 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 like co-packing for you. You're using someone else's equipment. Is that right?
Megan Thomas 05:30:
Right. So, Virginia Food Works was a co-packer but we still were 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 like bottling equipment. So we own the like 16-gallon containers that we boil the syrups in and all of the things that we use to do that.
Georgiana Dearing 06:03:
Yeah. Hatch is really interesting. I was down there I think it was the last summer, and they've got quite an operation. They've got all of those warehouses. They've got some people who've built out their own kitchen space inside there. They've got that food truck corral, I guess, where the trucks have access. That's really interesting. I’m curious. I was going to how do you like it but you said it was a blessing in disguise, so that's kind of cool.
Megan Thomas 06:35:
Yeah. Hatch has been great to us. And I mean, honestly, even down to like they had a reporter in there doing a news article about someone maybe like 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.
Georgiana Dearing 07:04:
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, you've got – How many flavors do you have? You have seven flavors in two sizes, so like 20, 14. I can't do math. 14 products.
Megan Thomas 07:25:
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 four and eight-ounce bottles, and then we also do 16 and 32-ounce bottles for food service, so like bars and restaurants. There was a lot more of that at the beginning of this year. There's a lot less of that now, but we work some with like breweries and distilleries and things like that and provide them with those.
Georgiana Dearing 08:03:
Wow. So you’re going — your website is direct to consumer and then you're doing retail channel into stores. I saw you had like 20 stores in and around Virginia on your website. And is there really one in Oregon?
Megan Thomas 08:20:
Yeah. We're on a fair marketplace, so sometimes I'll just get a random order from like some other state, and we just ship it out.
Georgiana Dearing 08:30:
Okay. Then you've got food service or what there is of it right now in 2020. It’s so sad but yeah.
Bill Miller 08:41:
Yeah. Since the pandemic started, we were working with a few bars and restaurants in Charlottesville. When the pandemic struck in mid-March, it really – Everything just closed. As far as wholesaling to those entities, that essentially cease to exist because they weren't operating in any way other than take out or delivery. And so, all other 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 we're trying to focus on that because with the pandemic you 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.
Georgiana Dearing 09:36:
Yeah. Their numbers are down. I mean, this year is the year of numbers like all over for the food industry.
Bill Miller 09:44:
Yeah. Especially with the pandemic, I’ve come to memorize all the different capacity numbers — like working in restaurants still we're at 25, so it's a really, really hard year, and we're just really thankful that things are progressing forward for us in a way for our business that it's really helping us.
Georgiana Dearing 10:05:
Yeah. That's – People are – You're talking about working, trying to cultivate that home bartender, and we see a lot of food and food businesses are turning right to the direct-to-consumer line because so much is happening online right now. You seem to be very, very craft for a craft food business if you're doing it all yourself, and you talk about making simple syrups. I mean, 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 kind of your sourcing, where that's coming from?
Megan Thomas 10:48:
Yeah. As much as possible, we do try to keep it in Virginia. We have a couple of like mainstays that are always flavors that we have and then we have some seasonal ones. So like, for example, our peach hibiscus is only made from Chile’s Orchard peaches, and we bottle that at the height of 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. 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 like the berries go, like 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 about like – well like Cavalier Produce always has anything you would be looking for that is available, you know. But if they can get it locally, they are getting it locally. Then 4P does a lot of sourcing, so like grapefruits and limes and lemons, like they 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. We just sort of rely on those two companies to fill in the gaps when we're not able to source locally.
Georgiana Dearing 12:26:
That is one thing that American consumer expectations. We’re so used to having everything that people want that grapefruit even though it's not here. But what a great philosophy to be able to work with partners who can kind of keep that smaller farm smart or direct-to-farm path for you. [inaudible 00:12:48].
Bill Miller 12:49:
That's the goal.
Georgiana Dearing 12:52: So you talk about cultivating that home bartender. Tell me what things would you tell them to do. What should we have as staples in the house?
Bill Miller 13:01:
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 or 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. All of our flavors are based around really simple recipes.
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 an original or a 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 of 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 like creating cocktail recipes.
Recipes that we're looking forward to, like right now, we posted a Hot Toddy the other day, and it's super simple. All you need is all the basic ingredients for every cocktail, and that is a liquor, a sugar, and a lime or a citrus. 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.
Georgiana Dearing 14:45:
That sounds delicious.
Megan Thomas 14:48:
Bill’s really good about – 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 mezca. You can create from there, and all you're going to need is our syrup and some lemon or lime juice and then maybe like some basil or mint or something like that. He really likes to keep things simple. Like you said, on our Instagram and on our website we post a bunch of recipes we never have like cocktail pictures and stuff that don't have the recipes in them, so we're always trying to kind of provide that like you don't need to have some like blackberry liqueur that you can't find. You can just have a very simple home bar and make something delicious.
Georgiana Dearing 15:37:
Well, that's great. Do you have like gift packs or starter packs on your site or planned to kind of get somebody started?
Megan Thomas 15:46:
Right now, we do not have a gift pack. We are in the process. So we're really excited at the very beginning of 2020. We have been working on a project for the last like six months, working really hard, putting everything that we have into it with Watermark Design in Charlottesville, which is a design firm who focuses on like alcohol-related products. So they do like wine and beer and things like that. We’ve been working on a project with them for a long time, and that's coming out in January, and that will be like 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 in the next year.
Georgiana Dearing 16:35:
Okay. So stay tuned for something exciting because you've been heavy in product development. All right, that's exciting. What about new flavors. Do you have any new flavors coming in? You said the chamomile was probably going to go out. Is there something coming in on for winter?
Bill Miller 16:56:
As far as winter goes, we have been working really hard with watermark. Like 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. It’s going to be a lot of fun this coming year for us, especially if we're ever getting out of the pandemic.
Georgiana Dearing 17:26:
Yeah, 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?
Megan Thomas 17:48:
We are still selling at farmer’s market, and so I think the biggest way that I create those relationships with those like farmers and make sure that they have enough to provide for us is just meeting people at the farmer's market. Chile still sells at farmer’s market and Agriberry still sells at farmer’s markets. So that's pretty much where I’ve met everyone. Even like down to the lemon chamomile was a flavor that we created because there was a farmer at the market who was throwing fresh chamomile flowers and I was like, “Okay, let me take some of those home and see what we can do.”
But, yeah, so we just meet people there and just kind of take things home and play with them until we find a recipe that we're really happy with. But honestly, like we run through it like 20 times with different variations of it before we release it. So by that time, we can usually like talk to the farmer and kind of figure out what they're able to provide and how big or small batch we need to be with it.
Bill Miller 18:48:
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 the product testing is months long processes 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 like 25 bottles of simple syrup in it.
Honestly, we're probably going to wind up gifting away or dumping most of it, but it's syrup that we're trying new things. There's new flavors. There's 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. It’s a tedious process. But once we feel like we've hammered down a recipe, it's 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 it might make a comeback later on because it's one of my personal favorite flavors.
Georgiana Dearing 20:17:
Well, you sound like, I don't know, part alchemist, part – I don't know. All the 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 to be this kind of food creator?
Megan Thomas 20:46:
We did. Neither of us had parents who were necessarily like great at cooking or anything like that. I think we both kind of fell into the food industry out of like a 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.
So when I landed in New Orleans, I was bartending there and I just loved like creating those relationships, whether they were like regulars who came to see me once a week or it was tourists from all over the world. It’s a really, really fun job, and that kind of 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 to make drinks and just have a good time. For us, like what we're doing now we wouldn't – We couldn't be happier, just messing with recipes and making cocktails and talking to people about cocktails. It’s a dream come true.
Bill Miller 22:17:
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. 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.” I’ve always had a passion for food and beverage. My grandparents had a restaurant named in 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. So landing in New Orleans and 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 started political science. So with that, I started studying people and interactions and understanding how the communication system works with all sorts of 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. I think that like 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. 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.
Georgiana Dearing 24:33:
Well, where can people find you, and so they can find these great recipes and ideas and buy your syrups?
Megan Thomas 24:42:
We're at crescentsimples.com and then we're on Instagram and Facebook as well @crescentsimples. Then we are also at the Richmond GrowRVA Bryan Park Market every Saturday. Something we're really passionate about is getting people access to the product 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 for you usually either that day or the next day. That’s a great option for like if you're trying to do some kind of having a drink with some people or virtual happy hour these days like people do. We're able to get it to people pretty quickly.
Georgiana Dearing 25:34:
That was code RVA and that takes shipping off for Richmond residents.
Bill Miller 25:40:
All of Richmond's customer service is such a huge thing that people appreciate so much and ringing 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 they're going to remember us by.
Georgiana Dearing 26:03:
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.
Megan Thomas 26:12:
Thanks for having us.
Bill Miller 26:14:
Yeah, thanks for giving us this opportunity. We really enjoyed this.
Georgiana Dearing 26:17:
Thanks for listening. 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’re @vafoodie on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Join the conversation and tell us about your adventures with good food, good people, and good brands.