By: Forbes Elizabeth MacBride
Delta Dirt Distillery’s sweet potato vodka is strong – 86 proof – and it tastes somehow richer than your average vodka, rich like the soil of the Delta that grew the potatoes.
The bottles rolling out of the distillery in downtown Helena, Arkansas, represent the life savings, ambitions and idealism of a successful Black family. Harvey and Donna Williams grew up in neighboring Lee County. Both children of farmers, they met in high school.
With no jobs to be had, they left the community. The Arkansas Delta is one of the poorest parts of America, with poverty rates between one-third and one-half the population. Harvey, who has a degree from the University of Arkansas, worked his way up to become plant manager at Hillshire Brands, Tyson Foods, and now, Shearer’s Snacks, Donna followed his career. They have three children.
In 2016, they moved back to Arkansas because Harvey got a job offer nearby. Over the next couple of years, the idea for the distillery, well, fermented. Turning sweet potatoes into alcohol would be a value add for an already valuable crop. He researched, thought about it, and researched some more
Eventually, Donna told Harvey that if they were going to do it, now was the time.
Finally Donna stepped in, which is the role she often plays in their relationship. “Either we do it or we don’t,” she said. And the decision was made: They would do it. And they would do it in Helena.
They had both watched as the town they loved – they remembered it from trips into town, as children – had slipped further. Small businesses of the kind that draw tourists, like those who stop and wander the streets from the Mississippi river boat tours, or the 30,000 or so people that come once a year for the King Biscuit Blues Festival, had to be the answer.
Unable to get a bank loan (the distillery business was too unfamiliar, the banker said), they invested $900,000 to buy the building, build the still and invent the first batch. They recruited their youngest son, Thomas, to be the master distiller (he was just featured on the TV show Master Distiller).
The first bottles came out around Christmas and sold out within a day. These days, they’re regularly selling out of most of their inventory as they produce eight cases of vodka a week. And, they’re working with a consulting firm, Thoroughbred Spirits Group, to figure out how to expand.
Their advice for other innovator-entrepreneurs:
Seek to understand as much as you can about the business you’re investing in. “We visited as many distilleries – probably about 15 across the country — as we could find and went to conventions,” Harvey said. “The small craft guys were really willing to help us. We traveled, and went on the tour, and stuck around afterwards to ask questions.” Learning how the equipment worked was another part of that process.
Prepare for hurdles. You don’t know what all of them are, but do your best to figure them out. The federal and state regulations are a major hurdle in the spirits industry. Some local municipalities can be barriers, too, though the Williamses found Helena officials to be amicable.
Do a SWOT analysis. “That exercise helped us a lot.”
Be prepared to face the problems of innovation. The Williamses faced this in a couple of ways. Learning required traveling outside the state, for instance, because the comparable distilleries were elsewhere. They had to find contractors and in some cases bring them in from out of town, which raised the price. Not being able to get a bank loan was a blow, too.
Be patient. The timeline had to adjust and that became frustration. The faint of heart might have given up. “One of the things I find frustrating, is that the government requires you to buy all this equipment before they will even look at a license,” Donna said. “It’s almost backward.”
Keep the faith. “We believed: With the right knowledge, the right resources, and the right amount of time, we can figure out how to get through this, and overcome,” Harvey said.