Chesterfield-native (and Chaminade alum) Pete Kelly spent the better part of the past twenty years working in the global marketing industry, working for firms in St. Louis, New York and Chicago. In 2008 he founded his own marketing agency, Situ8, in Chicago. And this past year, Kelly founded Better Brands Beverage Co., a Midwest-based, for-profit company with a mission statement to invest in U.S. veterans through a line of American-made liquors, with $1 for each bottle sold donated to veterans' charities.
Its first offering, Salute American Vodka, debuted in Missouri on January 4 -- before hitting shelves elsewhere across the country. Made with corn and wheat grains grown in the Midwest, the 80-proof vodka's already been awarded a silver medal by the Beverage Testing Institute in its "Best Value Vodka $20 and Under" category.
Gut Check caught up with Kelly to learn more about the vodka, how it supports U.S. veterans and, perhaps most relevant our interests, where we can buy the stuff in St. Louis.
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Gut Check: Your background is in marketing. What spurred the decision to launch a line of liquor products?
Pete Kelly: In June 2011 I met some folks who had started a veterans' charity. They were looking for a way to raise funds to help women and men who come back from serving reintegrate into society. Find a job, go back to work, start a business, whatever it might be. I was doing some pro bono work for them and we came up with an idea: What if we looked at the Newman's Own business model -- the people who make salad dressings for charity -- what if we did that for veterans as the focus of a charitable contribution?
And I have a background in the spirits industry. I worked in marketing for a couple different major clients, so we started looking at that business model and that's how the whole thing started. We developed our first brand, Salute American Vodka.
GC: At the heart of your company Better Brands Beverage Co. is a focus on giving back to and supporting veterans. Did that influence product production?
Kelly: Two important things that we felt very strong about: One, everything has to be made in the U.S.A. If we're supporting our local economy, if we're supporting veterans, we've obviously got to be making the product in the U.S.A. That was the first thing. The second thing was being totally transparent with our contribution to charities. We looked at, should it be a percentage of profits...at some point that becomes nebulous to consumers. We drew a line in the sand and said $1 [a bottle goes to charity], forever. It's not a promotional window, it's not if or when we make money, it's $1 a bottle. That's what the business model is based on.
GC: Any significant bumps or lessons learned along the way?
Kelly: We spent almost two years in development. A lot of brands, when they come out, they'll buy a stock bottle. We didn't want to do that because the vodka category is so crowded, so we had to find something our own. We landed on the idea of doing a custom canteen. [The vodka] bottle is actually modeled off of a 1945 Army-issued canteen. We had it custom done and it's produced in Park Hills, Missouri. It's very hard to find glass manufacturers that actually produce in this country. It took us a long time to find the right partner to do it. Most of it is done overseas. That's a unique feature of the brand.
GC: Of all the spirits to choose from, any particular reason for choosing vodka?
Kelly: It's the biggest category, number one. It's the biggest volume category, it's the biggest revenue-producing category. Vodka has a nice male-female split. It doesn't skew hard one way or another. Whiskeys and bourbons traditionally skew a little more male, though that's changing a bit. We wanted something that would appeal to a broad group of people because we thought we could create our own little niche within a crowded category. The nice thing about vodka, too, is that it's very versatile. You can mix it with so many different things and make great drinks with it. Or, our product, you can drink straight on the rocks.
GC: Tell us a little about the veterans' charities that Salute American Vodka will support.
Kelly: Work Vessels for Veterans is one of our approved charities. We're making [a $25,000] donation to them on January 26. We selected a project with them that we're going to help fund. It's an organization called Veterans Farm in Jacksonville, Florida, founded by a veteran named Adam Burke. Adam started this farm two or three years ago, and we're helping him start his fourth farm in Jacksonville. He's basically teaching returning vets how to become farmers. They're going through what's called horticultural therapy. What they're seeing is when these men and women come out and spend time on this farm as part of a transition back, they're taking less medication. They have a core group of individuals to talk to and share challenges with. I've been down to Jacksonville a few times to meet Adam and spend time with him. They make their own blueberries. Their farms are actually making money, growing blueberries and datil peppers. It's a really neat story and we wanted to be a part of it. Help them continue what they're doing.
We're going to support Honor Flight St. Louis. Honor Flight's a great charity organization. They take World War II veterans back to Washington to the monument and memorial as a way of saying thank you. There are chapters all over the country that do this and we're going to be supporting them this spring and summer with some of their events.
GC: Anything else in the works for Better Brands Beverage Co. in the near future?
Kelly: We have two or three other products in development. The goal is to create a portfolio of products. We're looking at a bourbon next and a few flavor extensions on the vodka. There will be more products down the road, absolutely.
A 750 milliliter bottle of Salute American Vodka retails for $22.99, though cost varies by location.
It's available in bars, restaurants and locally owned liquor shops including the following St. Louis distributors: Harlem Tap Room (4161 Martin Luther King Drive; 314-531-2965), Sub Zero Vodka Bar (308 North Euclid Avenue; 314-367-1200), Randall's Wine and Spirits (multiple locations), Friendly's Sports Bar and Grill (3503 Roger Place; 314-771-2040), Bernie's Place (1100 North Taylor Avenue; 314-371-8479), Missouri Athletic Club (405 Washington Avenue; 314-231-7220), Brennan's (4659 Maryland Avenue; 314-361-9444), Sage (1031 Lynch Street; 314-256-1203), Mike Shannon's Steaks and Seafood (620 Market Street; 314-421-1540), McGurk's Irish Pub and Garden (1200 Russell Boulevard; 314-776-8309), Friar Tuck (multiple locations), Donatelli's Bistro (8623 Highway North, Lake St. Louis; 636-561-6966), the Wine and Cheese Place (multiple locations) and Lukas Liquor Superstore (15921 Manchester Road, Ellisville; 636-227-4543), among other locations.