When life gives you lemons, make lemonade; when life gives you limes, make ginger beer so amazing that it’s sold at Whole Foods. We’ve talked to Karl Franz Williams, the founder of Uncle Waithley’s small batch ginger beer company, mixologist, and owner of the famous cocktail bar, 67 Orange Street, in Harlem, about the challenges he faced as a black entrepreneur and business owner, the phenomenon of “liming” in the Caribbean culture, and how compassion and seeing the glass half-full can be the driving forces helping overcome immense obstacles on the road to success. Sit back and prepare to Lime!
First off, tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from and what has been your professional path before Uncle Waithley's?
My name is Karl Franz Williams and I am the founder of Uncle Waithley's Beverage Company. I grew up in Brooklyn, NY and Hempstead, NY before going to Yale to get a degree in Electrical Engineering. After college I worked in Brand Management, Marketing, and Innovation at Procter & Gamble and then Pepsi. In 2008, I left the corporate golden handcuffs behind to try my hand as an entrepreneur. I have opened four restaurants/bars since then. My two current concepts are 67 Orange Street in Harlem and Anchor Spa in New Haven, CT. My bars are known for their excellence in mixology. In 2021, 67 Orange Street was picked one of the top 27 bars in America by Esquire Magazine.
Your ginger beer has lime built in it, and we know that LIME means a ‘chill vibe filled with laughter’ in Caribbean slang. Was that part of why lime ended up in the recipe or did you make the connection later? Is it uncommon to have lime in ginger beer recipes?
When I developed the recipe for our ginger beer, I was looking to create balance with all of the ingredients we were using in the same way one would create a great cocktail. While citrus is commonly used in ginger beer, I was really setting out to use it as a natural preservative and as a way to keep all of the great flavors in our ginger beer in perfect harmony. It was only after we started talking about it amongst ourselves while hanging out did we draw the connection between the cultural phenomenon of "liming". It was the perfect metaphor for our brand.
We live in the world where each brand and product has to tell a story to be successful; however, the food and beverage industry has its own peculiarities, as the product has to taste good, and you can’t fully build it off of a creative idea, however riveting the story. To which extent do you think we can let the idea shape the taste these days?
I think that when you are building a product in the food and beverage world, you are actually looking to take people on a journey. This journey can be just flavors, but it can also come from your experiences. Growing up in a Caribbean household where we made ginger beer and other natural beverages I knew what an authentic ginger beer should taste like. But I also saw the opportunity to share my family's story and to inspire our consumers in a special way.
You say that as a small batch company, your team gets to personally inspect each and every fruit and root that passes through your kitchen. Where do you source your ingredients and what’s the criteria to decide which limes and peppers would make the cut?
Someone from our team is watching the entire time as the fresh ingredients are hand sorted to remove any bad pieces. A bad piece would be one that is spoiling, damaged, overripe, or moldy. We then wash, cut, and press. The process is labor intensive, but it's worth it to get the best tasting ginger beer possible. We only use organic Peruvian Ginger which gives our brand its bright inviting color. We source our ingredients from well regarded natural food purveyors so that we feel confident that we are getting the best product.
We'd love to take a moment to honor your grandfather, Uncle Waithley. What can you tell us about him? What would he think about what you're doing today with the family recipe?
My Grandfather, Uncle Waithley was an incredible man. He was a farmer who worked the land, living his life on our beautiful St. Vincent. He grew bananas and other vegetables. Health and well-being were very important to him. He also believed in self-reliance and being the best person one could be. He lived to be 100 years old and was married once to my Grandmother. Together they had 13 children. I remember always being in awe of my Grandfather. He was a small man in stature, but a powerful man in every other way. I can still see his six pack abs which he had well into his 70s.
Let's talk about Black-owned businesses in the beverage space. Besides the obvious impediments racism poses for people of color to be business owners in general, are there obstacles you think are particular to this industry?
The beverage business is ultimately about scale. In order to compete you have to be priced competitively. But getting to that pricing means buying in bulk which takes capital. When it comes to production, you could build a facility yourself which is very expensive, or you can find a co-packer. However, most co-packers with the equipment who know how to make all natural carbonated products like ours require high minimum orders which again require large amounts of capital. Bottom line, to succeed in this business you need access to capital and lots of it. This is a huge problem for black entrepreneurs whose family net worth is 10x less than white entrepreneurs. In addition, you need to get in front of buyers and you need to get distributors to take a risk with you. This access is often reserved for people who have the connections to get into the right rooms. This is once again a challenge for black entrepreneurs.
You’re the owner of a famous cocktail bar 67 Orange Street, first of its kind in Harlem. Was it more or less challenging to open a bar as opposed to the beverage company?
The bar and restaurant industry which is a service based industry is very different than the manufacturing industry. There are unique challenges specific to each that don't necessarily cross over. I'm still learning as I build Uncle Waithley's, but I do think it was harder to open 67 Orange Street. The main reason is because I was at the forefront doing something that really hadn't been done before. I opened 67 Orange Street in the early days (14 years ago) of the mixology movement. There were no similar bars for miles around. I had to basically build an entirely new market and teach people about what I was doing, while trying to survive the challenges of the Great Recession of 2008/9 (no access to capital, stalled neighborhood development, and lower consumer spending). It was a long hard journey that I only survived because of my passion for what I was doing and my commitment to keep learning.
With such a well thought recipe that you inherited from your grandfather, you really got to capture the essence and spirit of St. Vincent and the Caribbean with your beer. Are you gonna remain a one product company or do you have scaling in mind?
Well actually the recipe is inspired by my grandfather and my father who always made great natural beverages for us to drink. I learned how to mix ginger with citrus, why it was important to let the ginger rest, and how important the water was. These lessons gave me the tools I needed, along with my knowledge and experience in mixology, to make this great tasting ginger beer. I also had some great help from one of my bartenders and one of my chefs who both brought ideas to the table that helped enhance the recipe. Going forward I'll continue to use this formula to bring additional great flavored beverages to the market. Our next flavors which we hope to introduce early next year will also be Caribbean and built on our Ginger and Scotch Bonnet base.
If our readers would like to stop by 67 Orange to try some of the Uncle Waithley’s-infused drinks you offer, could your recommend your go-to cocktail/food pairings?
My favorite drink to recommend at 67 Orange that uses Uncle Waithley's is the Hedonist. It's a great blend of rum and spices including curry and finishes with Uncle Waithley's. It's delicious and refreshing and unique and pairs nicely with our menu. Another very popular option is the Caribbean Mule, which pairs Uncle Waithley's with Fig Vodka.
You mentioned that you always have someone on your staff who was formerly incarcerated; we love that and we think that speaks volumes about you. Tells us more about that decision and its affect on your business.
As a black man growing up in Brooklyn and doing business as an adult in Harlem, I experienced first hand how the combination of lack of opportunity and resources created immense challenges. I also saw the over policing and over incarceration of black men. When these men got out, they faced even greater obstacles to living successfully, which sometimes led to recidivism. I felt it was my responsibility as a business owner to be a part of the solution by creating opportunity for men who look just like me, but didn't have the same chances.
Our motto at Boisson is to see the Glass Half-Full. How has your approach to being a business-owner allowed people, be it your customers or your employees, to see the positive?
One of the greatest things about being in hospitality is that you get to make people smile every day. You get to create an experience that improves their lives, even if temporarily. With Uncle Waithley's we get to share even further and with more people. We provide a healthier alternative to regular soft drinks. And we get to showcase the rich culture of the Caribbean, and particularly of my beloved St. Vincent. I constantly encourage my teams to see life as filled with opportunities to learn, grow, and of course, to Lime!