Talking Shop with Plain Spoke Cocktails

Born in the midwest

Three years ago, a canned cocktail startup reached out to discuss their naming and branding. They had worked with another agency, weren’t happy with the results and wanted to shift over to CODO for help.

Their story, two guys with 25+ years combined in the hospitality industry (most of it spent behind the stick). They loved cocktails and wanted to demystify the entire experience. They wanted to create a canned ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktail that would allow you to take the cocktail out of the snooty cocktail bar.

And if that weren’t enough, they had developed a compelling differentiator. Most canned cocktails use artificial sweeteners and citrus extracts to retain their bite over an extended shelf life. While practical, this creates a product with a slightly funky aftertaste (not to mention the chemicals ingested). Tom and Garrett developed a technique to incorporate real citrus into their cocktails while keeping it shelf stable—basically, it’s a genuine cocktail in a can.

This led to to their name, Plain Spoke Cocktail Co, and one of our favorite branding and packaging systems we’ve ever developed (all wrapped up in a dry, midwest aesthetic and voice).

Since that foundational work, Tom and Garrett have been making major moves, gaining a crazy amount of press and praise (that reaches far beyond their current Wisconsin/Minnesota footprint) and are on the brink of opening a distillery so they can better control their production process and provide a reimagined cocktail experience in a brick and mortar setting.

We recently caught up with them to discuss what’s changed since opening, how the canned cocktail industry has grown and what we can look forward to from them over the next few years.

Everybody, meet Tom.

CODO: Kicking off, please introduce yourself and Plain Spoke—how long have you been open, what type of product do you make, what’s your background, and why did you decide to open up shop? 

Tom (Plain Spoke): I’m Tom, one of the founders of Plain Spoke. We make canned cocktails that actually taste good and we do that by using real ingredients (lemon and lime juice for example) and they are spirit based—not a malt beverage because a margarita made with malt beverage isn’t really a margarita right? I feel like I shouldn’t have to use that as selling points in 2020 but there are so many substandard products that take shortcuts and using real ingredients is a differentiator. I was a bartender and ran cocktail bars for over a decade before starting the company so I’ve literally made thousands of Moscow Mules in my life. We knew people loved cocktails, but that there are tons of places people like to drink that aren’t necessarily fancy cocktail bars. The options for drinking well were basically to make them yourselves and we wanted to change that. So we really pride ourselves on a mission of accessibility. We are obsessed with making quality drinking more available to more people in more of the places they love to imbibe in.

CODO: We had talked about being consumer facing, but also targeting venues (sports / concerts) and bartenders as other possible audiences. How has this plan progressed or shifted since opening? 

Tom: Slowly but surely I think. Our best accounts tend to be places where events are the focus and this is a big push for us in 2020. Places that want to be able to serve cocktails but don’t have the time or focus to be able to train their staff, bring in all the ingredients and manage that inventory can use Plain Spoke to offer an authentic cocktail experience without all that hassle.

CODO: You were an early(ish) entrant to this category. Do you think a venture-backed group can come in make a huge splash in this space or have the leaders started to distance themselves from the competition? 

Tom: I think big money brands that see this as a growth category can certainly make a splash. You’ve seen that with CapeLine (Miller Coors) and High Noon (EJ Gallo) recently. These are massive brands who can turn on distribution overnight but whether or not they stay is a question. The thing big money brands lack is the authenticity of the product. They see this as a “growth driver” or any other number of buzzy words. But something that is born around a board room table is always going to ring hollow and I think that is what we have going for us.

CODO: How important is story to today’s cocktail drinker? 

Tom: See above haha. I think more than ever consumers are looking for brands they can believe in. We hear it all the time from our retailers. They love being able to tell a story to their customers and it makes it so much easier to get behind a brand.

CODO: Have you run into any challenges related to not having a brick and mortar location for people to experience? 

Tom: Definitely. Technically, we have one, but it’s at the end of a dead end road in the middle of nowhere and not an inviting, hospitable experience. Brick and mortar locations are a great way to let people continue to interact with the brand and also a center for innovation. That being said, we are looking to change that soon. Announcement forthcoming?

CODO: Related question: word on the street is you’re buying a distillery. Is that to own the entire production process or to provide a more immersive experience? Or, both? 

Tom: Yep, we closed on that in June. It was mainly to be able to own the process and not have to outsource it to others. We take a lot of pride in being able to tell people there is no flavor company or co-packer. We mix, can and create every cocktail ourselves in our own facility. The quality is better and it makes the process more authentic. It also give us the ability to ramp things up or zig zag a little as the opportunity provides. Lastly, we are able to take on contract work as well. We know firsthand how hard it is to launch a brand with a small budget so we wanted to be able to offer that to others and use the mistakes we made as a launching pad for others.

CODO: What’s the most surprising thing that’s happened since founding Plain Spoke? 

Tom: How hard making the shift from making one cocktail for a single guest to thousands of cocktails at a time has been. I always thought, we are just taking that experience and scaling it up but it’s so much more complex than that. It has been very fun, but a lot more challenging than we anticipated.

CODO: What the most exciting thing that’s happened since founding Plain Spoke?

Tom: That we exist? I say that somewhat in jest because we knew the drinks would be good but it feels like we are swimming with sharks a lot of the time. The canned cocktail industry is saturated with big money companies that have deep pockets and we certainly aren’t that. So the fact that our growth has been organic, through word of mouth and from person to person as they see that real cocktails can come in cans is so incredibly exciting.

CODO: What is the biggest mistake you’ve made so far? Or asked another way, is there anything you’d go back and do differently now that you’ve got some time in the market under your belt. 

Tom: We would have launched with all of the cocktails at once. We didn’t want to be just the Moscow Mule company so there was always more cocktails in the plans, but we thought lets get our feet wet and figure it out first. But having to go back in and make the same sale to our customers four times over is a lot harder than selling them all in at one time.

CODO: What role has branding and design played in growing your presence? 

Tom: It has been huge. In the lexicon of statements about our product, “I love the cans” is one of the top 3 we hear most often. It has certainly helped us stand out on shelves and keeps people interested.

CODO: If you had unlimited budget, what would you do / buy / invest in over the next year? 

Tom: I’m sure I’m supposed to say something flashy like open up distribution in 40 states and convince The Rock to be our  spokesperson. Honestly, it would probably be something boring like upgrade our equipment or purchase in bigger quantities to drive our supply costs down so we can keep delivering better value to our customers. I feel like that’s the most Midwest way I could have answered that question.

CODO: This is a perfectly acceptable answer.

CODO:  What’s your grand vision for Plain Spoke? 

Tom: To make quality cocktails more accessible and convenient to more people in more locations. I think that eventually means line extensions and different product lines. It is a great time to be in the beverage industry and there is so much innovation happening. So if there are ways that we can bring that mission to life we want to be able to do it.

CODO: Any book / podcast / website recommendations for people in the CPG / canned cocktail world?  

Tom: Other than the Craft Beer Branding Guide?? I read a book called From Good to Great by Jim Collins a little while back and I think it’s a really interesting way of narrowing your mindset and focus. We are always asking ourselves, what does this do for our core purpose and making decisions based on that so I thought that was a great book.

CODO: Agreed, it’s an excellent read. You should check out Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table as well (though I imagine you already have). Also, thanks—your check’s in the mail. Do you have any advice, branding or otherwise, for people who are considering opening a canned RTD company? 

Tom: Go to a million different places that sell liquor. Grocery, retail, convenience stores etc. Pick up products and turn them over, upside down. When you let so much wash over you, it really makes the things that stand out apparent. Then figure out what it is that stands out and what is inspiring/congruent with your brand. I look at places that sell alcohol in such a different way now.

CODO: When are you going to stop messing around and launch Indiana? 

Tom: What are you guys doing next Wednesday? Want to do it then?

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