Spirited Tips Offered at Food and Beverage Conference


By Carlos Santos

There’s big money in booze. And beer. And wine. Especially if you build a brand, wrap it in a warm story and tell it from the old home place.

More than 250,000 whiskey lovers from 150 countries descend on little Lynchburg, Tennessee, every year to hear the Jack Daniel’s bourbon story.

“Brands in this business are cash machines,” said Lyons Brown (MBA ’87), the CEO of Altamar Brands LLC and member of the University of Virginia Darden School Foundation Board of Trustees. “A brand is a lot like you. A brand has character. A brand has personality. A brand has value. A brand has soul. A brand has essence. A brand has an emotional attachment.”

Think of the retail price of premium vodkas such as Grey Goose or Absolut.

Then, said Brown, remember that vodka is odorless and tasteless. That’s the difference between a brand and a commodity, he said.

Brown was the keynote speaker Friday, 1 February, at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business conference titled “Innovating the Consumer Experience: Trends Across the Food, Wine, Beer and Spirits Industries.” The annual conference is sponsored by the School’s Wine and Cuisine Club

Brown’s business distills and imports rare, craft spirit brands such as Right Gin, Tequila Ocho, Pierde Almas Mezcal and Kubler Absinthe. Prior to founding Altamar, he was marketing director for Europe and director of sales for the U.S. for Brown-Forman, which his family runs. He retired from Brown-Forman, makers of Jack Daniel’s and Southern Comfort, to become an entrepreneur.

“Does Jack Daniel’s have a soul? Oh yes. Jack Daniel’s has a soul,” said Brown, highlighting the importance of brands. “The reason Jack Daniel’s works so well is because it’s real. Lynchburg, Tennessee is real. The people there are real. The visitors want to wallow in the soul of the brand. So our motto at Altamar is ‘we market the truth.’”

Each of the spirits in his business portfolio has an astounding story about where it’s made, how it’s made and who mW.L. Lyons Brown III Speaks at Wine and Cuisine Clubakes it. “I want my story told so well it infects people,” he said. “You should too.”

Darden students, many of whom are interested in food and beverage careers, also heard a panel of experts hand out tips about careers in the industry.

Jason Alley, a restaurateur planning to open his third restaurant — this one in Charlottesville — said: “One of the great things about the food and beverage industry is that there’s literally a place for everyone. The universal trait needed is a really, really hard work ethic.”

Robert Cavanaugh, Adventure Wind founder and award-winning wine educator, advised entrepreneurs: “Don’t be afraid to take chances. Just take a deep breath. Be adaptable. You’ll find new sources of opportunities.”

Michelle Jones, Alley’s business partner, said of running a restaurant: “You’ll be part camp counselor and part janitor. Be prepared to be there every day, all day.”

In a series of small breakout sessions, students heard from Lee Susen, the marketing director at E & J Gallo, Jennifer Drapisch, the brand manager for Pernod Ricard, and from Hayes Humphreys (MBA ’11), the CEO of Devils Backbone Brewery.

Craft breweries are growing at a phenomenal rate, with more than 2,100 in the U.S. and more than 1,300 more planned. “There are an absurd number of people trying to open breweries right now,” Humphreys said.  His advice to potential craft brewers: “You should own your own town. But local is not a brand. If the only thing you can say good about your beer is that it’s local, you’re not making a good product.”

A cocktail reception followed the conference.

About the Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business is one of the world's leading business schools, offering MBA, Ph.D. and Executive Education programs. The unique Darden experience combines the case study method, the highest-ranked faculty whose research advances global managerial practice and business education, and a tight-knit learning environment to develop responsible and complete leaders who are ready to make an impact.

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