A celebratory cheers rings in Michela Byl’s home daily since her business baby, Rootside Provisions, was born. When her partner Quinn Palmer had a Moscow Mule that was subpar, the researcher was led to refine his drink by investigating the cocktail mixer – and found a market that was still seemingly lagging behind though craft spirits were hitting Vancouver’s drink industry hard. Michela was originally set on a future in fashion and business, having studied both and worked as a sales rep for some time, but the laid-back foodie couldn’t quite leave the service industry behind – she still works very part time at a restaurant – and she was as intrigued as Quinn. Investigating further, the waste alone was a sticking point for Quinn and Michela, who watched as bartenders poured half a bottle of ginger beer and set the leftovers aside, hopeful another drink order was to come, or otherwise dumping the carbonated bottle at the end of the evening. The two are now partners in business as well, as Rootside Provisions Ltd. produces craft mixers in concentrate form to elevate the cocktail experience for many patrons. Indulging in both classic and new drinks, the company encourages mixing premium and craft spirits with its ginger beer and two variations of tonic. Timing played a key part for the daring duo who entered a mostly unfamiliar industry, and with networking, hard work, and a passion for quality local ingredients the couple’s business has flourished. Michela is right where she wants to be, working in food and drink and interacting with a community – and business partner – she loves. Rootside is growing by the minute as distribution and sales have been brought on board, leaving these cocktail nerds to focus on adding to their growing family of products. Michela’s ability to tap into her talents, leverage skills originally destined for a different industry, and ask for help when needed has made running a business as a bright-eyed entrepreneur a reality she’s happily embraced.
Working with my everything partner, Quinn
Entertaining and connecting over great food + drinks
Travel has taught me to adapt to a million different situations
Setting a yearly personal goal - right now I’m learning French
“Everything happens for a reason”
These tough days are a necessary step when growing a business
Making physical strength a priority
Investing in my wardrobe allows me to feel like a badass babe
My morning ritual
I use my Leuchtturm 1917 notebook religiously
Tell me about Rootside Provisions.
We started the company about a year and a half ago. It’s myself and my partner Quinn Palmer who run it. Up to this point, we’ve taken care of production, branding, marketing and sales – the whole shebang. What we do is we make cocktail mixers – we have a ginger beer and two different varieties of tonic – and the unique selling point about our product is we make them as concentrates. With our ginger beer, for instance, you’ll use an ounce of our ginger beer mix, an ounce of vodka and then you fill the glass with soda water and a little bit of lime juice to make a Moscow Mule.
What inspired you to make cocktail mixers from concentrate?
We saw a gap in the market; restaurants were using ginger beer from the bottle, which meant they’d use half or a little bit less of the bottle at a time to make a cocktail. It would then sit on the counter and because it’s carbonated and left open, it goes flat. There’s a lot of waste with that; if they’re not able to use it during the night they just dump the bottle at the end of the evening. The whole idea with the ginger beer, which we started out with, was you could make it carbonated on-demand as you need it. One 750 ml bottle creates 25 cocktails, and there’s only one bottle to store instead of an entire flat of product. On top of that, we wanted it to taste better than anything else out there, so we use all really fresh ingredients.
Tell me about the ingredients.
In the ginger beer it’s fresh ginger juice – which we do ourselves – organic lemon juice, pink Himalayan salt, and we make our own cane syrup for a little bit of sweetness. It’s the same idea with the tonic syrups; I can get really detailed and technical with tonic for a minute if you like?
Please do! Also elaborate on why you decided to offer two variations of the tonic in addition to your ginger beer.
The thing that makes a tonic water tonic is bitterness, and that comes from an extract of Peruvian tree bark called quinine. That’s the recognizable portion of tonic and what distinguishes it from other sodas. Historically quinine has been used as an antimalarial. The British empire would steep this tree bark to extract the quinine and their troops would drink it when they were going to tropical countries. It didn’t taste very good because it was so bitter, so they added sugar, lime juice and finally their gin rations – and the gin and tonic was born!
A lot of tonic you’ll see on the market today tends to be sort of murky brown colour, and that’s because people are steeping cinchona bark to get the quinine out. Although this is similar to the historical process, we’ve found that it actually produces a lot of off flavours; you’re not getting that really dialed in bitterness. Also, when you make a gin and tonic it comes out a brownish colour rather than the clear drink we’ve come to expect – and optics can be important. Long story short, we’ve actually been able to source pure natural quinine. This means we’re able to control the exact amount of bitterness in our tonics and retain the clear colour as well. People tend to have kind of black and white opinions about tonic; what we found at markets was we had to really push people to try it, but they were very surprised at how good it is. It’s actually very drinkable compared to most tonics out there.
Along with the classic dry tonic, we developed the cardamom and citrus version, which has lavender from Vancouver Island in it that gives it a really pretty pink colour. It has lemongrass, orange peel and the spices – cardamom and coriander – and a little bit of sea salt as well, which all comes together nicely.
Just to clarify, you just add soda to the tonic syrups as well?
Yes, exactly. It’s the same as the ginger beer so use one ounce and add soda water to it – it’s about a five to one ratio. But then obviously the idea is to have it as a gin and tonic, so add the spirit in there, too.
How did you get into making cocktail mixers?
Two years ago my partner had a kind of brainwave; we were out for drinks and he had a Moscow Mule and wasn’t super satisfied with it. This lightbulb went off – he was all “how do you make ginger beer?” and that kind of started him down the rabbit hole. He started researching and doing some really rough initial product development and testing. Maybe six months or so down the road when he was ready to start producing and selling I came on board. That was a year and a half ago, and we were both able to devote most of our time to it with a little bit of working on the side for support as we got going. It’s now full on – we’re both working on it full time, which is very exciting.
I understand you also work very part-time at a restaurant, but you used to put in more hours. How’d you manage to cut back your hours there to give yourself time to pursue your business?
The timing was actually pretty good; Rootside was quite small scale when I was working closer to full time hours at the restaurant. It’s kind of been a balancing act but a fairly seamless transition – I’ve just gradually cut down my hours as the business has expanded. It’s been really great to have the flexibility a restaurant allows, like being able to get shifts covered when I need.
Is going out for cocktails something you two have always enjoyed?
Yes, that’s a big part of what we enjoy in life. At the end of the day this was a vehicle for letting us do what we really enjoy. For both of us good food and good drink and going out to new restaurants and trying new things is really near the top of our lists. Then it was ‘OK, how do we mold our lives so we can go around doing what we really enjoy doing?’ and that’s when we created this opportunity. We get to engage with the industry when we’re going around giving samples and learning and chatting with everyone in it. What we love to do is now our job, which is very cool.
When did you develop a passion for food and drink?
For me growing up, it was really important to try all kinds of different food. If my family was out for dinner and my parents ordered something that I didn’t like, I’d always have to try at least one bite of it. From there it was fine if I didn’t like it, but I just had to try new things as often as I could. It really opened my eyes; it got me out of just eating chicken fingers and fries. Between my family life and working in restaurants since I was a teenager, there was always wine around too, and so I learned to really appreciate it. I’ve always been immersed in the hospitality industry and I still love it. That’s overflowed into our relationship too; Quinn and I have always really enjoyed spending our time going out and trying new things over a great meal.
You preach that it’s important to source great ingredients for food, so it should be the same for drink. Can you elaborate?
You see this so much in the food industry: everyone is extra conscious of what they’re putting in their bodies and knowing where the ingredients came from. A lot of the time with cocktails people may be very particular about the spirit aspect – they know what they like to drink and they’ll spend upwards of $40-$50 on a local craft gin or vodka that they love. However, a lot of the time the mixer gets forgotten about and so you’re using what? A $2 Schweppes tonic or something mass produced with unknowable ingredients, most likely. Although there are some great tonics on the market, we really wanted to do make something where it was clear what the ingredients are and where they’re coming from; we wanted to take the aspects that people care so much about and extend it to the mixer. The idea is that if you’re spending that much on your spirit, why are you letting the mixer part slide? Elevate both, and you’ll have an even better drink in the end.
Cocktails seem to be making a bit of a comeback. Really classic ones especially, that our parents and perhaps even their parents drank. Do you think there’s some truth to that?
Absolutely. I think those old cocktails – Old Fashions and Negronis, for example – are popping up everywhere and it’s not just baby boomers who are drinking them, it’s a lot of younger people. I think that’s because the industry, especially in B.C., is expanding so much right now. Wine has been there for some time and now craft beer has really blown up; even gin in the last while in B.C. has seen a rise – I think it’s something like a 40 per cent increase in sales over the last year. With distilleries popping up all over the place and producing really great products, people are more inclined to try local offerings. I also feel that the industry, especially in Vancouver, has a lot of great young, interesting leaders coming to the forefront. I mean, Kaitlyn Stewart just won the Diageo World Class – crowned as the best bartender in the world – and there’s a number of other Vancouver contenders who have been in the finals for the last few years. It generates a lot of excitement, and people are responding; they’re exploring what’s out there and getting away from the classic import beer.
Putting the classic standards aside, are there any new flavour profiles or specific cocktails you’re excited about?
Lately we’ve been experimenting with mezcal. It’s an agave spirit and it’s quite smoky, so it’s kind of this interesting play between a scotch and tequila. It can be a little bit overwhelming, but if you get someone who knows how to make a great cocktail with it, it can be really cool.
What’s your favourite place to grab a drink in Vancouver?
Oh man, there are so many. Quinn and I go to The Diamond in Gastown a lot of the time just for cocktails. They have some really interesting ones there, a cool space and great bartenders. The Keefer Bar in Chinatown is amazing too; it’s this tiny narrow restaurant, and the décor is like it’s an old apothecary – almost creepy, but so cool, and they have great drinks. Then there’s The Shameful Tiki Room – it’s so much fun there you can’t have a bad time. They were actually our very first account; they use our ginger beer in a couple of their tiki drinks. I’d describe them as delivering a very immersive experience; you go in, there are full-on tiki decorations, shows every night, smoke machines and pretend thunder – it’s a lot of fun.
How has your business grown since starting a year and a half ago?
We’ve actually grown the most in the last six months – it’s really started to take off. It’s still just the two of us and, like I said, we do all the branding and production. We’re the ones that label the bottles, make the product, and fill everything. But scale-wise, a big batch for us used to be five cases of the larger bottles of the ginger beer; slowly, over last summer and fall, we’ve been expanding. We were invited in the spring to attend BC Distilled, which is kind of like a trade show where they also do a public tasting. It features distilleries from across the province and there’s opportunity to show off what you have in both the trade and public portions; there are prizes and everything too. We really wanted to be able to launch our second product – the tonic syrup – to coincide with the invite, so that happened last April. Additionally we’d previously only been doing the 750 ml – like a wine bottle size – for service, so we also launched a 375 ml retail size for both products at that time. That was our next big leap: two products, two sizes, and being able to go after the retail market. Since April, we’ve scaled our production a ton and added that third product – the classic dry tonic – for service and retail. We hooked up and joined forces with a really great sales agency, KIS Consulting, who has been doing amazing things for us so far. We’re also working with Direct Tap right now to handle all of our distribution. It’s great to partner with people who are experts in their fields; it allows us to take a step back and really focus on the aspects of our business that most benefit from our attention.
Where do you make your product?
We’ve been working with a local juicer and sharing their space since we started, but we actually moved together into a new facility in July. Production’s been ramping up – we just finished bottling 10 big cases, 28 medium cases and 75 small cases last Saturday – and I remember when 9 cases almost killed the two of us! Our warehouse is on West 7th and Manitoba, so just off Cambie Street, and the juicery is called Nectar.
How many places are carrying your cocktail mixers now?
We’re adding new ones every day, but by the most recent count we’re in more than 70 places in Vancouver, and actually, we’ve expanded outside of Vancouver now: we have a couple in Squamish and Tricities and a couple on Vancouver island too. With how well the the new sales agency has been doing I think we probably got three new accounts this morning alone! That was one of the great things about connecting with BC Distilled; we were able to expand and look for new accounts over a greater area now that we don’t do any of the deliveries ourselves.
So Rootside is growing daily; can you give me a taste of what the future looks like?
For now we’re continuing on with what we have. We’ve scheduled productions a couple months into the new year, which is the furthest we’ve been able to look ahead so far. Not only is our product shelf stable, so we can produce stock in larger quantities, but we’re selling continuously and so fast that it’s necessary to schedule production runs going into 2018. Along with that, we have a couple ideas for new products – we want to consistently think about how we can evolve on that front. I think it was Richard Branson who said something like when you’re feeling the pressure and feeling like you can’t do anything more, that’s when you need to expand. We’re taking that to heart and looking at what else we can do on top of the mixers we currently have on offer. So for the immediate future, we’re doing more of what we’re doing and developing the next product line to introduce, and then in the distant future maybe even the next company.
Do either of you have a background in food or something else that helped develop and refine your palates?
I’ve worked in restaurants a lot but always on the service side of things, and Quinn’s background is photo journalism, research and political science. So no, we’re not exactly educated in food – it was kind of just trial and error as far as getting the recipes down. For our tonic especially, many of the flavours that we’ve used are things that can be found in or complement some gins, so just knowing what we want our drinks to taste like kind of set us on the right path. Multiple recipe testing sessions, blind taste tests, and getting feedback from friends was also part of the process.
You’re an entrepreneur who actually studied the subject before launching a business. Do you feel it prepared you for the real world?
Yes, I did a BCom in entrepreneurship at UVic; I guess it was six years ago that I graduated. The funny thing is that although I’m running my own business now, I never really had the intention of starting my own company. I’m very risk adverse so even the thought of it was a little nerve-wracking. The program was appealing because it gave an overall sense of business in general. The fact that I’m using my education now is very cool and kind of unexpected; it’s definitely come in handy.
So has your educational background helped you in the work you do today?
Yeah, it definitely has to an extent. I actually took a different career path after school; I went into the fashion industry for a few years. In that and in what I do now there are similar aspects that are important – things like being able to think on your feet and figure things out as you go. I think that was one of the biggest takes – and also just customer service and networking; your relationships with people are really the base of any business. The program at UVic was particularly good at getting me comfortable and familiar with how to network and how best to extend courtesies, like following up with people to strengthen professional relationships. Plus, all the people I met during my time at UVic, including my group of friends from the program and all of their networks, have been invaluable as a resource base.
Tell me more about your background working in fashion.
Well, after I did my degree at UVic I decided to do a fashion merchandising diploma in Vancouver at Blanche MacDonald. I was on a career path going towards either buying or wholesaling – basically being a sales rep – and I did both of those things for a period. It was sort of perfect timing with Quinn getting Rootside started for me to leave fashion; we really wanted to pursue this business together and see where it took us.
Did you ever feel at all that you should stay on the path that school set you on? If so, how did you convince yourself otherwise?
The fashion industry was always where I’d seen myself going; I was definitely following the career path idea I’d had my whole life. Especially after I did the merchandising diploma, I was sure I was where I wanted to be. The only thing was, with my hospitality background I started realizing how much I enjoyed working in restaurants and how much I was missing it. Being social and connecting with food and drinks was something I really liked, so I sort of transitioned again. It was unplanned a little bit but I still felt quite flexible, like I wasn’t making be all, end all decisions. I still feel like that actually, like down the line I could potentially go back into the fashion industry, but for now I’m really enjoying this path.
What kinds of challenges have you met since you started the business and how have you dealt?
One of the biggest things is neither Quinn nor I come from a production background, so we literally had to figure out how to do everything as we went. From the research perspective it was figuring out who we need to talk to get the information we needed in order to create our business. It’s all about taking one step at a time and knowing that we’re able to figure it out – we’ve been able to so far – and then it’s just a matter of putting our heads down. As far as any other major challenges? I think day to day it’s just a matter of balancing, which is going to be the same with any business or startup.
What’s it like working with your partner?
The lines are blurred because we live together and we spend all of our time together. Then we have this business baby, as we call it, so it can be a little bit tricky and sometimes overwhelming too. That said, I definitely couldn’t be doing this with anyone else.
How have you managed to get through those moments where it’s felt tricky or overwhelming?
I think that the real bonus of working with my partner is we’re really good at picking it up quickly if one of us is getting overwhelmed or frustrated. We both know each other so well that we can kind of see it coming before that person really notices it themselves; it gives us a chance to turn it around for the other. Saying something like, ‘it’s fine, you’re frustrated – go take five minutes’ can be massively beneficial. I feel like if you’re working with a team that you don’t know quite as well and someone is frustrated, it can kind of leech in and get everyone frustrated or uncomfortable or mad. We don’t let it get to that point ever, which is great.
What do people not know about you?
I think probably what almost no one knows is that I’m actually an avid knitter. I taught myself how to knit when I was 16 on a family vacation. I was with my parents and didn’t want to talk to them – because I was 16 – so I decided to learn to knit. That’s my weird secret talent.
Do you have any advice for someone just finding self employment?
I feel like it’s all so typical. I mean there’s going to be very long days, and it’s difficult to stay positive sometimes and remember why you’re doing it. I think my biggest piece of advice is that you’re going to look back on this, and it’s going to be kind of comical – just keep on the path and keep moving forward, and if you don’t know the answer, there are million people you can ask to help you figure it out.