Bootleg Bucha Busting Out of Buffalo

Buffalo, New York is well known for its sports teams, lakes, and chicken wings. Now a new kombucha company is looking to add fermented tea to that storied list and spread the “Buffalove” across New York state and along the East Coast.

Bootleg Bucha, founded in November, 2015 by the husband-and-wife team of Jeff and Heather Empric and business partner Todd Salansky, has been rapidly growing out of its physical constraints. The company has already moved twice, most recently upgrading from a 3,000 sq. ft.t facility to a 10,000 sq. ft. tap room and brewery where the company produces and sells 1,200 cases of kombucha a week.

In just under two years, the startup — which like many kombucha brands before it began as home brewing operation — has built a strong local following and has earned placement in about 100 New York and northern Pennsylvania stores, including Wegmans, Tops Market, and numerous co-ops. Speaking to BevNET, Jeff Empric, who serves as Bootleg’s president and CEO, said the company expects to triple its wholesale output over the next six months. Currently working with several small distributors, Bootleg Bucha plans to for the coming expansion to move along the East Coast, with a focus on expanding its presence in Pennsylvania presence and adding new distribution in Virginia and Maryland.

“We’re really focused on targeting some of the smaller level retailers and we’ve found some very strong niches across New York state and Pennsylvania have helped the business,” Jeff Empric said.

While the company does have several New York City accounts, Empric said the company is less focused on the major metropolitan hub, which he called unattractive due to high competition coming from more established kombucha brands. Instead, Bootleg is flourishing locally where kombucha is taking off among Buffalonians. Wegmans’ top selling location for kombucha, he said, is in Buffalo.

“Buffalo is a very young, hipster-centric city right now with a lot of growth,” he said.

At its tap room, located on Niagara Street, Bootleg has produced more than 40 unique flavors of kombucha to date. Through refinements in its brewing method, the brand has developed a milder, less-vinegar heavy flavor profile, which Empric said has helped bring in new kombucha drinkers who are often repelled by many brand’s sourness. The company even sells SCOBYs and kombucha starter kits for those looking to get into home brewing.

“One of our biggest successes is having a mild tasting kombucha,” said Heather Empric, who is Bootleg’s vice president of product development. “We’ve heard from people in the past who just remembered getting that apple cider vinegar flavor. But we wanted to make a drinkable kombucha for everyone, and I think that kind of brings in a whole new category of kombucha drinkers who bought that one bottle and never repurchased.”

The company currently offers seven 12 oz. SKUs for its retail partners — Blueberry Lavender, Cranberry Grape, Ginger, Hibiscus Lime, Pomegranate, Tart Cherry Mint, and a rotating seasonal variety (currently Pina Colada for the summer) — and there are plans to add three more flavors to the line in the coming months.

A growing keg business has also become a significant part of the company’s model, with 13 kegerators placed throughout New York state currently. According to Jeff Empric, keg sales have been “doubling month-by-month.”

But the next six months will be Bootleg’s biggest yet.

“You’re going to see us in a lot more locations in the next three to six months,” Jeff Empric said. “The fact that we’re under two years old, the velocity, the results we’re seeing across our market segments speak to the product and the brand that people are really enjoying.”