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Community Highlights: Meet Sid Sharma of Mobtown Fermentation

Today we’d like to introduce you to Sid Sharma. 

Hi Sid, it’s an honor to have you on the platform. Thanks for taking the time to share your story with us – to start maybe you can share some of your backstories with our readers?
We started in the side of a Hampden juice shop in 2015. Our Wild Bay Kombucha and Icaro Yerba Maté can now be found in over 1300 stores in 10 states. 

Adam and Sergio’s family has been brewing kombucha for over 20 years. I (Sid) have been friends with them since I was 14 years old, and as far back as I can remember, their parents had a passion for fermented foods and sustainable living. Their home kitchen always felt more like a laboratory with food experiments constantly being performed whether it was making sourdough bread, pickling home-grown vegetables, or brewing kombucha. From an early age, they taught us the importance of fermented foods and holistic nutrition. 

In 2008, their parents moved to South America and left the kombucha brewing equipment with Adam. Missing the way drinking kombucha made him feel and the nostalgia of making it, he pulled out the equipment and started brewing. It didn’t take long for Adam to become obsessed with perfecting the family recipe that had been passed down to him. He started brewing multiple batches at a time and sharing it with friends since it was far more than he could drink himself. Before long, word spread about his kombucha, and he gained a loyal following amongst friends, family, and Johns Hopkins students. 

In 2012, Adam started to get inquiries from local shops to carry his kombucha but couldn’t fulfill those orders since he was still operating out of his home and his production would be put on pause intermittently for his career as a touring musician. After finishing school at the University of Maryland, Sergio moved in with Adam in 2014. It didn’t take long for him to start drinking kombucha every day. He quickly noticed the difference between Adam’s kombucha and their parents from years before and wanted to learn what he did differently. Before long they started brewing and talking about taking the business to the next level. 

I remember standing in my driveway in Durham, North Carolina in March of 2014 when Sergio called and started asking questions about price setting and sales projections. He told me that the kombucha market was about to explode and that him and Adam were planning to start selling. I told him I would take a look at the market and send over a pricing model to help them out. I honestly did not think about their venture much until I realized I would be moving back to Maryland for work. 

We got together in June to discuss the business and where it was going. At this point, I was still an outsider looking in. Sergio was adamant that I become a part of the venture, but Adam was unsure. After discussing what I would bring to the table and how it was the missing piece of their expertise, we were able to convince Adam to let me in on the action. 

We immediately started looking for space to brew. After visiting a few restaurants in Baltimore, we quickly realized that we needed to find an alternative since they lacked the storage space and level of sanitation we needed. Sergio lived up the street from a juice shop in Hampden and reached out to see if we could use a vacant portion of their space. We were in business. 

We would bottle and brew after work each week and meet with any local shops willing to listen to our pitch. We quickly gained a following in Hampden and Remington, and before we knew it people were asking for our kombucha throughout the city. Six months after starting we received a call from Whole Foods to carry our product locally. We were really rolling but were about to hit a major roadblock. 

The business we were subletting from noticed our rapid growth and tried to increase our rent by 300 percent overnight. She called and threatened to lock us out of the space the day before our first delivery to Whole Foods. Adam and I sped to the juice shop as fast as possible where we found a locksmith changing the locks. The business owner sarcastically asked us if we wanted to be locked out or in. We looked at each other and responded “Then lock us in.” We had to get that delivery to Whole Foods and were willing to pass cases out of the Fire Exit door to get it done. My Dad swung by with some sleeping bags and food for us so we could spend the night in the space. To this day, I do not know if the juice shop owner was frightened or inspired by our level of commitment, but she eventually called us back and we were able to negotiate on a more reasonable increase. We were on the shelves in Whole Foods. 

The next few months were all about winning in Whole Foods and finding a space of our own. Sergio or I were in Whole Foods Mt. Washington every day that first month to make sure everyone who shopped at the store knew who we were. We would pour samples and share our story hundreds of times a day, and quickly gained a following. Whole Foods gave us the credibility to enter hundreds of other cafés, restaurants, and grocery stores in Maryland. By now the juice shop had closed and we had taken over the whole space, but it was still not enough. We needed to find a larger production space that we could grow into. 

We looked at spaces all over Baltimore City, but they were all too large or not zoned properly for manufacturing. We finally stumbled upon a 3,500 square foot space in Timonium that had been occupied by Michele’s Granola. It was perfect. We walked through the space with the health department to make sure it would work, and they approved it. We were 3-4 weeks away from moving into the space when we were notified by the Health Department that they had misread the plans and though that we already had a ware wash room, a requirement for wet manufacturing. We had to build out another room, which required plumbing, equipment, and $30,000 that we did not have. 

We entered the Shore Hatchery Pitch competition, which had a first-place prize of $45,000. We had 5 minutes to convince a group of strangers to keep Mobtown Fermentation alive. I put together our presentation and script, and Sergio practiced all week on the delivery. We drive out to Salisbury University the morning of the competition and are one of the first groups to present. Sergio starts running through the slides and sharing our story with the judges when someone’s phone rings in the crowd. They fumble with their phone trying to silence it for long enough that Sergio can gather himself and pick up where he left off. We sit around for the next 4 hours chatting with some of the other competitors. At 3 pm everyone is called into the lobby for presentation of the prizes. 3rd place is announced, and it is a tech start-up. 2nd place is announced, and it is another tech start-up. At this point, we are skeptical since we are starting to see a trend. First place is announced, and it is us! 

We moved into the brewery at 9 W. Aylesbury Rd 5 weeks later and finally had the space to grow. We immediately upgraded from fermenting in glass jars to 80-gallon stainless steel wine fermentation tanks. We started focusing on markets outside of Baltimore and quickly realized the opportunity in other nearby cities. Annapolis had virtually no kombucha, and Washington DC was desperate for a local brand they could get behind. Over the next year, we continued to grow rapidly while serving local restaurants, cafés, and markets. In September 2017 we were able to finance our automated bottling line, and the whole game changed. The bottling line allowed us to sanitize, fill, bottle, and label 1300 bottles per hour, which previously took us multiple days. We were finally ready to compete with the big brands. 

Over the next 6 months, we started working with MOM’s Organic, Harris Teeter and expanded into 13 more Whole Foods stores. Our team grew from just us 3 to 8 people and we were quickly running out of space to ferment and store the finished product. We would have to physically climb over pallets to get to certain flavors in the walk-in refrigerator and roll 3-4 fermentation tanks out of the way to brew. We had outgrown our new space in just over 2 years. 

In March of 2019, we moved from the 3500 square foot space in Timonium to our 13,000 square foot facility in Baltimore. It was a leap of faith and a bet on our ability to win in markets beyond Maryland. Within 6 months of the move, we were approved for every Whole Foods Store in the Mid-Atlantic and every Giant in Maryland, DC, and Northern Virginia. We had established a strong reputation as the fastest-growing kombucha company on the East Coast but wanted to be more than that. 

We had been experimenting and taste testing several beverages beyond kombucha for years. We had made small batches of tepache, water kefir, fermented ginger beer, and probiotic root beer, but when we made our first batch of yerba maté, we knew that was it. Yerba Maté is a South American plant that is rich in caffeine, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory saponins. It allows you to get a mid-afternoon energy boost but still sleep at night. The other producers in the yerba maté market make their products with extracts and concentrates, while we brew with authentic loose-leaf ingredients. The difference in flavor is undeniable. We launched Icaro Yerba Maté in January 2020, but Covid-19 brought it to a screeching halt. 

2020 was all about survival for us. We had scaled up in anticipation of continued growth, but our sales stopped growing during the pandemic. Grocery stores were focused on getting toilet paper, bread, and milk to their stores, so our kombucha was often left sitting in their warehouse despite the shelves being empty in stores. From one week to the next, our sales dropped by 94 percent, where they would stay for the next 2 months. Eventually, once grocery stores were able to catch up, we saw sales climb to around 65 percent. We were fortunate enough to receive government aid to help close the gap and keep us afloat the rest of the year. 

Covid-19 forced us to learn how to drive sales in grocery stores without a physical presence. We leaned on marketing, bottleneck tags, and in-store promotions, and ended up just shy of our 2019 revenue. 

2021 has been all about re-launching Icaro and re-connecting with the incredible independent cafés, restaurants, and grocery stores that helped build this company. For years we had heard our smaller retail partners complain about how difficult it is to work with beverage distributors because of their large minimum order requirements. We wanted to not only work with the local shops but help them through this tough time, so we launched our own beverage distribution and started crediting any bottles of kombucha that expired for free. We called this project This Fridge Gives. Beyond delivering Wild Bay Kombucha and Icaro Yerba Maté, we now help fill our partners’ refrigerators with a full line of independently owned cause-driven beverages. We wanted our offerings to match the ethos of our own brands, so they all donate 1 percent of sales to different organizations and are a combination of organic, local, and woman/minority-owned. As a result of these efforts, we are expecting to grow by 70 percent this year. 

We have come a long way from the side of a juice shop in Hampden and are excited to see what the future brings. 

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
Our biggest struggle has been financing the growth. When you are consistently growing by 70-100 percent you are constantly spending more money than you are bringing in. A lack of demand is obviously detrimental to a business, but people don’t realize that rapid growth can be just as dangerous. 

I was 24 when we started the company, so we could not get funds from banks and the few CPG investors in the area turned us down. We have been extremely resourceful while working with community lenders and government organizations to fund our growth. 

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your business?
We are an organic health beverage manufacturer based out of Baltimore. We are known for our Wild Bay Kombucha and Icaro Yerba Maté. Our ability to create approachable tasting beverages using quality organic loose-leaf ingredients sets us apart. We are most proud of building a brand that gives back to our local community. You can find our Wild Bay Kombucha in Whole Foods, Giant, MOM’s Organic, and Harris Teeter. Our Icaro Yerba Maté can be found in Harris Teeter. Follow us on social media @WildBayKombucha and @IcaroTea. 

Alright, so to wrap up, is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
If you are a local maker or company looking for advice or direction, reach out!! We love to help other local businesses and share what we have learned from our journey and mistakes. 

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Image Credits
Baltimore Small
Peter Hoblitzell
Kristy Chong
Aphra Adkins

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