Brian Burkett-Thompson heard the lyrics “4,800 boxes” and shook his head, marveling at how his local beverage business was about to take off.
Burkett-Thompson made the remark as he sat this week at a conference room table at Unicorr Packaging Group on Sackett Point Road in North Haven minutes before the first batch of boxes of fresh fruit flavored Gorilla Lemonade were due. starts on the crafting floor one level below.
“It’s happening,” Burkett-Thompson remarked.
Along with partner Kristen Threatt, Burkett-Thompson launched the New Haven-based lemonade line earlier this year as part of their Eat Up Foundation. The association aims “working with people and organizations in our local community to help feed those in need.
For six weeks this summer, the Unicorr design team transformed a local artist’s depiction of Gorilla Lemonade, hand-drawn in Sharpies on one side of a cardboard, into a design that matched both to Eat Up’s vision and Unicorr’s manufacturing parameters. Now, with boxes ready and distribution deals in place, Gorilla Lemonade is about to hit stores statewide.
Since its founding earlier this year, Gorilla Lemonade has taken New Haven by storm, with celebrities and public officials singing its praises.
The plan, Threatt said, is to make Gorilla Lemonade a global phenomenon, with 50% of every bottle sold going to the Eat Up Foundation to support its initiatives, including backpack drives, Thanksgiving food drives for the homeless and Christmas toy drives. .
“We’re going to give the world a taste of New Haven and help our city at the same time,” Threatt said.
Make change with lemons
Gorilla Lemonade was born out of repeated customer requests to serve drinks with dishes from the duo’s Eat Up Catering business, which features Italian-inspired soul food.
“Many of our customers have told us they love lemonade,” Threatt said. “So Brian walked into his kitchen and worked his magic, and here we are.
They chose the gorilla as “symbol of strength, intelligence and gentleness, a particular combination too rare in the world. We are strong African-American black men, but also respectful of the needs of our people. »
On February 25, they launched the Gorilla Lemonade beverage line in lemon, pineapple, strawberry and blueberry flavored bottled drinks at Andalouse Freshop on Howe Street. It took off, with sales in the first three weeks approaching 3,000 bottles, according to Threatt.
The following month, Andalouse owner Ammar Chekhess donating all profits from lemonade sales to Eat Up, Threatt and Burkett-Thompson used the profits to help a woman displaced by a fire. (Click here to listen to an interview with the duo on WNHH FM that the business took off.)
An endorsement from food critic and TV personality Daymon Patterson (Daym Drops), Netflix star “Fresh, fried and crispy,” followed. When Phillys Cheesesteak opened on Chapel Street in June, Mayor Justin Elicker was photographed quenching his thirst with a bottle of Gorilla Lemonade. Then came a letter from US Representative Rosa DeLauro. “Your drink could end up being the hit of the summer,” she wrote.
In the midst of it all, Threatt and Burkett-Thompson were working to spread lemonade on a larger scale.
“We haven’t missed a beat,” Threatt said. “We were pushing for everything to fall in August, but we were also learning that it takes time to do something good.
Early in the summer, they met Joe Evans at Norwich Beverage Company, a juice maker in Norwich.
“Joe understood our vision right away,” Threatt said. “He told us what we had to do to get to the store shelves.
They followed his advice. Soon after, they signed with Jogue, Inc., a full-service flavor company based in Plymouth, Michigan.
“The biggest challenge for a small operation like Gorilla Lemonade becomes: how do you scale in a way that you can take this product from something you make in your kitchen to something that can be on store shelves? said Rick Gienapp, regional account manager at Jogue. “This is where we come in.
The ingredient samples that Jogue sent back “tasted very natural,” Threatt said. “Even more natural than when we were doing it from Brian’s kitchen.
After going with Label One to Old Saybrook, on Evans’ recommendation, for bottle labels, the duo contacted Unicorr. “Joe also hooked us up with them,” Threatt said.
The first meeting with Unicorr took place on Thursday, July 7 at Maison Mathis on Elm Street.
Before this date, “we knew we wanted a certain look for the box,” Threatt recalls. “We needed to have something to show them.
A few days before the meeting, he and Burkett-Thompson contacted longtime friend Tyreece Gary, a graphic designer from New Haven’s TLG Artistic talent. The three attended the same church, United House of Prayer for All People, and played in a band, “The Kings of Harmony”, for years.
“Kris had a box with him,” recalls Gary, who designed the Eat Up logo and label on the bottle of Gorilla Lemonade. “He said he was going to meet some people in a few days and needed a drawing. He told me to take this brown box and go crazy.
Switch between Sharpies and Prismacolor markers, “I drew everything on this brown box,” Gary said. “The ideas just came to mind. I tell myself : ‘Finish the preliminary sketches and the gorilla the same day’, and the next day I colored everything else.
Threatt was delighted. “I was like ‘brother, man, what? “, he recalls. “It was beautiful.”
At the meeting with Unicorr later that week at Maison Mathis, Threatt presented the box to Lindsay Mondrone, the company’s commercial accounts manager.
“A work of art,” she recalls.
Mondrone brought the box back to the design team at Unicorr.
“Everyone was impressed,” Mondrone said. “For them to have a local artist to give them something they normally don’t have to work with was awesome. The challenge was how to fit it into a box with all of our production settings. »
Further meetings took place at Maison Mathis, with Mondrone working with the Eat Up guys on fonts and colors, and producing ever more refined versions of Gary’s design.
“Working with Lindsay was amazing,” Threatt said. “From the start, she and her team understood our vision.
In mid-August, Mondrone texted everything was ready to go. The first round would take place on Monday, August 29.
Usually when Threatt and Burkett-Thompson are together, Threatt talks. But Threatt was due to work on Monday, so Burkett-Thompson regaled the group with stories about his late father inspiring him to get into the kitchen, about his plans to go to culinary school to learn how to train children to cook. .
Unicorr COO Nick Perkins, who represents the third generation of the family business, discussed partnering with Eat Up on the road, specifically for their Chili Cookoff contest and hot meals and snack packages. Thanksgiving care.
“We can get creative,” he told Burkett-Thompson. “We can provide you with what you need to convey all of this to people.
Lead designer Gary Lenkeit described the challenge of translating artwork hand-drawn with an eight-color Sharpie into an image they could mass-produce on boxes.
“We photographed the box and redesigned the artwork,” said art director Mark Stetson. “We’ve tried to pay close attention to the art style and made sure the original artist is credited on the board.
Threatt’s impulse to produce an eye-catching box was perfect, according to sales manager Bernie Baszak.
“Boxes have become much more of a marketing tool,” he said. “It used to be how you got the product from here to there and now people are putting them right on the shelves at Home Depot, Lowe’s, everywhere.
At that moment, Mondrone’s phone beeped. “They are ready for us,” she said as she handed out earplugs and offered safety glasses.
From there, there was a flight of stairs down to the fabrication shop.
“Speechless,” Burkett-Thompson shouted to members of the Unicorr design team over the roar of machinery, as vertical stacks of boxes printed with Gary’s Gorilla Lemonade pattern paraded along a carpet. rolling with quick, vibrant precision. “I feel like I won the lottery.
The day after he looked at the printed boxes at Unicorr, Burkett-Thompson picked up the Label One bottle labels and dropped them off at Norwich Beverage.
The first production run is scheduled for September 8.
“We will mix the formula according to their instructions and pasteurize, chill, bottle, label and crate them and return them to them,” Evans said.
Meanwhile, Threatt was meeting Robert Ellis and Reorn James from LUNCH Logistics in Hamden. The plan is to pack their trucks and vans with the neon yellow Gorilla Lemonade graphics, fulfill their pre-orders, and then, in the coming months, head south.
“What’s dope about this lemonade is that everyone involved wants to be a part of it,” Threatt said. “Everyone feels our passion.