Mindy and Brian are the founders of RumJava, a brand that has a story to tell. With their love story being the inspiration to launching the business, its hard not to fall in love with them as much as you will with their product.
Here, we spent some time with Brian finding out more about how they overcame adversity, came out of a life threatening hurricane stronger than ever and what their plans are for the future…
Tell us about the journey that lead to you launching Rum Java?
Our story is a bit of a love story. Mindy and I love to travel, share experiences and make memories. Early in our relationship, in 2002, Mindy and I went on holiday together to the island of St John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. As we were falling in love with each other, we also started falling in love with St. John and its Caribbean culture. In 2003, we were engaged on a sailboat just off St. John and in 2004, we were married on St. John’s idyllic Turtle Bay Point.
St. John is a very special place to us. Two thirds of the island is reserved national park and, at that time, there weren’t any cell phone towers which made it a perfect place for us to truly escape from cell phones, laptops, and our very busy corporate lives. It became our special respite where we could completely relax and focus on one another.
Over the next nine years, our love affair with St John continued as we invested in property and found more and more reasons to spend time on the island. Ultimately, we decided to put down roots and we created a boutique gift and gourmet shop that also offered personalized concierge services and our very own Java’Mon coffee. Our goal was to help island visitors create memories and fall in love with St. John just as we had.
What inspired us to create our own coffee company?
During our many visits to St John, Mindy who loves her coffee, could never find a good cup of coffee on the island. To address this challenge, when we opened our store we decided to also open a coffee shop. It was a perfect opportunity to solve Mindy’s problem and we thought if she missed her coffee so much, other people would as well.
When we couldn’t find good beans to use in our coffee shop, we decided to learn how the coffee business works which resulted in us sourcing our own beans, creating our own unique coffee blends and creating our very own Java’Mon Coffee!
Java’Mon Coffee represents the combination of three passions, my love for Reggae music, our love for the Caribbean and Mindy’s love for coffee. On the island, Java’Mon Coffee was a run-away success, immediately. Given our goal to help people curate lifelong memories, we created and named coffee blends after our favourite places on the island. Soon, our coffee could be found in our shop, in hotel rooms, in local grocery stores, in local bars and restaurants and online.
So how did Java’Mon Coffee lead to RumJava?
Ironically, though Mindy has this amazing passion for coffee, I don’t drink coffee. I do however love rum. Mindy loves coffee but doesn’t drink rum.
The quest to find a way to create a cocktail we could actually enjoy together began.
We started with a vanilla rum-based espresso martini we call Mahtini’Mon. We partnered with local St. John bars and restaurants who served our Java’Mon coffee and were all too happy to serve a cocktail recipe we crafted using our Java’Mon Coffee Espresso. We cross promoted our coffee shop with the local bars and restaurants and it was a huge success. As we enjoyed our cocktail however, we noticed how much inconsistency there was in terms of both ingredient supply and in some cases the ability of bars to execute the cocktail.
One day in August 2016, we were sitting on the beach discussing the success of Java’Mon Coffee, the popularity of our cocktail, and the supply chain issues faced on an island such as St. John. We really wanted a consistent, high quality spirit which we could enjoy together and knew if we created one, our partner bars and restaurants would serve it, we could sell it in our store and we could certainly enjoy drinking it ourselves.
We began the process of learning about how to create a spirit.
We knew it had to be rum, we knew it had to have coffee, and we knew, coming from an island that is two-thirds reserved National Park, it had to be as sustainable as possible and made with all-natural ingredients. We also knew it needed to be well balanced. We wanted our rum to taste like rum so I would enjoy drinking it neat or on the rocks, but it also couldn’t be too strong or Mindy wouldn’t enjoy it. We wanted the coffee flavour to come through for Mindy but couldn’t be too strong or I would not enjoy drinking it. We set off to create the perfect balance.
We started the process by filling mason jars with a base rum and infused Java’Mon Coffee beans. We experimented with the number of beans and the length of time they sat in the rum and then added other natural flavours to achieve just the right balance.
We use high quality molasses from sugarcane grown in the Florida Everglades. After fermentation, our rum is distilled twice in a pot still with a copper column. A reclaimed, ionized water is used to lower the proof and we add freshly roasted coffee beans for at least 30 days to extract both colour and flavour. We use a different blend of beans depending on the flavour profile of the rum we are producing. The beans once extracted are dried and used for other things like making dark chocolate bars. We add other natural flavours, filter, hand bottle and hand seal. The end result is an extremely quaffable spirit appealing to a very wide demographic. RumJava is enjoyed neat, on the rocks, shaken and stirred in amazing, unique cocktails.
Another way to look at our quest to create RumJava; we wanted to create a spirit we could enjoy together while extending the range of cocktails on island by creating a one or two ingredient cocktail with a consistent supply chain and the ability to execute consistently. While we helped bars and restaurant introduce Espresso Martini’s, we also made it possible for them to offer a two ingredient Espresso Martini shot at speed bars.
And we crafted the perfect balanced spirit Mindy and I can enjoy together.
Your Instagram account is really fun, how much does social media play a part in your success?
We are so happy you find it fun, rum is fun. We want our RumJava brand to convey a certain level of sophistication yet be playful.
Our social media is purposely managed to reflect who we are, where we are from, and most importantly, the people who enjoy our RumJava. We try to build our content around our customers’ experiences, reflecting the people, places, and feelings our brand emotes.
Social media is a very important component of our strategy not just for followership or eyeballs on the brand but to help us build a culture around our brand. Many of our followers not only follow us on social media but they come see us wherever we are. The relationships, the real friendships we have built while building our brand will be with us forever. We believe it is more important to be authentic and convey the customer experience than to have refined, over-edited pictures of our bottles – its rum, it’s supposed to be fun!
You’ve overcome a lot to be where you are, most recently the devastation that Hurricane Irma caused. Can you tell us more about this and how you overcame it?
It is often said the things that don’t kill you make you stronger. Mindy and I survived 5 ½ hours of 265 mile per hour (mph) winds and it didn’t kill us, it made us stronger. Hurricane Irma really was a life changing event.
In the days leading up to the storm, we kept a close eye on the forecast and up until about 36 hours before Hurricane Irma hit St. John, she had a northerly track with winds of 135 mph. The storm track then dropped in a more westerly direction and we learned she was headed for a direct hit to the Virgin Islands. By this time it was too late to leave island, the ports, both land and sea, were closed; we boarded up our business, collected hurricane supplies and hunkered down for the storm. In the few hours leading up to landfall, the winds quickly accelerated from 135 to over 185 mph and they went up in strength from there.
Mindy and I have matching necklaces engraved with our wedding date and the coordinates of St. John. Just before Irma made landfall we were watching the news while the reporters showed the projected path of the storm. They announced the current location of the storm and it was within less than 10 degrees of the coordinates on our necklaces. Irma was headed for a direct hit on St. John and was forecast to make a turn, heading straight up through Florida where our Fort Lauderdale home would be in the most dangerous part of the storm and more importantly, two of our four daughters were also in the path of the storm.
And then it all started. We lost power, the wind, the rain, the falling trees, the flying debris, the water coming through the lights and electric sockets, the water building on the first floor, then the cracking windows and a piece of the roof breaking away. We created a safe room but couldn’t use it. The pressure was too much, the room was too hot and the unforgettable smell of the shredded trees coming in through the exhaust vents was too much. We moved a sofa near the front door, re-recorded our will, and placed our passports, phones, and some cash in a plastic bag and waited.
When it was all over, it was sheer devastation as far as the eye could see. There was not a leaf left on a tree, no green grass, and hillsides once lined with homes and thick with foliage, were barren. We didn’t have cell service and without communication we didn’t know where the storm was, where it was headed, and we feared it was on a direct path to Florida. Incredibly, we discovered a neighbour’s working cell phone with a random (but rapidly disappearing) signal and were able to get a call out to one of our daughters to let them know we had survived Irma and make sure they had appropriate plans given the severity of the storm.
We then made our way outside and walked two “island miles” over downed powerlines, telephone poles, through the shell-shocked community to our store. We climbed under the telephone pole on our roof and opened our store. Looking around we could see doors in trees, the collapsed structures, the vegetation-less hillsides and the mounds and mounds of debris where structures once stood. It was 24 hours before we saw the first helicopter pass over the island and days before we could find a reliable cell phone signal to communicate. Over the five days following the storm, we kept our store open when curfew allowed – we were all in shock and the store offered a place for people to share their stories, share hugs, let others know they were okay and simply decompress. Because of power issues, we gave away a lot of our inventory that required refrigeration. We assisted tourists in efforts to evacuate the island and finally were evacuated ourselves to Puerto Rico.
While we felt guilty leaving the island, as the next hurricane, Hurricane Jose, turned north and passed St. John, we boarded a boat bound through rough seas to Puerto Rico. The people of Puerto Rico were amazing. They rescued countless people, delivered much needed supplies, and lent a shoulder to cry on for so very many people. We left Puerto Rico three days later and with an overnight stay in Antigua, we made our way back to Florida safely but emotionally drained and sorely bruised from the experience.
Though Florida was spared from the same kind of storm we saw in the US Virgin Islands, tornadoes from the storm damaged a ceiling and five walls in our home in Fort Lauderdale – they had to be gutted. Within days of returning home Mindy’s Aunt passed away and, shortly thereafter, Hurricane Maria destroyed most of what the previous storms had not in the Atlantic/Caribbean basin, including Puerto Rico.
It was a tough month, we were shattered and felt helpless as it related to the condition of our beloved island. We lost our business and our home on St. John, and there was little we could do to help repair the island and those in need.
We set out to find a way to heal and raise money for Hurricane relief.
We decided to create a blend of coffee and named it “Love City Strong” in honor of St. John (known as “Love City”). In short order, we sold 600 pounds of Love City Strong online with all proceeds sent back to St. John through two foundations established to provide disaster recovery and hurricane relief.
As part of our plan for RumJava, we wanted to get to the UK to participate in UK RumFest and see if the market would respond positively to our range of rums. We had our stand booked before Hurricane Irma and were well past the point of cancelling our participation in the event. Mindy suggested she would support the event, but I had to figure out how to make it happen, she was simply spent. It felt like this event was the only thing we had left, the only thing connecting us to our beloved St. John. We were preparing for a Caribbean festival in the UK and we needed it to heal, we needed it to help us move on, and we needed to see if anyone in the UK loved our rum as we did. We airfreighted our rum to the UK via Rotterdam, flew to London, and hosted a launch party at the rooftop Bar Elba with Caribbean Carnival Dancers and about 75 guests. It was just what we needed. Given supply chain challenges, our rum arrived at the venue an hour before the party started and had to be carried up five flights of stairs. We were so grateful for the opportunity to be there, we picked up the rum and started up the stairs! We brought our own brand of Caribbean Culture, Rum, and Coffee to London and had an amazing kickoff event thanks to the team at Bar Elba.
We are not afraid of hard work and Hurricane Irma made us realize how strong we truly are.
We had airfreighted our rum as well as marketing banners, merchandise and everything we could muster to pull together a stand at UK RumFest to our hotel. We carried rum, banners, coffee, chocolate, t-shirts etc. back and forth from our hotel to the RumFest location. We were the first ones to arrive onsite and the last to leave. Throughout the UK RumFest weekend, we poured everything we had into interacting with consumers, telling our story, and introducing them to our version of a Virgin Islands party in the UK. As it turned out, the UK loved us as much as we loved them. We made some lifelong friends and became the highest selling brand in the history of UK RumFest (a record we continue to hold.)
When we launched RumJava in April 2017 at Miami RumFest, we won three gold medals and became the highest selling rum in the history of Miami RumFest. In July 2017, we had our first distribution order which went to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Within two months, our entire world came crashing down. Pressing on and having the experience we did at UK RumFest not only gave us confidence and energy related to the UK Market, it gave us the confidence and energy to continue the pursue our dream.
RumJava is now in 8 states within the U.S., the Virgin Islands, and broadly across the UK. We are the highest selling rum in the history of the Miami RumFest, UK RumFest, and Poland’s Rum Love Festival by an order of magnitude.
Hurricane Irma changed our lives. She reminded us how important we are to each other, how important our family, friends, and pets are, how important our health is, how big our responsibility is to our environment and future generations, and how to crystalize our thoughts, muster all our energy to press on, and fight for our dreams together. She made us more appreciative and more resilient because she showed us how easily she could take it all away. The UK RumFest will always have a special place in our hearts and minds. The friendships, the mentorship from people like Global Rum Ambassador Ian Burrell, the guidance, the well wishes, and the cultural revolution that has joined RumJava has given us the confidence and energy to pursue this passion; we will be forever grateful.
Who is behind the company and what roles do you all play?
Mindy and I (Brian) are RumJava’s co-founders. While we make all our investment and implementation decisions together, I am the company’s Chief Executive Officer and focused on production, operations, and market strategy. I also spend a lot of time in market working with bars, restaurants, and retailers to help position RumJava, create cocktails, menus and conduct training. Mindy is our Chief Creative Officer and is focused on design, styling, and brand imagery. Niki and Dustin Skartved lead our distillation, Nick Krasniqi is our UK market manager and Corey Siegel is our graphic designer. Mindy and I collaborate and make all decisions together from brand to flavour profile, design, aesthetic, market strategy, and investments.
What sets Rum Java apart from other rum brands on the market?
RumJava Artisan Crafted Rums are premium, coffee infused, and 100% all-natural. We have an authentic story and created a very quaffable and versatile spirit unlike anything on the market. Consumers and experts alike respect our authenticity, our packaging, and the quality and taste of our rum.
RumJava is sophisticated yet playful. And we passionately celebrate the experience of Caribbean culture, rum and coffee in every sip.
Talk us through a day in your life?
Hold hands, watch the sunrise (preferably while walking the dogs), go to the gym and at least get in some cardio and stretching and/or some hot yoga. The work day usually starts with a review of social media, primarily Instagram. We typically look at social media in the first hour of the day and this continues throughout the day, periodically, until we go to sleep. Mornings are then spent reviewing and responding to email, mostly those coming in late night from a different time zone, then it’s off into the market at around 10am. When in the UK, Nick and I make full use of the tube but walk at least 12 miles a day when we are in market. We meet with bars, restaurants, and retail partners, working to position RumJava with new clients. Typically, we are interested in how business and consumer culture meet. We spend time determining if and how RumJava fits in the environment. We also support clients who have already made a commitment to RumJava by working on drinks, menus and business metrics while conducting consumer tastings to ensure the brand is activated properly and will be successful for everyone. There are a lot of cocktails to try, photos to take and little time to eat. We are back in the hotel at the end of our day in market, most nights after 10 or 11 in the evening, and then it’s time to catch up on email related to the operation of the business…then we get ready to start all over in the morning.
What advice would you offer for anyone that is considering launching a business in your arena?
It is a tough business, do your research, and make sure you understand why you want to be in the business, your tolerance for risk, and how your product will get in the hands of the consumers. Is there something innovative about your idea or different than potential competitors? If you choose to go forward and don’t have any experience in the industry (like us), ask a lot of questions, be humble, listen to everyone wiling to give you advice but, in the end, follow sound business principles and listen to your gut.
The last piece of advice we would offer is that it is hard work and the real secret to success is a willingness to work hard. It all looks glamourous and we love every minute but it’s hard work and if you aren’t prepared, physically and mentally, it will be difficult to be successful and to develop a real understanding of the business, your consumer, and the industry.
Outside of work, what do you do for fun?
We love to travel and have been around the world three times. We enjoy fitness, especially hot yoga, we love to clear our minds, walk our dogs, play backgammon, and do a little limin’ anywhere there is a beach, especially on St. John or Fort Lauderdale Beach. We also enjoy getting out on the water in the US and British Virgin Islands. There is always time for a spin on the Ducati or a Chelsea Football match.
What does 2020 look like for you?
2020 is an extremely exciting year for RumJava! We have learned a great deal in the past 24 months, and you will see us very focused in 2020. We are currently sold broadly across the UK, in 8 states within the US, and the Virgin Islands. While we will continue to look opportunistically for great partners in Europe, the US, and Asia, we will be strategically focused on activation in three key markets; the UK, Florida, and the Virgin Islands. We will continue to build on relationships we have built with UK RumFest, Coca-Cola, our on and off-trade partners and wholesalers while bringing Caribbean Culture, Rum, and Coffee to some exciting new activations in London for 2020.
What does self care mean to you?
For us, self-care is about being thankful and nurturing what is most important to us – our four daughters, two dogs, and each other. It all has to start with how we take care of ourselves, what we put in our bodies, how we stay fit physically and mentally. Cutting carbs, hitting the gym at least 6 days a week, hot yoga, walking the dogs, watching the sunrise every morning we are home, and while difficult, having the courage to say no are all important to keeping us centered and the energy positive so we prepared to support each other, our family, and our businesses. We have learned the hard way not to take anything for granted and we hold each other accountable for self-care.
For our UK readers, where can they get their hands on a bottle of Rum Java?
We are in relatively broad distribution in the UK. You can find RumJava in retail both online and in some of the finest shops from Edinburgh to Cornwall as well as on-trade throughout the country. If you are shopping for a bottle online or in a shop, you can pick up RumJava at Harvey Nichols, Whisky Exchange, Master of Malt, 23 Wine & Whisky, Twisted Cellar, Gerry’s Soho, Great Western Wine in Bath, Harper Wells in Norwich, Virgin Wines, Slurp Wine in Banbury, and Amazon to mention a few outlets carrying RumJava.
Where can people find out more?
Come see and follow us at www.rumjava.com, on Instagram @Rum_Java, on Twitter @rumjava, on Facebook @rumjava on Channel 4 Sunday Brunch from time to time and on the pages of some of your favourite online and print media such as The House of Coco.