February 14, 2022
“One of the greatest challenges we’ve faced as a company in rural Vermont has been building a qualified workforce to keep up with our growth,” said Aqua ViTea CEO Jeff Weaber. “With CEI’s encouragement, we’ve used a good jobs strategy focused on job quality and company culture to attract and keep talented employees.”
Aqua ViTea, founded by Weaber, is an innovator in the kombucha market since the company’s launch in 2007 in Middlebury. By introducing the first on-tap kombucha, a concept embraced by health food stores and shoppers for its sustainability, the company became a top brand on the East Coast and the #6 brand nationally, in competition with brands owned by big names like Pepsi.
Aqua ViTea currently employs 32 individuals and is planning to double its workforce in the next five years. The company is committed to offering high quality jobs with a good benefits package, a fair and engaging workplace and a living wage to all their office and production employees.
Kombucha, a better-for-you fermented tea beverage with low or no- alcohol, has been around for millennia, usually made in small batches by home brewers for personal consumption. When commercially bottled kombucha hit U.S. shelves in the late 1990s, it was largely a niche product in health and natural food stores. While many of its competitors have grown through aggressive distribution with backing from strategic investors or through acquisition by larger beverage companies, Aqua ViTea has been able to move into its top ten position nationally, with very little outside capital, by “owning their backyard” in New England and doubling-down on Vermont-based production.
But growth has not come without hiccups.
First, in 2010, there was an issue with some commercially bottled products having higher than allowed natural alcohol levels, which put a damper on the still-nascent industry. Still innovating, Weaber, a former beer-brewer, looked to the wine industry, where he found and adapted “spinning cone” technology that pulls out naturally occurring alcohols, creating a product that is verified alcohol-free.
In 2019, COVID put a stop to many self-serve “bulk barrel” offerings in stores, including Aqua ViTea’s Kombucha taps. In response to the pandemic, the company launched a competitively priced four pack of 12 oz. cans targeted to people purchasing groceries online. They also found an opportunity to donate the spun-out alcohol from their spinning cone processing for use in hand sanitizer.
With the “backyard” secure, the company hopes to expand nationally in the coming years.
To meet their expansion goals, Aqua ViTea needed two things: capital and good employees. CEI Ventures’ Good Jobs Fund stepped in to lead a recent capital raise with a $500,000 investment. CEI Ventures, a subsidiary of Maine-based community development financial institution, Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (CEI), aims to grow good quality jobs by working with companies that invest consistently in their workforce.
With coaching and technical assistance from CEI, Aqua ViTea adopted a $15/hour starting wage for new workers, an annual review/merit increase program and a robust list of benefits that includes fixed scheduling, opportunities for training/advancement, fully covered disability insurance plus health care and 401(k) programs.
In 2021 and again in 2022, Aqua ViTea was named a best place to work in Vermont.
What I so appreciate about working at Aqua ViTea is the flexibility the company offers to their employees in order for them to maintain a good work /life balance. Being a new mom of a six month old I have been supported by my managers to find the right schedule that fits the needs of myself and my family right presently without jeopardizing my work performance at Aqua ViTea which is something few companies I know of can do.Kate T. – Aqua ViTea Operations & Logistics Specialist
Future employment growth is expected to occur on the production side, with the addition of a second shift. The company has identified production roles well-suited to individuals with barriers to employment and is working with CEI and local partners to find candidates that are not currently participating in the workforce.
“Kombucha is a nuanced beverage that requires skill and intuition to make,” Weaber states. “We pull in a lot of creative employees because we value innovation. And that creative base is what fuels Aqua ViTea.”
Learn more about Aqua Vitea
- Website: https://www.aquavitea.com/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AquaVitea/
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/aquaviteakombucha
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/aquavitea
About CEI Venture’s Good Jobs Fund
CEI Ventures, Inc. manages socially responsible venture capital funds. For 25 years, CEI Ventures has successfully identified and cultivated growth-oriented businesses that create good jobs for people living in rural towns and small gateway cities, primarily in the Northeast. CEI Ventures, Inc’s fifth fund, the “Good Jobs Fund” targets companies typically have under $10 million in capital needs, attractive valuations, a clear path to liquidity and a desire to invest in their workforce as central to business strategy.