Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in food and beverage but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Yuan Ji, Co-Founder and CEO of Erstwhile Mezcal, located in Brooklyn, NY, USA.
What's your business, and who are your customers?
Erstwhile Mezcal is a craft mezcal and agave spirits importer based in Brooklyn, New York. In essence, we are agave spirit evangelists and problem solvers on a mission to break down the many barriers to entry that stand in the way between small producers and like-minded consumers in international markets. A social impact-driven company, we advocate for small, independent, family-owned producers who lack representation outside their local communities in Mexico and bring their extraordinary agave spirits to mezcal enthusiasts in international markets for the first time. Our business model ensures that every Erstwhile bottle sold has directly sourced revenue back to a specific producer and created jobs in their local community well before that bottle lands in the hands of a consumer. We are passionate about mezcal education because education empowers our fellow consumers and industry colleagues to be informed decision-makers. For example, our website has a page with rich digital content dedicated to every producer and mezcal release, taking our fans behind the scenes to meet the producer and see their production process firsthand.
Our fans and customers are fellow consumers who share our core values. Many are creatives and professionals driven by purpose and passion over profits. They value slow food and beverage crafted by real artisans, made with care, transparency, and pride. So they trust Erstwhile as their go-to mezcal that not only tastes good but also does good. Our mezcal portfolio constantly evolves, which keeps things exciting for our fans. A typical Erstwhile bottle is a limited release of a few hundred liters/bottles, showcasing different partner producers, regions, agave varietals, distillation styles, etc. Once it is gone, it is gone for good.
Tell us about yourself
Advocating for beautiful agave spirits I believe in, made by people and families I believe in, keeps me motivated every day to do what I do. Erstwhile Mezcal was born from my passion for social entrepreneurship, consumer welfare, and advocacy for underrepresented voices. I co-founded Erstwhile with my best friend based on our experiences as consumers and mezcal enthusiasts. Erstwhile’s product lineup and mission encapsulate what we wanted - but had a hard time finding – in our local stores, bars, and the broader US market.
Erstwhile’s story began long before I knew anything about mezcal. My co-founder Kevin was (and still is) a scholar and dealer in antique maps. I had a successful legal career specializing in antitrust law at a major law firm. There, I found representing real people and families in pro bono cases was more rewarding than litigation for corporate clients. Today, advocacy for real people is at the core of what we do at Erstwhile. Instead of going to court, I now build distribution, sales, and brand recognition for small, independent mezcal producers.
Before Erstwhile, I was a curious but clueless mezcal consumer. Bottles looked the same. And labels, if written in English at all, looked like gibberish. I did not know what most of the words meant. That changed in 2015 with our first visit to Oaxaca, Mexico. The mezcal producers we met welcomed us into their homes with warm hospitality. We began to understand mezcal in the best environment possible: directly from the real people who have made it for generations. In the process, we immersed ourselves in not just mezcal know-how but also a lifelong love for Oaxaca’s land, culture, and people.
We continued to focus on mezcal education in subsequent visits over the next two years. These voyages transformed me from a clueless consumer into a mezcal evangelist. Kevin and I bought mezcal in recycled water bottles directly from the producers - as much as we could fit in our suitcases. Friends at home loved the mezcal and the stories of the producer families even more. Our personal supply ran dry quickly. We recognized a problem: Where can I buy the mezcal from the families I want to support before my next Oaxaca trip? They were not in my local shops. Searching on Google returned zero hits.
I know many of these producers want to grow their family businesses and are interested in accessing international markets. Barriers to entry, however, are particularly high in the United States, a heavily regulated market where alcohol is concerned. These producers barely have sales outside their rural communities. Back home in New York, we knew that like-minded consumers would love to directly support producer families and buy their mezcals – not just one or two families, but as many as possible. But how can consumers like us discover and connect with small producers in rural communities, short of booking a round-trip flight, renting a car, and then knowing exactly where to go after that? We looked around. But we did not find any company that identified this disconnect between consumers and small producers or offered a solution. So we built our own: Erstwhile Mezcal.
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
I am proud that Erstwhile Mezcal brings joy and adds value to the lives of so many people, and that list of people grows every day. We have hundreds of retail partners – shops, bars, restaurants, and social clubs all over the country – owned and operated by passionate small business owners. They serve and promote our mezcals, host me for consumer events and dinners, and share Erstwhile’s story with their customers. We routinely receive emails, calls, and messages from folks all over the country, with photos and kind words about our social mission, their latest Erstwhile purchase, or one of our mezcal cocktail recipes they particularly enjoyed.
Mezcal is meant for sharing and bringing people closer. We do exactly that in our private mezcal tastings for corporate clients’ team-building events. A typical team-building event we host can bring together about 20-50 (sometimes more) attendees from all over the country. It is amazing to see so many faces all at once, new to me but not strangers to each other, bond and build new connections in real time over mezcal.
What's one of the hardest things that comes with being a business owner?
We need great employees to grow Erstwhile Mezcal to the next level. Hiring great employees is one of our biggest challenges as a small business. Screening applicants, interviewing, onboarding new hires, and training them to be effective team members all take significant time and energy on my part. As a business owner, I am willing to forgo paying myself a salary and devote the funds to growing Erstwhile instead. But that is not an option for my employees. To attract qualified candidates, we commit to paying a good salary and benefits from day one. The constant pressure of meeting payroll can be very stressful for a bootstrapped business with limited capital.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
- Make a list – three action items at most - of concrete, actionable steps you can take to grow your business today and every day. Complete one action item. Cross it out and move on to the next one on your list. For example, forming a Limited Liability Company (LLC) was one of the first steps I took to commit myself to my business idea while working a full-time day job. After that, I applied for an importer license.
- Pay it forward. Be generous with your time, knowledge, and expertise, especially with young entrepreneurs and those new to your industry. It is good karma and builds goodwill for your business in the long run.
- Persevere through the low points and hard times. Having the will to keep going and refusing to give up in the face of terrifying odds - are recurrent themes in the stories of many successful businesses.
Where can people find you and your business?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solo or small business entrepreneur that you'd like to share, then please answer these interview questions. We'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
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