When it’s time to take your company in a totally new direction

Lauren Mote and Jonathan Chovancek | BCBusiness
Lauren Mote and Jonathan Chovancek

Lauren Mote and Jonathan Chovancek made a big play that paid off

Lauren Mote and Jonathan Chovancek recently sold their 2008 Honda Element. It was a bridge-burning moment for the owners of Bittered Sling, a line of flavoured extracts used in cocktails and recipes. Like many young entrepreneurs they had launched themselves in one direction, only to find themselves eventually running an entirely different business. Making the adjustment was not simply a matter of recognizing the opportunity, but of having the courage to abandon a lucrative enterprise to focus elsewhere.

Just a few years ago the couple had been working a flourishing catering business out of that Honda truck, as well as operating a pop-up restaurant in the Olympic Village. “By the end of 2012,” Chovancek recalls, “we had over $400,000 in sales.”

In the meantime, while working as a bartender at The Refinery on Granville Street, Mote had created a line of cocktail bitters. Her intention was to fill a crying need in the Canadian market for the kind of extracts top American bartenders had long depended upon. Mote’s products proved hugely popular with bartenders. Ann Tuennerman, founder of the American festival Tales of the Cocktail, told the couple that the popular event was coming to Vancouver in February 2012 and that their bitters would be featured. “We said, ‘Oh! OK,’” Mote recalls. “So that was the impetus for us to get rolling on Bittered Sling.” The products generated sales of $50,000 in 2012.

Chovancek had suggested adjusting the Bittered Sling catalogue to include more culinary-friendly offerings. The result was a line of products that ranged from Malagasy Chocolate Bitters to Shanghai Rhubarb Extract to Denman BBQ Sauce, among many others. The couple eventually signed an exclusive worldwide deal with gourmet product distributor Qualifirst International. “We now had the ability to get our bitters into other markets,” Chovancek says. In 2013, Bittered Sling generated sales of $320,000 while their catering business had shrunk to 20 per cent of revenues. “We made the decision to completely change directions,” says Chovancek. Shifting gears, they developed long-term relationships with their distillers and warehousing in the Okanagan, hired a communications director and expanded their office and production facilities. “We also spent a ton of money, time and energy developing events around the world focused on bitters, cocktails, food and hospitality,” says Mote.

Such adjustments are common in the annals of small business. Arran and Ratana Stephens, co-owners of Nature’s Path, are a classic example. The couple started with a Kitsilano vegetarian restaurant back in 1967 before founding Lifestream to sell organic food products. Bad partnerships led them to sell their interest in Lifestream in the early ’80s, but even when Arran launched Nature’s Path in 1985 the course corrections were not over. He initially intended to focus on frozen sprouted bread products. “The problem we ran into was the limited availability of retail freezer space,” Arran says. So he began to think about creating more shelf-stable products. Today Nature’s Path is North America’s largest organic cereal brand.

While Mote and Chovancek have yet to reach those lofty heights, they’re on their way. Projected 2014 sales for Bittered Sling are just over $400,000, and the line recently took home three gold and two silver medals at the 2014 International Review of Spirits competition in Chicago. Selling the truck, however, was as clear a sign as any that the business transition is complete. “It was almost like lighting catering on fire,” Mote says. “We’re never doing catering again.”