Small Town Success: How Tofino Kombucha grew into a province-wide success story

The beverage company's roots go back to Kelsey Hendricks' small garage in 2017

Chemainus-born Kelsey Hendricks grew up spending her summers visiting her grandmother in Tofino.

Year after year, Hendricks fell more in love with the remote small town of fewer than 2,000 people on the west coast of Vancouver Island. After high school, she moved there to get a summer job. Although her Tofino stint was only supposed to last for one season, she’s stayed ever since.

While on maternity leave with her first baby, she was introduced to kombucha by a friend. Curious about the drink, she began researching how to brew it herself. Then, she had an even better idea. “There were a lot of kombucha companies at the time, but not a lot of local brewers,” she tells BCBusiness.

Hendricks experimented with writing a business plan and doing market research. Excited at the thought of making a go of her own kombucha brand, she launched Tofino Kombucha in her 450-square-foot garage in 2017. “I told my graphic designers: Make it look like these products aren’t made in my garage,” she recalls with a laugh.

Having a tight-knit community was a huge asset; since she knew the owners of local cafés, restaurants and grocery stores like Tacofino, the Tofino Co-op and the Wildside Grill, she was able to get her product into the hands of many businesses. Within its first year, Tofino Kombucha was being sold in 20 of the eponymous town’s establishments. “I struggled to keep up,” she shares. “I would work on the business while my son was napping—I tried juggling being a mom and a business owner.”

In her second year, she doubled production; in the third, her product made it into grocery stores in eastern Vancouver Island, such as 49th Parallel Grocery in Chemainus and multiple branches of Quality Foods. She was gaining momentum—her next big milestone was getting a guaranteed spot in 22 Thrifty Foods stores. “It snowballed; our product was getting into store after store,” explains Hendricks.

Tofino Kombucha, Jasmine Hibiscus and Tumeric Raspberry

Soon, she was able to move from her garage into a production facility beside the Tofino Distillery. Now, her product can be found in major grocery stores like Safeway, Country Grocer, Whole Foods Market, Save-On-Foods and more. She sells 70,000 cans of kombucha every month, and she has four full-time employees—who, according to Hendricks, are paid “much higher wages” than her competitors on the mainland.

To stand out in the crowded kombucha market, Hendricks lowered her prices while most brands were upping theirs during the pandemic. To do so, she began purchasing her ingredients in bulk, switched from glass bottles to cans and purchased an automated canning line. “Staying competitive with our pricing has enabled us to acquire shelf space,” she says. “Consumers aren’t as afraid to try my product because it’s not $5; it’s $3.49.”

Further, she’s been able to leverage the Tofino brand within her product name. “I wanted the branding to say local without saying local, which was easy by using Tofino in the name,” shares Henricks. “I had instant brand recognition of Tofino because of the millions of dollars that Tourism Tofino invested into it.”

Plus, she was strategic in choosing approachable yet inventive flavours for her beverages: lemon ginger, jasmine hibiscus, apricot rose, blueberry lavender, raspberry, turmeric raspberry and apple honeybush.

According to Hendricks, in order to succeed in a small town, a business owner must be “creative, self-sufficient and able to solve problems.”

“Out here, if something breaks, we don’t have the luxury of overnight shipping and service workers don’t come out here,” she says. “You need to learn how to do everything yourself and have stock.”

With Tofino’s unique, remote location, Hendricks can’t run the same business model as her competitors on the mainland. However, operating a business in a small town also has many perks; she and her husband, who also works for the company, are able to dip out of work early to go surfing—something that likely wouldn’t be possible in one of B.C.’s larger centres. Plus, the tight-knit community has helped her business grow.

“In larger cities, it would have been harder to make the entry into the grocery store market like I did,” she says. “Tofino has been incredibly supportive of my business.”