With a passion for quality and a desire to build a better product, husband and wife duo Helena and Woody Hambrecht set out to transform the drinking experience for the modern-day consumer with wellness in mind. Helena, a Silicon Valley techie, married (quite literally) her brand-building skills with Woody’s experience as a third-generation winemaker to launch Haus, a direct-to-consumer brand selling alcoholic beverages known as aperitifs. Here, the co-founders and co-CEOs share how they used a loophole in the 100-year-old prohibition laws to break into the industry, how they channeled Pandemic-related growth into giving, and their vision for future expansion.
Where did the idea for Haus come from?
Woody Hambrect: I discovered aperitifs when I was living in Berlin over a decade ago. In Berlin, folks were drinking too—until 8am most nights—but they were drinking differently. They weren’t getting wasted. They were drinking to connect, have intellectual conversations, to remember the experience. They were drinking low-alcohol liquors called aperitifs. I eventually came back to California to take over the family farm and made my first Californian aperitifs from the extra lemons and grapes we had on hand.
Helena Price Hambrect: Watching Woody’s experience making wine and aperitifs gave me a first-row seat to the inefficiencies of the alcohol industry. He was doing everything right by traditional standards—he got the cool-kid distributor and got his products into the best bars and restaurants in America. But when you’re an independent (non-corporate) brand you have almost no leverage over how your product is placed in the market. ... At the same time, I was going through a drinking dilemma that many folks can relate to. As a career-focused person, I was around alcohol constantly—at business dinners, at conferences, catching up with friends—and while I greatly enjoy gathering around a beverage, the downsides were starting to get to me.
Woody: We did some research and realized that it wasn’t just us feeling this way—it was an entire generation. Millennials cared about their health and image, as well as other tenants driving purchases like authenticity, transparency, brand. When we looked at what the alcohol industry was doing to adapt to these trends, it was nothing. It felt like a huge gap in the market.
How did you manage to disrupt such a highly-regulated industry?
Helena: The thing is, while every other industry had been disrupted by a millennial-founded DTC brand that reflected their values, that didn’t yet exist in the alcohol world because it was illegal. In liquor, thanks to 100-year-old prohibition laws, you can’t go DTC. You have to go through a three-tier system, working with distributors to reach restaurants and retail, who ultimately sells to the customer. ... Corporate alcohol has no incentive to innovate because they control the system. It’s similar to what we saw with Luxxotica, pre-Warby Parker.
Woody: Enter the techie and the winemaker. Helena was complaining to me about all of this—how it would be amazing to create the “Glossier/Warby Parker/Everlane of alcohol” but it’s impossible because of the law. I then remembered a loophole that I’ve known about forever—where if you’re an aperitif, you’re typically regulated as a liquor, but if you’re under 24% alcohol and made mostly of grapes, the restrictions go away. You can sell online, go DTC. It’s a loophole that you wouldn’t know about unless you’re a grape farmer that makes booze, which I happen to be.
What have you been up to lately?
Helena: We recently launched The Restaurant Project, where we partnered with over a dozen of the best chefs in America to make custom aperitifs, with all proceeds going to the restaurants to keep them afloat during Covid-19. We, as a company, were growing in the pandemic and wanted to find a way to use our resources to pay it forward to others in food and beverage who were struggling. Restaurants are in crisis, and we realized that we had the ability to create products for them in a time when they desperately need the revenue.
Woody: We made the decision early to own our production and supply chain, which made it possible for us to create 13 new products in a span of 8 weeks. We’ve donated over $170k to our partners so far which has enabled them to pay their staff, farmers, and the bills. ... We're continuing to work with these restaurants through wholesale. Now customers will be able to purchase our collaborations directly through the restaurants, in cocktails or even full bottles through delivery, which continues to serve their bottom lines.
How are you selling the concept of aperitifs to potential consumers, especially in this currently virtual world?
Helena: This was our most daunting challenge as a brand. How do we take a category that is largely unknown in America and make people understand it, solely through the internet? Education is baked into everything we do. From the customer purchase flow, to the editorial pamphlet that comes in the mail with every order, to our newsletter and social media. … Our goal is for someone, by the time they open their first bottle, to understand exactly what Haus is and how it fits into their life. Our approach worked better than we could have imagined.
While customer acquisition is a huge focus for direct-to-consumer brands, how are you approaching customer retention efforts?
Woody: It’s everything. In alcohol, people become fiercely loyal to their favorite brands, and LTV is truly a lifetime of value. Our goal as a company is to give people such a good experience with our product that they come back again and again. We’re already seeing it—our repeat buyer comes back every three weeks. We launched subscriptions because the behavior was already there, and it’s growing quicker than we could have planned for, even during the Pandemic.
Helena: In the crowded world of CPG brands, it’s not hard to acquire a customer if you have a nice-looking brand and savvy paid media skills. Where companies fail is investing the same effort on the product and customer experience. If someone tries your product but doesn’t like it or has a bad experience, then you’re ultimately toast. We wanted to build an experience that was so good that people would share it with everyone they know—and it worked. Most of our growth has been organic, allowing us to invest even more in product vs. wasting all of our money on paid.
How do you authentically convey your brand’s purpose?
Helena: We’re two millennials that built Haus to solve a problem that we had. We grow our ingredients and make the product ourselves. We’re transparent about the process. We’ve just stuck with our values and focused on the customer, and that’s how we’ll continue to build trust as we grow.
How are you thinking about Haus’ long-term strategy and what the ecosystem looks like post-pandemic?
Helena: We want to continue to build out our portfolio of products, using our community as our guide. … We’re starting to get into wholesale this year, and we will start to expand our physical presence in tandem with our online community. We ultimately want to be another Diageo, or Pernod, or AB Inbev—a portfolio of beverage products—but with a dramatically different, and better, set of values.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Helena: Make the most of what you have.
Woody: Don’t f*ck it up.