How a Tequila Startup Found ‘Blessings in Disguise’ as Quarantine Derailed Its 2020 Plans

YaVe's founder says bar closures led them to put more effort into ecommerce, partnerships and community building

Picture of YaVe bottle
YaVe has had to pivot plans as a result of the coronavirus. YaVe

Key insights:

When the year began, YaVe Tequila founder Joe Cruz Jr. and his team were ready to take on the world of premium spirits.

The scrappy, small-batch tequila brand had just inked a deal with Empire Merchants and Allied Beverage, the two largest distributors in New York and New Jersey respectively, ending YaVe’s two-year reliance on self-distribution.

The brand was, Cruz told Adweek earlier this year, “on pace to really create a big presence in bars, restaurants and liquor stores across both states, starting [in] April with the distribution launch and making some big noise through the summer.”

Then the Covid-19 pandemic struck, bringing everything to a screeching halt.

Like most brands, YaVe was forced to quickly change course—an especially risky move for a small business just starting to gain momentum. Cruz, however, saw it as an opportunity, one where “the playing field was even, and it became survival of the fittest.”

His team began tapping into their networks on LinkedIn, Instagram and elsewhere to crowdsource a new game plan.

The result was a concentration on ecommerce, a partnership with ReserveBar (which Cruz describes as “thriving”), and a ramped-up effort to create branded food and beverage-themed content with local hospitality tastemakers via social channels in preparation for Cinco de Mayo, the Mexican holiday that also happens to be one of the biggest tequila-consumption days of the year.

Cinco de Mayo caps a surprisingly strong period for retail bottle sales of tequila, likely because bar closures have motivated more fans of the spirit to drink at home. Over the eight-week period ending April 25, retail tequila sales were up 55% compared to the same period in 2019, according to Nielsen. That year-over-year increase reached as high as 69% on one week.

Like most other spirits brands, YaVe leveraged Cinco de Mayo by partnering with online influencers and entertainers via platforms like Instagram Live.

The uptick leading up to the holiday is one of several bright spots the YaVe team has found amid the myriad difficulties of the quarantine era.

“There were some blessings in disguise,” Cruz said, “as our online presence has been growing rapidly lately, and it has given us an opportunity to build our brand identity online and be that much more prepared when things open up again.”

YaVe is confident its distinction as a naturally flavored premium tequila will position it for long-term success.

The brand, whose name is the phonetic spelling of the Spanish word “Llave,” or “key” (a symbol prominently featured on its package design), has been determined not to lose its momentum in the midst of the crisis—presciently reflected by its tagline, “Unlock Possibility.”

Cruz and YaVe CMO Steve Peretz have already implemented steps to ensure their distribution channels are ready to proceed once the restaurant industry reopens, and they’re close to finalizing a new distribution deal in Colorado–with their sights set on breaking into the west coast market in the coming months.

While they wait for that moment to come, the team has focused on giving back to the food service community they’ve attributed their early success to, which has been greatly impacted by the crisis.

The brand is working with La Fonda, a Spanish Harlem-based restaurant and early supporter of the product, which has partnered with chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen to feed over 3,000 people per day. Cruz is also working on starting his own nonprofit, a long-held passion that took on greater urgency over the last few months.

“It’s given us deeper perspective, as things can always be much worse,” Cruz said. “You can’t control the weather, nor when this current situation will end. You can control how hard you work, how you treat others, and what you do with this precious resource we all posses: time. We’ve chosen to maximize all three.”

Leslie Blount is an Adweek contributor who writes about brands and culture.