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Fermenting Change

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As the company scaled up, Mitchell took a backseat to focus on raising a family. In 2012 they brought Plantenberg onboard to help grow the business, but Plantenberg soon ran into some unrelated problems with the IRS and did time in prison. Danek stepped in as CEO in September 2014, while Mitchell is now Humm’s “chief culture angel.”

Even so, it was clear from early on that Danek would drive the business forward with the same fire that helped her rebuild her recruiting company, twice, after two recessions obliterated it. She already had experience starting consumer-product businesses — Eye of Newt made soaps and candles — and she grew paper-thin lettuce in her bathtub for a brief organic venture — but she knew she needed help with kombucha.

“The best-laid plans and vision won’t go far if you don’t have the right horse to ride on,” says Scott Allan, general manager of Hydro Flask, a Bend-based company with a similar rapid-growth vector. “Jamie is working backwards. She wants scale, with something unique and different, and she’s surrounding herself with the right people to do it.”



Those people at first included a board of advisers with lions like Schell and Gary Fish, the founder of Deschutes Brewery, who answer questions about distribution or quality control. That board became a board of directors who coughed up “significant” cash.

TBD, a now-defunct Bend-based advertising firm, led Kombucha Mama through a rebranding effort that ditched the “drink for people who do yoga” aura, as Danek says, for one that radiates more of an everyday, everybody, be-healthy, positive vibe.

“If you look at our bottles, you’ll see that they have waves,” says Mike Beshore, Humm’s digital branding strategist. “The idea is you drink this, it makes you happy, then you send that happiness out into the world.”

The touchy-feely bit would feel like schtick if Danek weren’t such a vessel of positivity herself. She is still good friends with her ex-husband (they have two kids), and her employees seem to thrive in the orbit of her “make the world better” m.o. Take a tour of the current 5,500-square-foot kombucha plant in Bend’s Maker District and you’ll see bro-style fist bumps, embraces and “thanks” conducted with namaste prayer hands.

“They’re huggers,” Fish says.

Danek does welcome strangers with open arms, it seems, but she is also exhausting to be around. Sitting next to her is like sitting before a bush that’s constantly crackling with bees. She speaks fast. She’s up at 4 a.m. She will fire you for gossiping and then go meditate. Beneath all of this lies a genuine yearning to connect, to build a sense of community, and make people feel healthy, happy and special.

She even makes her own cough syrup. “It’s the best,” she says.

***

In January 2016, she and Plantenberg flew to Target headquarters in Minneapolis after the corporation expressed interest in carrying Humm.

“Eric and I were so stoked and ready to jam, and when that happens, it’s hard for people to say no,” Danek says. “We sit down and within five minutes, we both realize that Target is selling us. They’re talking about how Humm is accessible and has great branding, how it fits with their customer. We just sat back and listened. That day was how it must feel to be an Olympian.”

Within a year Target had Humm on the shelves.

Humm’s kitchen-to-stardom success hinges tightly on really good timing. Bend’s craft-beer scene — if not the entire movement — helped blaze the trail in terms of exposing consumers to new takes on familiar drinks. Even bigger: America’s love affair with soda seems on the rocks, too. Fish joined the board because he believes kombucha represents a “paradigm shift” in carbonated beverages.

That could be, opines Marion Nestle, a leading health advocate and author of Soda Politics. “The word is out that sugary drinks aren’t good for you, and sales of classic Coke and Pepsi have dropped steadily from peak consumption in 1999, with no sign of reversal,” she says.

Experts like Pullman predict Humm is on track to be bought out, but Danek won’t say whether she’s hoping to sell to a player like Coke or Pepsi. Her mission is to spread optimism and hope, and to help fix some of our nation’s health issues by offering healthier beverage choices, and kombucha is her vehicle. In the meantime, she remains focused on growing Humm to surpass California-based G.T’s as the current kombucha king.

For her, like those tennis balls, business and life just feel better when you connect with something and watch it soar. “I don’t care about winning. I just want to play and play hard.”


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