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Fermenting Change

Humm Kombucha CEO Jamie Danek brews up a storm.


Jamie Danek didn’t care much for the finer points of the game; she just wanted to whack the ball — hard. It was November 2008, her recruiting business in Philadelphia was in ruins for the third time, and she’d recently thrown in the towel and moved to Bend for a change. She took beginner tennis lessons at the Athletic Club on Century Drive for the exercise.

“The coach told me I wasn’t doing any better hitting the ball that hard,” Danek recalls. But that didn’t matter. To her, swinging with all her might was the point.

On the receiving end of those missiles stood her new friend Michelle Mitchell, a former bookseller and an endurance athlete who relished her own chance to pummel the ball. Sometimes the women would unleash a blistering rally; more often they’d err, but together they felt a certain sizzle.

“It was clear we were going to go into business together,” Danek recalls. “We just didn’t know what.”

The “what” turned out to be Humm Kombucha, today one of Bend’s most remarkable craft-beverage success stories and one of the nation’s leading producers of kombucha, the fermented tea known to health-food nuts for eons.



In just seven years, Danek, who has emerged as Humm’s CEO, has grown the company from a quaint endeavor in Mitchell’s kitchen into a national force, with a new 40,000-square-foot facility and 60 employees cranking out millions of bottles of kombucha sold in stores, cafes and bars in all 50 states.

Revenues, now well into the millions, have doubled year over year the past few years and shows no signs of slowing down. The company already sponsors the Seattle Seahawks. It’s expanding into Europe. Costco will now carry Humm products, too.

“I’ve never seen a perfect storm happen for a business like this,” says Jim Schell, an author, investor and Humm board member. “By 2020 it will be a $100 million company. I’m 80 and can tell you that successes like this don’t come along often.”

How Danek and her team took a fringe product mainstream is a tale of good timing, solid branding and, perhaps most importantly, Danek’s penchant for swinging hard when others might take a more cautious approach.

“She’s been seriously independent from as far back as I can remember,” says Darrin Straff, her older brother, 50, and a headhunter, a career that Danek helped him launch. “She has a crunchy side, but also a willingness to just go for it.”Profile 3

Now 49, Danek didn’t know a thing about kombucha before she met Mitchell on the court. Mitchell’s husband, Eric Plantenberg — an Everest climber, entrepreneur and now Humm’s chief strategist — drank kombucha as a kid thanks to his mother, who had the key ingredient: a scoby, a gelatinous, fleshy colony of bacteria and yeast that ferments the tea. By most accounts, it was dreadful swill until Mitchell tinkered with the process.

“Michelle’s the scientist,” Danek says. “She made it and it was delicious.”

The two started with $3,000 and a plan to sell kombucha door to door under the name Kombucha Mama. “It was such a sweet way to start our business,” Mitchell recalls.



They quickly scaled up, and Danek’s business sense kicked into full gear. Instead of targeting the usual health-food stores, they put kombucha in cigarette outlets and Food 4 Less. They filled kegs with kombucha and installed these mini, mobile kombucha-draft stations in grocery stores for self-serve growler fills, long before growlers were a thing.

That was a textbook play for taking a niche product national, says Mellie Pullman, director of the craft-brewing business program at Portland State University. “Distributors take a big risk in carrying your product, so the more you can do to show them there’s a market for it, the better,” she says.

***

Danek has a long history in business. She grew up in Pennsylvania as the middle child between brothers Darrin and Brett in a family of male entrepreneurs. Her uncles sold clothes. Her cousins ran retail. Her father, Larry, had a wholesale business that her mother, Terry, helped with, though Terry mostly kept house and worried over the children. “She still worries,” says Darrin.

Darrin describes their childhood as “fairly OK,” with a father who sometimes played the children’s wants and needs off of each other. The family didn’t want for much, but a tension coursed through the house that may have helped Danek learn how to extirpate emotion from business. Whereas the boys often capitulated to their father’s capriciousness, Danek rebelled. She dated “bad boys,” football players and bartenders, and didn’t care that her father hated them all.

“She told me once that Dad taught her how to cut off her feelings and not take things personally,” Darrin says. “I think he shaped her for the good, even though it was tough, because in a way she learned how to live in the world of business. Our father is not the kind of person who could admit it, but I would imagine he is extremely proud of her.”


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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.

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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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