One year ago, University of Virginia graduates and friends Jenny Lucas and Katie Williams decided to build a business around their own blend of tonic water and club soda.
Now, Navy Hill “sonic” – a mixer that combines tonic water made with real quinine with club soda and even added electrolytes – is being sold in Whole Foods stores across seven states, Fresh Market stores in 24 states, and specialty shops, bars and restaurants in 12 states.
The Richmond-based business has also won a major accolade from one of the South’s best-known magazines. Southern Living hailed Navy Hill as one of the South’s best beverages in their 2018 Southern Food Awards, praising it as a flavorful option that did not have the cloying taste added sweeteners bring to some tonic syrups.
That’s a lot of praise and progress for a startup’s first year, and it came with a lot of hustle.
Lucas, a double ’Hoo with degrees from UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce and the Curry School of Education and Human Development, and Williams, a 2000 graduate with a degree in history, said it took about nine months to move “from idea to shelf.” The duo also have a third partner, Amanda Coulbourn, whom they met in Richmond.
Once they had the idea, Lucas and Williams, who met as undergraduates at UVA, moved quickly because they wanted to be the first to market.
“We were really motivated because we knew that something like this was not on the market,” Lucas said. “Craft mixers are a big trend right now, as people are choosing healthier, better-for-you beverages and cocktails, and we didn’t want someone else to beat us to it.”
So they made it happen, and they made it happen fast. They partnered with a food scientist to develop recipes, tested different flavor profiles with local bartenders and developed a branding and marketing strategy. There are currently three varieties available: original, juniper and ginger.
They named the company Navy Hill – after one of the seven major hills in Richmond – and began bottling the water and packing boxes. At one point, they were working out of their garages, with their families – both Williams and Lucas have three young children – pitching in to pack boxes and load cars.
Williams’ middle daughter, at least, was a fan. Carrying boxes one day, she told her mom that she wanted to do what her mom did when she grew up.
“That was the biggest compliment I’ve gotten about it,” Williams said.
One year in, she and Lucas are seeing all of that work pay off.
“We just worked really hard,” said Williams. “There was definitely a learning curve because neither of us have a food and beverage background, but that made it exciting.”
Both women, however, did have a business background. Williams earned an MBA from American University and previously worked in real estate, and Lucas, after graduating from the Commerce School, had run a children’s clothing business while also working as a reading specialist.
Their experiences taught them the importance of face-to-face networking and sales, which they used to woo both Whole Foods and Fresh Market.
After reaching out to Whole Foods’ regional distributor, they began sending samples to the company’s buying offices, keeping them apprised of news articles and new developments with Navy Hill and just generally working to stay on their radar.
“We needed to be very persistent,” Lucas said.
It took about a year from that initial contact to get the Whole Foods contract, and then Lucas and Williams did the same thing with Fresh Market. They also reached out to a web of UVA contacts, from friends who shared marketing expertise or tested products to a fellow alumna, Maggie Patton, who started a children’s snack company called Bitsy’s Brainfood.
“She has been a tremendous resource,” Williams said of Patton. “The UVA network in general has been amazing; the number of people we have been able to reach out to and network with has been really helpful.”
Now, the duo is focused on getting Navy Hill placed in even more Whole Foods stores – they have visions of global placement – and, on the other side of the spectrum, building a robust list of local shops, bars, restaurants and specialty grocers carrying their sonic water, as well as building a social media presence.
They have already partnered with a large group of such retailers in 12 states. In Charlottesville, Navy Hill can be found at 14 retailers and restaurants, including Take It Away, Ivy Provisions, Feast, Foods of All Nations, Brasserie Saison, Common House, Clifton Inn, J.M. Stock Provisions and several others.
“Being in these stores, and in restaurants and bars where people can see our product and ask bartenders about it, really helps with brand awareness,” Lucas said.
They are also working on perfecting their production process. The product was originally made in small batches in Richmond, and is now packed at a larger facility outside of the city.
“We love Richmond and Charlottesville, and this has been an amazing place to start a business,” Williams said. “It’s a wonderful, supportive community.”
We asked Williams and Lucas to share one sample recipe that draws on the company’s UVA roots.
- 1 oz. Navy Hill Original
- 1 oz. fresh orange juice
- Dash of agave nectar
- Squeeze of lime.
Mix and serve over crushed ice.
*Williams and Lucas suggest 1.5 oz. of tequila for those who are of age.