How Small Brands Can Break Through with Big Distributors

A panel at Bar Convent Brooklyn discusses the three things that will get suppliers noticed

From left to right: Jason Griffin of Heritage Wine Cellars, David Brooks of Blueprint Brands, Sarah Nagel Sisisky of Park Street, and Monique Huston of Winebow. Photo by Andrew Kaplan.

Wine, spirits, and beer distributors are a busy lot these days, what with so many new products vying for their attention. So what should you do if you’re a young brand trying to find a home with one of them? There are plenty of little things that will get you on the good side of a distributor, but the really big ones can be boiled down to three rules: Act professionally, be patient, and maintain a positive attitude.

This was the strongest advice to emerge from a lively panel presentation at this month’s Bar Convent Brooklyn, held at the Brooklyn Expo Center in New York City on June 11 and 12. The panel—Navigating Distributor Relations—was part of a series called Park Street University, organized by the Miami-based Park Street, a provider of back-office logistics for brands in the alcohol industry.

The panel featured Monique Huston, the national director of spirits at Winebow, based in Glen Allen, Virginia; David Brooks, the corporate brand manager of Blueprint Brands in Brooklyn; and Jason Griffin, the managing director of Heritage Wine Cellars in Niles, Illinois. It was moderated by Sarah Nagel Sisisky, the director of client development at Park Street.

Professionalism, the panel was agreed, starts with that first email introducing your brand to the distributor. Huston recommended that suppliers who want to work with Winebow should have a well-thought-out plan for growing their brand and be able to communicate that plan clearly. “[Explain that] this is ‘the kind of support, planning, pricing—this is the outcome we expect,’” Huston said. “Intro your product that way. It shows so much thought. It shows that you’ve really started working through this. That’s going to be the thing that causes me to have a conversation with you.”

“And be prepared to ship samples,” Huston urged. “It’s crazy to me that people are like, ‘I can’t get a sample to you.’ If I can’t taste it, and put my hands on the label, and touch the packaging, we’re not going to move any farther. The quality has to be there first and foremost.”

Griffin said that Heritage does business with four types of suppliers: those they have to do business with, those they want to do business with, those they like to do business with, and those they love to do business with. The brands that fall into the “love” category, Griffin said, are suppliers who are funded properly, have a trained sales force, and at the end of the day, have a win-win attitude. “Even when the going gets tough,” he said, “being positive helps us all wade through things.”

Griffin added that he especially likes to work with suppliers who have self-distributed in the past because they understand the challenges wholesalers face. This often leads to the understanding and patience that make the relationship work.

“Everyone looks at the wholesaler and says, ‘The wholesaler’s my problem,’” Griffin said. “[But] the wholesaler’s your best resource if you have the right relationship. The thing is, you have to be transparent. If there’s a bad day or you’re confused, [frame the problem] as a question … We all have to work together here and stand up for each other. The key word is alignment. If you don’t like something, speak up. But don’t expect me to drop everything.”

Brooks added that effective communication is vital. He finds email to be the most professional method of communication because it also serves as documentation of each interaction. But, he said, it’s important to supplement emails with phone calls if things become confusing.

Introducing your young brand to one of these veteran distributors may sound intimidating at first. But if it’s any consolation, Huston, who has worked with distribution companies for eight years, reminded the audience that this is a time of unprecedented change for the industry, whether because of distributor consolidation or the tectonic shifts produced by the craft movement.

“We’re all learning,” she said. “A lot of us are in the position where our portfolios are where we want them to be, but we know that we need to always be kind of thinking ahead. It’s an exciting time.”


Sign up for our award-winning newsletter

Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights—delivered to your inbox every week.

Andrew Kaplan is a freelance writer based in New York City. He was managing editor of Beverage World magazine for 14 years and has worked for a variety of other food and beverage-related publications, and also newspapers. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewkap.

Most Recent