Alaila-Lee Lawrence produces a beverage, Sorrel, at the Stony Brook...

Alaila-Lee Lawrence produces a beverage, Sorrel, at the Stony Brook incubator at Calverton, seen here on Aug. 18, 2017. Credit: Steve Pfost

Each week, Alaila-Lee Lawrence hand delivers her Jamaican beverage, Sorrel, to over a dozen stores in the metropolitan area.

The 22-year-old owner of Brightwaters-based Clovesz estimates that she drives about 200 miles per week to do so.

But her vehicle could only get her so far, she says.

“I can only get so many places with my car,” says Lawrence.

So to help expand her distribution capabilities, she’s in the process of enabling her website to accept orders and also recently inked a deal with an East Coast beverage distributor.

“If I’m not on the road as much, I’ll be able to sit down and work on my website and my business,” says Lawrence, who declined to name the distributor.

To be sure, developing a distribution channel is a key part of growing any business.

“Getting product distribution is critical to success,” says Chirag Surti, a logistics expert and a former assistant professor of logistics and supply chain management at Adelphi University in Garden City. “If you don’t get your volumes up to a critical level, it won’t be cost effective to make or distribute your product.”

Finding a beverage distributor is a great first step for Lawrence, says Surti.

“If one distributor starts distributing, then others may want to get in on the action,” he says.

Seeking online channels is important as well, he notes.

“Selling online is the most democratic channel you can have,” says Surti. “Everyone has access to that online channel.”

Lawrence agrees and that is why she’s working to make orders available on her own website by mid-September.

“It will open doors to more revenue and let more people know about the brand,” says Lawrence, whose background is in the culinary field.

In 2015, Lawrence graduated from the former Culinary Academy of Long Island in Syosset with an eye on pursuing a career in the food industry.

That same year she went to visit her cousin in Canada who owns a Caribbean restaurant and made a popular Jamaican drink from a family recipe that Lawrence grew up on. Lawrence, whose parents are from Jamaica, asked her cousin to share the recipe with her and upon returning home started making it, initially for free for friends and family until demand grew.

In 2016 she started selling at farmers markets and the first day sold out 300 bottles. That same year she started approaching stores to sell her product, and it is now in about 36 stores and restaurants, including nine on Long Island, the majority ethnic-oriented.

The core ingredient of Sorrel is petals from the hibiscus sabdariffa flower, which is native to the Caribbean and is shipped to her from Jamaica by family. The petals are brewed with various other ingredients, including ginger and cloves, to make the tart, dark red, non-carbonated drink. She now has three flavors, and they’re sold in 12-ounce lightbulb-shaped bottles for $3 to $4 each in stores.

“People love it,” says Isaac Asare, owner of Taste of Africa in Deer Park, who orders 16 bottles about every other week, which Lawrence hand-delivers to him.

It’s a good seller, he says.

“This is a specialty restaurant,” says Asare. “We are always looking for something different.”

With the new distribution deal, Lawrence will no longer have to make all the deliveries herself, freeing up her time to focus on other aspects of the business.

And now that she has the attention of one distributor, Lawrence should ask the owners of the stores she sells to already who their distributors are, says Chad Sauter, a director in the transaction services group at the Detroit office of Conway MacKenzie, a consulting and financial advisory firm. She can also ask the stores if they would ask their distributors to carry her product, he says.

“She would be bringing demand to the distributors, and the distributors love that,” he says.

As for online, selling on her own site may prove difficult because “all of a sudden, you drive yourself into a warehouse operation” and need space to pack and ship, says Sauter.

Lawrence is currently based at the Stony Brook University incubator at Calverton and also can pack and ship at her office in Brightwaters, she says.

Selling through a grocery delivery website such as Fresh Direct would be more beneficial, says Sauter. Lawrence says she will pursue those avenues as well.

She must have the capacity to ramp up production as demand grows, says Surti.

Lawrence says she’s prepared to do that. Initially it was challenging to scale up the original recipe from about 5 gallons to now about 100 gallons weekly. With the new distribution deal, she hopes to increase production by about 20 percent every two weeks. She currently makes about 2,000 bottles monthly.

“It’s just trial and error,” she says of planning her production volume.

Moving forward, she’s looking to forge relationships with additional distributors and is planning to expand offerings beyond her original 12-ounce bottles to also include 16-ounce bottles and 1.5-liter pouches.

“A lot of good things are coming,” says Lawrence. “I feel like I’m at a turning point now.”

At a glance

Company: Clovesz, Brightwaters

Owner: Alaila-Lee Lawrence

Founded: 2016

Product: Sorrel, a Jamaican beverage

Startup investment: $15,000

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