Been to East Village lately? If not, you’re missing out.
There happens to be some rad places over there, and one in particular we’re excited to feature today—the fabulous little spot You & Yours Distilling Co., California’s first urban destination distillery and event space. Focusing on vodka and gin, You & Yours has a creative menu with delicately balanced flavors and an “Insta-worthy” atmosphere that is sure to chill your vibe. It really is the perfect happy hour or Saturday pre-Padre game spot to have a thoughtfully crafted adult beverage (perhaps, one of my most favorite things ever).
We first met You & Yours founder Laura Johnson at *Influence San Diego. Now, it must be noted: Johnson is San Diego’s FIRST female owned distillery. In hearing that, it is readily apparent that isn’t a convo she’s totally into having anymore. And I don’t necessarily blame her. It can get tiring talking about our gender all the time simply because we’re women! (a convo men don’t have. I don’t think my husband has ever been asked, “what’s it like being a man in the military? Yeah, No. That’s literally never happened.) But the fact is, she IS a pioneer, whether she wants to be one or not. How many women do you know make their own spirits?! There are only a handful in the country; it is a field dominated by men. But times, they are a changin’! Laura Johnson is making that happen because she never took NO for an answer. You & Yours is her love child, the product of her passion, unique talents, unending hard-work, and flat out unyielding determination.
[TBBB] When/where did your passion for distillery and spirits come from??
[LJ] I always loved to cook. I grew up around lots of food and cooking—in fact I used to fake being sick to stay home from school to watch the Food Network! It’s where I discovered my love to create flavor combinations. I also grew up with a healthy relationship with alcohol, I was encouraged to try sips and tastes. I went on a random distillery tour in Cuba after I graduated from high school. It was just a father/daughter trip, while we were there we visited the Havana Club Distillery. I barely passed chemistry, but I fell in love with the process almost instantly. It was my first glimpse into the distilling process and it was utterly fascinating to me! I remember being enthralled the entire tour. In college I honed my love of spirits, and as soon as I moved out of the (alcohol-prohibited) dorms, I began making my own creations, infusing alcohol with creative combinations and flavors. I became “that friend” who always brought a craft cocktail to a party or celebration, and my friends soon began to ask me for my specialty drinks.
As soon as I turned 21, I started a sommelier education. I studied wine for a while, but the final module is spirits, which brought me back to distilling. My fiancé found me this one-on-one distilling course, so as soon as I graduated from college, I booked the course and was on a plane.
What was that course like for you?
It was a very interesting experience. It was owned by two men who had just kind of threw it together because they had the knowledge and skill. It taught me something. I said to myself, ‘If these two guys can have a considerable regional market share, then I can nail this.’ And from there, I hit the ground running.
You have so much confidence! How did that play into making You & Yours happen?
I was a dog on a bone. I spent 9-10 months educating myself all over the country. In Kentucky, I met professionals who really set me up. I made it a point to meet a lot of people in the business. I made a ton of great connections, and I began to study every aspect of my craft. That built my confidence.
How did you hone your craft? It’s a unique and technical profession.
I studied. The only area I was missing was time on a still. I needed production experience. I wanted to fully learn the process. So I reached out to every distillery in California that I found on Google. I tried to apply for positions or internships, no one responded. The one or two who did eventually respond merely gave me tasting or a marketing department job. That’s NOT what I wanted. I fell in love with distilling and that’s what I wanted to learn. I wanted to PRODUCE and learn the craft as expertly as I could.
What did you do next?
I started my business plan. I amassed enough contacts to establish capital, and thought, ‘why not go for it? You have nothing to lose!’ This was my dream so I simply did just that: I went for it.
Your website says it took THREE YEARS of planning. How was that process?!
[Laughing, she smiles widely at this question.]
I blacked out from a couple of years of putting my head down!! I pitched contacts, I networked got the capital committed, but then I had to jump through all these hoops to prove the concept. Then I perfected my business plan. It’s kind of addictive when you are asked a new question about your business idea and don’t know the answer right away. I made sure at the next meeting, the next time I was asked, I knew exactly how to answer that question and the next one, and so on. I continued hone my pitch.
What is a memorable contact you made and how did he/she help you?
I stalked the CEO of Jim Beam. Eventually, at a distilling course I attended in Kentucky, I sort of forced my business plan into the conversation. Thankfully, he gave me some time, saw my business model, and became one of my financial advisors! It gave me so much added confidence to seek that investment.
It took three years from finishing my business plan to opening the doors. I had to learn a lot, and navigate the processes of city permitting, raising capital, construction, commercial landlord/tenant issues. Just negotiating the lease took 14 months! Operating a liquor license and venue creates an entirely additional set of hoops that winemakers don’t have to deal with. There are all these outdated Prohibition-era laws still in effect, and it was extremely difficult–but not impossible–to navigate that arena. A contact I met was the former head of the *TTB. I asked for his help. He wrote a letter on my behalf that I submitted with my application. I still had to wait seven months! Just to operate a distillery in this location! There is no linear path, and you need grit to see it through. For instance, I needed to have a signed lease (with no business operating yet) before I could even get approved for permit, which takes MONTHS to acquire! Finding a landlord who will give you a free rent or “grace” contingency period to see if you even get approved is not easy, but we did it.
What did you learn from those three years?
First and foremost, BE OPEN to the opportunity. I was just SO CONVICTED, beyond a shadow of a doubt. If I couldn’t get an urban location here in San Diego, fine. I would wait, move somewhere else, maybe Santa Barbara, if it ended up not working out here I would find a place that would make it work. Nothing was going to stop me from opening my business.
It’s only a roadblock if you let it be.
It’s only a ‘no’ if you let it be.
So, here you are, doors finally open March 2017. What was that like after all that time and work?
Amazing! Owning a public facing business is not a walk in the park. My staff are all older than me. It’s a process to maintain and manage my confidence making decisions, standing up for myself when things weren’t being done the way I want.
The general turnover in the industry of hospitality is high, and so loyalty is tough to find. When we made it to three months, I took the whole staff out to celebrate–it was a such a rush of accomplishment!!
The atmosphere for You & Yours is calm yet invigorating. We love it! How did you determine your space and branding?
My good friend is an interior designer and I had to convince her to do this space. We collaborated, and I got a little help from our architect as well. I wanted it to feel inviting, a kitchen, living room, and dining room atmosphere. I wanted a “homey feel” that was polished. You & Yours space is a direct reflection of me.
How did you come up with the name You & Yours?
Traveling for 9-10 months, seeing the industry and diving deeper into the culture, there can be a lot of pretentiousness, a sort of snootiness around cocktail culture. There’s often an elitist attitude, and that’s never what I wanted to be about. I want a business that is open to everyone—as long as you’re having fun, that’s all I care about. I knew what I wanted it to feel and look like, familial and approachable, but I didn’t have a name. One day, in a team brainstorming meeting, it came up: You & Yours Distillery Co. Honestly, I hated it at first. I let it mull over and then it just stuck!
I work with a logo designer/branding firm out of Salt Lake City, a creative agency that helps me figure out the look of the bottles and labels. I was surprised that it was such a long process. We picked a bottle shape first, then I wanted each spirit category to be very different. Each spirit is their own brand, yet all spirits are cohesive next to each other with a similar vibe.
What is your advice as an employer/manage of people?
Make the right person feel known. Keeping an open, honest dialogue. Be open for the right people to come along. Knowing what you want is the first step, finding that great employee is the next step, then keeping that employee is even harder. We want someone raw that we can train our way, who is enthusiastic and passionate, but above all, we want someone loyal. Loyalty in the hospitality industry can be difficult to find.
How do you see yourself evolving?
My list of “what’s next” is a mile long!! We are getting an additional space, a fun new product line, building a patio here at the tasting room, and this fall, we are put in a kitchen for fun bar bites!
Where does this drive to run your own business come from?
You & Yours is my first born child. This is everything to me. I come from very entrepreneurial DNA. My father never even graduated from high school, yet both my parents are super successful. The business person in me has always been there. I do, thankfully, have good mix of both creative and entrepreneurial minds. I admit, I am far more removed from the day to day operation than I ever thought I would be, and I wish I had more time to sit in the back and create, but it does not behoove the business to flood everyone with a bunch of products!
How do you handle being a woman in a male-dominated industry? How do you feel being the first female owned distillery in San Diego?
In the beginning, it garnered a lot of press. I feel it there, but I don’t really care. It can be annoying actually [being a woman in a male dominated field], but I don’t give that any mental energy. I simply don’t have time to. If I did, I wouldn’t be here. Thankfully, the conversation is now (appropriately) shifting from my gender to the brand, to the energy, the space and spirits of You & Yours.
If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?
Ask for help!! Don’t go so long thinking you can do it yourself. I would tell myself to fake the confidence, even when I feel the exact opposite. I’ll get there, so just don’t quit!
What are some insights you’ve learned and tips for others wanting to pursue their own dreams?
No one knows your business better than you do. Take all advice with a grain of salt. Someone may be a well-respected or established authority, but YOU still need make decisions from a place of confidence about your business, regardless of what anyone tells you.
It can be tough, but you gotta sort through the noise. Only you are going to inherently know what is the right move. Ask yourself: what do you know you in your heart?
If you’re really passionate about it, then don’t even consider giving up, no matter how many obstacles may appear.
Lastly, and this is nothing revelatory, but it’s so basic that applies to everything: Above all else, trust your gut.
Last question, because you are a subject matter expert of spirits—what is your desert island cocktail?!?!
Gimlet on the rocks!
Cheers to You & Yours!!!!