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Life of a Lincoln Park bars and nightlife business owner

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Examiner.com, meet Leah Caplanis, CEO of new beverage Social Enjoyments set to hit the shelves of Whole Foods and Plum Market at the end of March. Social Enjoyments is a refreshing alcoholic beverage with only 88 calories, one gram of sugar, and 4% alcohol. It's also gluten-free and sweetened with Stevia. I sat down with Leah last week to learn more about her business and this new product.

Analiese Trimber: The alcohol is made from brown rice, how does that happen?

Leah Caplanis: Well, I know one of the cofounders of Izze and he’s a brewmaster. He created this process to use organic brown rice to brew an alcohol base. It’s a similar process to making sake, since sake is also made from rice. He’s kind of managing the alcohol portion for us, and then my influence is mixing it with the flavors and sweeteners since I have a lot of health-based knowledge. My family has always been involved in holistic health; my sister owns a health food store and she’s sort of an expert in that field. I was always interested in holistic health but when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer about four years ago I went raw vegan and I tried everything under the sun. I went to a raw vegan institute in Florida and I went to a macrobiotic institute, so I just learned a ton from those classes. I was really trying to avoid sugar and toxins and I wanted a drink that allowed me to drink within those restrictions.

AT: Do you only have one flavor currently?

LC: Yes, right now we only have one flavor, hibiscus cucumber, but we’re working on product development for two more that will be out in December.

AT: How long has this product been in the making?

LC: I first got the idea in Summer of 2012. It was a beautiful summer day in Old Town and I was outside eating lunch with a few friends. I decided that I was going to drink with my friends after not drinking alcohol for a long time. I had the idea then, but actually started working on the project in November of 2012. I started to bring together a team and I quit my job at Nestlé and I’ve been working full time on the business since then.

AT: How would you say your career at Nestlé prepared you for this new business?

LC: At Nestlé, I was exposed to food and beverage marketing and sales. I started out going to individual grocery stores selling thousands of Nestlé items of all different brands. First, I got to see how things happened at the retail level and then I went and worked at the headquarters. I got to work aside marketing and finance, and learned about actually creating and producing the items. I also learned about account specific marketing, like how to actually deal with headquarters, how to get our items in, and how to build the brands in the store. With this new business, I mainly focus on the same type of marketing and sales, but I’m also doing a lot of product development.

AT: What is your target audience?

LC: Women ages 21-33. Really it’s more like ages 23-26. We’re targeting city women who know they’re motivated about life, who are sophisticated and into the latest trends. They’re into health and wellness and into expressing themselves. That age group might be a little young because sometimes it takes a little while to come into yourself, but we’re trying to encourage that. The brand is trying to encourage the freedom to express yourself. We’re trying to remind women that it’s not the alcohol that’s making everything fun. It’s not about getting really drunk, it’s about being around people, dancing, having fun, and then going home and waking up and feeling good, not hungover. When you wake up and feel good, then you can get up and go to yoga, or work on a fashion product, or write or do whatever that makes the world better. Sometimes a woman’s relationship with alcohol can be taxing and we’re trying to bring more balance.

AT: What are your goals as far as retail availability?

LC: Well, we dropped off samples at Binny’s headquarters yesterday. Whole Foods was my first priority because the people there are actively seeking healthier products. The same holds true for Plum Market in Old Town. We would especially love to get into Binny’s because it’s a Chicago staple, but we’re also going to be pursuing Jewel, Mariano’s, and Target as soon as we build ourselves up a bit more in the next couple weeks.

AT: Is it on your timeline for your product to go national? And if so, how long do you think it will take?

LC: Yes. In 2015, we’re planning on going to California. We’ll also expand in the Midwest to Minneapolis, Grand Rapids, and later Austin, Texas. Hopefully within five years a larger company will buy us and take it national.

AT: How do you think your product will fit into Lincoln Park nightlife?

LC: Lincoln Park is a huge neighborhood target for us because it’s full of twenty-something Chicagoans. We will approach Lincoln Park Supermarket very soon, and of course, Binny’s. Next, my partner who handles on premise, so the bar scene, will reach out to some bars we have targeted. We really want to be at the trendiest ones.

AT: Would you say you are focusing equally on your product being in supermarkets and bars?

LC: Yes, I would say we are focusing on both equally. We definitely want it to be available in bars. I handle the grocery side and my partner handles the on premise, she’s been here for several years and her whole career has been selling to bars.

AT: What was the inspiration behind this product?

Leah: I went through this time with a lot of restrictions with not drinking and being a raw vegan for 8 months. I carried around a cooler of raw food and then when I started to drink again...well really what it was I started dating someone and he was an indulger. We went to the nicest restaurants. I had been vegetarian for 9 years and I started eating meat and just enjoying life in that way, but it was a little bit out of balance. I gained weight and I wasn’t as health focused, so this drink it just trying to bring back that type of balance. The slogan is “Freedom to enjoy life,” so the freedom from the guilt of getting too drunk or messing up your health goals and freedom to express yourself while still having fun and enjoying life.

AT: Can you talk a little bit more about how you want women to feel when they use your product?

LC: I would say the main thing is that I want it to be a very happy joyful experience. The product is called Social Enjoyments, so it’s about enjoying being around people and being yourself. The Social Butterfly is the inspiration and the logo…think of someone like that; she’s happy and she’s talking to everyone. She’s friendly and just enjoying life, you know, so that’s kind of what I’m hopefully allowing women to bring out in themselves.

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