Melinda Williamson, an enrolled member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, founded Morning Light Kombucha, a trademarked American Indian Foods product, based in Hoyt, Kansas.
Every entrepreneur’s story is unique. Whereas some aspiring small business owners know exactly what product or service they want to bring to market, Melinda Williamson reverse-engineered her focus, starting with her values. Before she even identified her “what,” she honed in on her “why.” She developed a foundation for a future business rooted in promoting health, embracing sustainability, and supporting community.
What emerged? Morning Light Kombucha, a trademarked American Indian Foods product.
Her mission statement sums it up best:
“Our mission is to provide the highest quality kombucha tea that nourishes our community, supports our local economy, strengthens local food systems and allows us to give back to Native American communities. We are committed to environmentally conscious business practices, that include minimizing waste and inspiring sustainability.”
After nearly four years in business, today Morning Light Kombucha touts a 1,700-square-feet brewery in Hoyt, Kansas, with 12 fill stations for kombucha on tap, plus a consistent farmers market presence, and a loyal customer base who praise the health benefits of drinking the fermented beverage. (The fizzy, fermented tea is rich in probiotics, B vitamins, antioxidants, enzymes, and healthy acids. Learn more about the beverage at morninglightkombucha.com/faqs.)
The next phase of Morning Light Kombucha’s evolution entails launching a pre-packaged product line and expanding distribution to Tribal casinos, health stores, coops and farmers markets nationwide. Williamson also looks forward to creating more unique, signature brews for Native communities by infusing their local herbs, florals or crops into her kombucha.
Meanwhile, her business growth would serve multiple purposes. Not only would it empower her to turn a profit, it would drive her conscious entrepreneurial mission forward. She is deeply invested in inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs across Indian Country, as well as encouraging more women to pursue their passions through business.
Williamson, an enrolled member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, spoke with Native Business about bringing her vision for Morning Light Kombucha to life, navigating the hurdles of business, and her plans for growth and greater impact across Indian Country.
Given her less common approach to building a business grounded in values — before clarifying her “what” and her revenue model — it’s necessary to start at the beginning….
From the Grasslands to the Brewery
Williamson studied reptile and amphibian behavior and medicinal plants at Haskell Indian Nations University, where she earned her Associate’s Degree in Natural Resources, and completed her Bachelor’s Degree in Natural History Biology at Kansas State University. “I did a lot of work with local reptile species in the area. That was my passion,” she tells Native Business.
After investing time in the field — or, more technically, in the “grasslands” of Kansas — and in the ecology lab, Williamson landed a job at Oklahoma State University, where she channeled her attention “below the surface,” performing research in a Soil Microbial lab.
Williamson ran the lab as a Senior Research Specialist for several years and obtained her Master’s Degree in Natural Resource Ecology and Management during this time. But as her daughter got older, she felt a strong desire to bring her back “home,” to raise her closer to the Prairie Band Potawatomi reservation in Kansas. “Her dad is Sac and Fox, so we had his family close to us [in Oklahoma],” Williamson noted. “She wasn’t completely without ceremonies. But I also wanted her to know our ways, to be able to attend our ceremonies, and to learn our language.”
The prospect of moving presented a career turning point for Williamson. She took time to reflect, asking herself, “Are there any common themes in my life? What has been a desire, my drive? I saw this pattern: At several points in my life I wanted to open a business,” she shares.
So, she spent evenings developing the foundation of a business. She didn’t know her “what,” so she started with her values. “I knew sustainability was important, and I wanted to be able to use sales to give back to the community.”
Then she started to narrow her vision down.
Around this same time, Williamson was diagnosed with an autoimmune illness, and she began researching ways to heal with food instead of taking medication. “I had found a ton of healing with eating whole foods and fermented foods, and knowing where my food came from. I was drinking green smoothies. My daughter and I had received so many health benefits from going back to a deconstructed diet — ridding our diets of processed foods and having simplified meals,” she says.
Williamson recognized a dearth of healthy food cafes or food trucks throughout Kansas. So she implemented a five-year plan to save her money to create something to fill the void. She settled on a green smoothie food truck.
While an experienced scientist, “I had no business sense,” she says. So she did her due diligence — she started taking business classes and workshops.
A core thread materialized in every iteration of her business vision. “I thought, ‘I have to have kombucha in my food truck!’” She had been brewing it at home; it just hadn’t crossed her mind to sell it.
Williamson started sharing her kombucha with her community. “Everybody was like, ‘This is great. How can I get more?’”
That’s when everything clicked. Instead of investing $50,000 or $60,000 in a green smoothie food truck startup, Morning Light Kombucha was born organically — pun intended — in 2016.
Ultimately, Williamson launched her business with $5,000 in seed money from her personal savings.
“I have not received any outside funding at all [yet],” she says. Because she has been reinvesting all Morning Light’s profits back into the business, Williamson has paid herself very little. Rather, she has held down a part-time job at her Tribe’s language department to draw personal income.
“It was definitely hard. I still operate that way, but I am to a point now where I am ready to make some big moves with the business,” she says of Morning Light Kombucha, which boasts the trademark “Made/Produced by American Indians” through the Intertribal Agriculture Council (IAC).
Finally, Williamson is gearing up to apply for her first loan through Akiptan, a Native American financing program, to support her investment in a canning line and new distribution model.
Presently, Morning Light Kombucha is sold on tap at several locations across Northeast Kansas, including on her reservation.
“That’s been our focus for the past several years. Sustainability is important to me,” she says, adding that her reservation and surrounding communities do not offer glass recycling, and she is committed to reducing waste. “I wasn’t interested in pre-packaging 16-ounce bottles that sit on the shelf, because I know that people would throw them in the trash.”
Morning Light Kombucha currently counts 12 fill stations across Northeast Kansas plus a presence at local farmers’ markets. “You can just go in and purchase a bottle, or bring your own bottle and fill it up, and then bring it back,” she says.
But for national expansion, she knew she needed to consider other forms of packaging. Evaluating her options, Williamson saw an opportunity. “People are more inclined to recycle a can,” she says.
Canning and Growing Distribution
Morning Light Kombucha will launch a canning line in 2020. “It’ll be a small, 12-ounce can. I think that will allow us to reach more Native communities.”
Currently, eight Tribal enterprises, a Tribal coop and coffee shops have expressed interest in carrying her product on their shelves or at their booths.
To grow, the one-person operation will need some assistance. First and foremost, Williamson plans to hire her sister, who has long lent her services for free to help grow the Morning Light Kombucha brand. Meanwhile, Williamson hires Native people whenever possible. “All of our advertising and our logo was done by a Native artist out of Lawrence, Kansas, named Orlando Begay,” she shares.
Williamson is committed to making kombucha more accessible to Native Americans across the country. “I have seen so much healing from kombucha, and the majority of my customers are older. Most of them have some kind of health ailment. They keep coming back, because it’s helping. It doesn’t take a lot, just a little bit.”
Beyond growing her market through Tribal casinos, stores, coops and farmers’ markets, Williamson plans to build an online store, “where people can order and have it shipped to their home. That’s another way that we’ll be able to get it to people and individuals that may not have a coop, a casino, or some kind of health food market,” she says.
Morning Light Kombucha will also implement its own labeling. “That’ll allow us to save a little bit of money, instead of paying for 10,000 labels of one flavor, we can have a little flexibility and print only the amount we need,” she says.
Brewing Signature Batches
Williamson is in talks with various Tribal stores, coops and farmers’ markets to create unique, signature brews that reflect their local landscape. For instance, she can brew a signature kombucha flavor by infusing it with a local herb or food, such as sage, prickly pear or roasted corn.
She currently does that on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. “We work with local, organic farmers, in addition to harvesting our own fruits. Some of the fruits that we find here on our reservation are pawpaws, wild gooseberries, sand plums and wild black raspberries.” Morning Light Kombucha offers green and black tea-based blends.
Her Great Business Challenge? Scaling Up.
“I need to scale up. I want to be bigger. I want to do more things. And so, I need to ask for help,” Williamson tells Native Business. “I need to step out of my comfort zone, and to try to secure a loan and to try to hire someone. All that is really scary,” she admits.
Williamson started brewing 14-gallons at a time. “I had two small, seven-gallon fermenters, and I had a SCOBY that I had been using that was given to me by a friend,” she says.
She had about six months of home brewing under belt when she launched Morning Light Kombucha at the local farmers’ market. Multiplying keg by keg, she quickly grew her stock.
“Kombucha is a living beverage,” Williamson explains to Native Business. Because it’s fermented, Williamson believes kombucha tastes best, and becomes even more rich with anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, after about a month in the fridge after fermentation. The fermentation process itself lasts about four to six weeks.
After approximately four to five weeks in a primary fermenter, Williamson transfers the tea to a secondary fermenter, where she infuses flavor in the form of fruit, vegetables, or flowers. “That sits for another week or so before it’s ready to keg,” she says, adding, “All these different stages are determined by the pH. Before we move it from the primary fermenter to the secondary, it has to reach a certain pH.” Once in the secondary fermenter, she monitors the brew daily until it reaches the desired pH level.
“Then we take it, carbonate it, and it’s ready to go out for delivery or for consumer consumption,” she says.
Pretty quickly after launching, Wiliamson acquired two 20-gallon fermenters. Then she purchased a couple of 55-gallon fermenters at $1,000 a pop, and a 200-gallon fermenter that typically has a $2,000 price tag. Williamson, though, is known to hustle to find a good deal. “The most I’ve ever paid for a fermenter is around $1,700,” she says. “They’re expensive for a small business like mine,” she adds.
Morning Light Kombucha operates in a 1,700-square-feet brewery. “We have the capacity to brew about 820 gallons at a time. From producing just 14 gallons [at a time] just a couple of years ago to now, it’s pretty impressive,” Williamson says. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘Wow!’”
Jumping Business Hurdles
A significant business hurdle for Williamson has been general and consumer education about kombucha. “People really didn’t know what kombucha was,” she says.
Even getting her license to operate a kombucha business in the state of Kansas took a year. “They didn’t know where to categorize me. They thought I needed more licensing than I needed,” she says.
Her next hurdle comes in the form of distribution — both logistically and meeting the legal requirements.
Connecting With Community
At the end of the day, Williamson reaps her joy from connecting with her Tribal community and the greater community — and kombucha just so happens to often serve as the heart of the conversation. She’s grateful for the opportunity to “visit with people about their health and find common ground.” It’s been an empowering journey “getting people to really start thinking about what they’re putting into their body and where it’s coming from,” she says.
Williamson adds that the local farmers she collaborates with to create signature brews also sell at her farmers’ market. “So we have this really great network of growers and small businesses like mine, all working together and supporting each other. It helps a business like mine to flourish. Those partnerships make it worthwhile,” she says.
While Morning Light Kombucha has yet to turn a profit, Williamson is already giving back to Indian Country. After all, supporting Native communities was integral to her initial motivation to create a business.
In addition to taking students from the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation up to Standing Rock, where they successfully got press passes to film a documentary that was presented in Washington D.C., Morning Light Kombucha has donated money to the Native American Rights Fund, Native Women Lead, and to smaller organizations on the Prairie Band Potawatomi reservation. That support extends to her broader community of local farmers and small business owners as well. “We’re trying to do our best to support our community here in Northeast Kansas. That’s the most rewarding part of my business,” she says.
Another critical component of entrepreneurship to Williamson is inspiring the next generation and more women business owners. “I’m a single mom. I’ve been doing this on my own. I love that I’m able to inspire other mothers and other women to go out and pursue what they want,” she says. “That’s exciting to see.”
Williamson often delivers talks at schools near her reservation, and soon she’ll head to speak at a school in Lawrence. “I like to talk to youth about my experiences with entrepreneurship,” she says, “and to let them know it’s thriving, and I’m here.”