Charlotte Business Buzz

Seltzer Starter: Leveraging the power of a Belk College MBA

February 09, 2021 UNC Charlotte
Seltzer Starter: Leveraging the power of a Belk College MBA
Charlotte Business Buzz
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Charlotte Business Buzz
Seltzer Starter: Leveraging the power of a Belk College MBA
Feb 09, 2021
UNC Charlotte

After completing her MBA in 2019 from the Belk College of Business, Kristin Cagney dove headfirst into ambitious plans for the first spiked seltzer brewery and taproom on the east coast. The thirty-eight hundred square foot seltzer company opened in September in the Wesley Heights neighborhood, and has seen success in spite of the pandemic. 

Show Notes Transcript

After completing her MBA in 2019 from the Belk College of Business, Kristin Cagney dove headfirst into ambitious plans for the first spiked seltzer brewery and taproom on the east coast. The thirty-eight hundred square foot seltzer company opened in September in the Wesley Heights neighborhood, and has seen success in spite of the pandemic. 

Jeff 0:00
I’m Jeffrey Jones, Director of Executive Education and Professional Development at UNC Charlotte, and this is Charlotte Business Buzz. Connecting the Queen City’s business community … From UNC Charlotte’s Belk College of Business.... This is Charlotte Business Buzz. Launching a small business is always filled with ups and downs, but our guest today has experienced the unique challenge of launching during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

After completing her MBA in 2019 from the Belk College of Business, Kristin Cagney dove headfirst into ambitious plans for the first spiked seltzer brewery and taproom on the east coast. The thirty-eight hundred square foot seltzer company opened in September in the Wesley Heights neighborhood, and has seen success in spite of the pandemic. 

Kristin, welcome to the program. 

Kristin 0:44
Hey thanks Jeff. Happy to be here.

Jeff 0:47
So tell me about Summit Seltzer - what's the vibe, anything else you'd like to share up front about what it's like to visit Summit? 

Kristin 0:54
So Summit, we are the first Seltzery like you said on the east coast so we really are focused on kind of the craft aspect of seltzer. So - kind of - if you think of Mc Ultra, Bud Light to Noda or Birdsong Brewing you know - we're kind of like that for a White Claw or Truly. Summit is kind of a seltzer that just focuses more on the craft. So when you come in you know we do all of our fermentation in-house we have bright colors to all of our seltzers because we use real fruit purees and I mean really the vibe if you come in - we're very modern sleek but very, very inviting, welcome - we don't want to exclude anyone - so we're very, very inclusive here you know whether you're 21 or 65, boy or girl, you're gonna feel welcome in the tap room and if you're in heels or you're in sweats you'll feel comfortable. 

Jeff 1:45
So let's go back to the beginning, what's the story behind the business plan? 

Kristin 1:50
So I mean really it all started uh when I was in my MBA, all my friends were going back to corporate and I was like oof I don't think I can do it, so I was kind of thinking of alternatives of what I wanted to do when I graduated and I’d worked for breweries through school, I did my undergrad at Boulder in Colorado and lived out there so I was back and forth from Colorado the last - you know - few years and then lived out there for 10 years prior to that but I, you know, worked at breweries there too and really have a huge passion for the craft industry - I love and appreciate really the art behind beer the science and the camaraderie that comes with the industry. There's so many awesome breweries in Charlotte and it's hard to compete in that kind of market right now especially with the craft beer craze - it's a little bit saturated of a market -  and so I kind of was joking with some of my friends we were drinking seltzer and I was like what about a seltzery and they were like that's actually a good idea and so me and one of my buddies actually in the MBA program started just writing a business plan and it took several months to actually kind of just do a ton of research and I was actually going to do the concept in Colorado so I was able to do a market research and analytics class that focused on brewery sentiments and actually moved back out there for ski season also but we were really just focusing on making the seltzer a thing and when I was writing the business plan there's no other seltzeries. So the other two that are open there's three in the nation right now the other two started as breweries and then transitioned to seltzeries so they already had the tanks they had the equipment they had everything so I was the first that from the ground up started from a seltzery and I had to pitch it to banks because they don't teach you about how to get an SBA loan in school so I kind of had to learn the hard way of getting rejected a ton from banks. Just really fine-tuning my business plan every time that I got rejected, fine-tuning the package that I delivered to any bank - finally someone took a shot on me and it was a small bank called Uwharrie here in Charlotte and so I was able to to get the loan but it really all started with the business plan and the programs. 

Jeff 4:00
You mentioned uh you went back out to Colorado - why did you end up choosing Charlotte for your business?

Kristin 4:08
For multiple reasons - Denver's really saturated but mainly we're family-owned and I - my dad and my mom moved to Cornelius. I just wanted to be closer to home, they're really involved and people in Charlotte are just so nice. I think Charlotte has some something super unique that  - I love Denver, I love to ski, I love the mountains so that's kind of why Colorado will always have a spot in my heart and that transcends in the brand - you know Summit comes from that - the crafted for adventure, we have mountains, you know our flight boards are actually recycled skis, and so we still have a little bit of that Colorado vibe in here but Charlotte just it feels more homey. I was raised in the midwest and I get those more midwest you know vibes in Charlotte people are more willing to give a helping hand and really see each other succeed. The camaraderie here is just awesome and people are just - it's a community and a culture that I more connect with, I think. 

Jeff 5:04
So you mentioned your parents - I've heard you feel real strongly about keeping your business family-owned. In what way is that important?

Kristin 5:12
I am extremely close with my parents, extremely close with my brothers. I grew up in a small midwestern town where my grandma had five kids, those five kids each had like at least three kids and we all went to the same high school - that my aunts and uncles went to and all my cousins went to. So really we were raised in a huge Irish family that we just  - we're drinkers and we love to get together and so they have a running joke that it's like only a matter of time that one of us opened up a bar so, you know having it be family owned it still kind of allows us to do what we want to do and keep our vision. I've worked a lot with companies and breweries and restaurants that have investors and you know it's awesome because what a doctor does is way more important than what I do, however you know a lot of investors haven't worked for a bar they don't know the ins and outs of a bar or kind of the ecosystem of how breweries and bars are ran, so it's difficult because a lot of people start having their opinions on how to do things but there are a lot of logistics to running a bar that aren't as simple as - hey do x, y, z  - there's a lot of other things that need to be put in place and a foundation to be built to get things done. You know I think having just less people - I'm open to listen to everyone's thoughts and constructive criticisms 100 percent, but it does get a little difficult when you have people invested in it that are shoving their opinions down your throat - you're like okay I get it. My mom is our CPA, she also makes our jello shots, my dad's always in here - he's like a glorified busboy on the weekends - my brother bartends, so we're just always here you know we basically live here so it's fun to have a role for everyone. 

Jeff 6:55
Charlotte has as you mentioned a great craft scene, what's it like to be the new upstart in town?

Kristin 07:03
It's fun - I have worked for breweries and other places in town so I really am already familiar with kind of the neighborhood, I'm familiar with a lot of the companies that we're working with, which has been a lot smoother of a transition to kind of open up my own endeavor having that background of familiarity with the culture - the brewing industry in Charlotte. We're definitely different than a brewery and it's been interesting because you know the craft beer nerds were giving us a lot of crap because they're like - oh man, seltzer is just a fad, that's the dumbest idea i've ever heard - so we got a lot, of that but we mainly - you know 90 percent of the feedback we've gotten has been super supportive - and everyone that actually works at the breweries have been phenomenal and the owners are phenomenal. It's fun though, I mean I love to talk, I love to build relationships with people, I love that that's my job now is to just go make relationships with the community. It's also given us a platform to be able to give back quite a bit too. Despite the pandemic, you know it's kind of fun being established and open now. 

Jeff 8:10
So launching a business is no small task how did your Belk College MBA program support your growth from idea to launch? 

Kristin 8:20
My professors were awesome and then the director he allowed me to actually just customize the the course to actually specifically focus on the seltzery, so I mean it was great because I had a lot of support, I loved having the access to a lot of research tools that I wouldn't have had access to had I not be in the program because I did not know this but those are not cheap to get some of you know the research that we were able to get - from people to the education, it was awesome - and also I think the camaraderie that we had with our fellow classmates - you know - two of my MBA buddies were in last night at the seltzery grabbing a seltzer and we still talk about everything that we do - they're all in consulting, and in marketing and all these really important awesome things that they do and so it's cool to have that background and those people who are professional and love to learn kind of on your side and supporting you. 

Jeff 9:14
We’ll be right back with Kristin Cagney in just a moment on Charlotte Business Buzz. 

Fifty years ago, UNC Charlotte launched the first graduate program in the region for working business professionals. Today, this nationally ranked part-time MBA continues to drive business in Charlotte and beyond. Whether you’re just starting out in the business world or contemplating your next step in an established career, the UNC Charlotte MBA is designed to meet your individual needs and goals. Learn more at

Welcome back. We’re continuing our conversation with MBA graduate Kristin Cagney on launching the Summit Seltzer Company. 

So I'm interested in the ways that maybe COVID has been impacting your business. What were the challenges getting to launch and what are the day-to-day challenges of navigating in the pandemic? 

Kristin 10:08
So I closed the loan on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th, 2020, and it was literally the day that all bars and restaurants closed at five o'clock for the unforeseeable future - it ended up being you know a few months - so that was just the most ironic thing on the planet because I finally am here you know my dreams are coming true I'm signing my life away in this bank and i'm so nervous and then on top of that it's like well I'm opening up something that's literally shutting down tonight and is legally not allowed to be open and so I am luckily a really optimistic person so really we've just been taking it in stride and I don't know any better so I don't know what it's like to open up not in COVID so it's been nice just being able to roll with the punches because we're already just learning so I know a lot of people had to really completely shift what they were doing you know shifting their focus to canning versus just tap room sales and so we have definitely just been focusing on the safety of our customers and you know making sure we socially distance ourselves in the tap room. We're canning a little bit earlier than we were originally planning on canning, we're just taking it in stride and just making sure we stay positive and you know get through it together. 

Jeff 11:28
So how's the canning going?

Kristin 11:31
So we are working on labels right now - we work with this awesome marketing company The Plaid Penguin - so I was there yesterday just kind of ironing out the labels. So once we get those, we'll actually launch the cans. We're using a mobile canner, so the mobile canning company comes in and they basically from a to z do everything - getting the seltzer into the cans, getting the labels on, getting all the you know oxygen right and the lids set correctly and so - and then we're going to most likely just do retail to smaller shops, not any big, big guys because it's just hard to keep up with that with kind of our smaller facility right now, but I really do want to expand quickly because we are you know the only seltzery around so there is a lot of room for us to distribute since we don't have a whole lot of competition.

Jeff 12:21
Are you also going to distribute at the Seltzery? 

Kristin 12:24
Yeah so we'll sell out of the seltzery - we have crawlers right now that are just 32 ounce cans that we can just fill up for anyone that comes in right now, and then the canyon will actually be just like a four pack of the 16 ounce cans that we'll sell out of the tap room as well.

Jeff 12:42
And do you have a core offering versus kind of small batch stuff that you're doing on a rotating basis? 

Kristin 12:50
We're doing the chasing sunsets and the pinknetics, so our chasing sunsets is a blueberry raspberry and then the pinknetic is a pink guava pear so those are the two that we're canning first, and then we're distributing those as well as our mountain tropics which is pineapple, a dry hopped pineapple so it's kind of like our gateway seltzer, we used wolf hops so it's you know the first actually craft dry hopped seltzer in the nation so we're pretty proud of that one and then the toast to Charlotte which is a blueberry raspberry acai which almost has a tootsie roll finish almost tastes like kind of like a chocolatey seltzer. 

Jeff 13:26
That sounds exciting. So what's the future for you and for Summit Seltzer? 

Kristin 13:30
So yeah in the the future of Summit, really right now we're focused on building our foundation and making sure the tap room is really strong, that we have a starting point in the future and I am the opposite of most people - I hate when people ask me you know where do you see yourself in five years because I never in a million years, five years ago would have been like i'm opening up my own seltzery. I want to make sure that we focus on what our strengths are and then go in that direction. I really do want to expand - if we could open up a distribution facility - and then have you know other tap rooms that we focus on the experience that people have when they come in the tap room and I really admire Sierra Nevada brewing. They work a lot with the community, they are a craft brewery out of California originally but they opened up a castle here - it's like the willy wonka of breweries - up in Asheville and so it'd be fun to be able to kind of go in that direction and really stay true to our craft but also be a nationally-known brand. One of the things, I know the legalities behind it are weird, but I would love to be able to kind of sponsor things - my favorite things to do, you know I love to exercise, really outdoor sports, I love hiking, skiing, camping, and you know when I lived out in Colorado Monster and Red Bull had all these you know sponsorships and it'd be really fun to to kind of get into that realm too with just kind of sponsoring different things with our brand. Having fun is the most important thing and staying true to myself, true to my family, and being happy you know that's kind of what I’m mainly focused on is just making sure I wake up every day and I’m like this is awesome. 

Jeff 15:11
So for those listening with a business idea looking to get started, what advice would you offer them? 

Kristin 15:16

Don't give up. Ask a ton of questions, do a bunch of research, people are going to be like that's wild - you think differently, that's why so many people don't end up opening up their own businesses. I think the most important thing for me throughout all of this was like I’m gonna do it, there's no question that I wasn't gonna do it, and so throughout all the rejections  - like I said you know 50 banks  - I mean it was crazy how much rejection I got and how long it took but I just knew I was going to do it and so that was never a question and so keep at it, 100 percent and ask questions -  some people don't love to help and they're not gonna give you the best advice but I just was always curious and always listened to what other people did, and not necessarily did what they had done but at least listen to kind of their approach, the rationality behind it, and then kind of made educated decisions on what I wanted to do for my own business and my own endeavor from all of that information. You know going back to school was huge for me  - my background was finance and my MBA was marketing and it was a good combination because you really see kind of both sides of the business. I just - constantly learning is huge and learning more about what you want to do. No one's ever an expert, but you can come at least more informed. 

Jeff 16:38
When I come and visit Summit, what seltzer should I try first?

Kristin 16:44
Hmm, well it depends on what you like drinking. Our number one and two in the tap room are chasing sunsets and toast to Charlotte. My best friend passed away last summer and her name was Charlotte and she loved to give shameless toast to herself and so I had like 100 videos of her just like and toast to me and cheers to me and also it's an ode to Charlotte as well - this city. Some of the proceeds to toast to Charlotte actually go to Read Charlotte, which is a non-profit here in Charlotte that helps fight illiteracy in children in Mecklenburg county so that one actually has kind of the most meaning to me and then if you're from North Carolina we have a seltzer that's called cheer don't wine and it tastes like Cheerwine or Cherry Coke almost and it's dangerous because it's 8.3% I think and it tastes like cheerwine - it doesn't even taste like alcohol - so those are probably the top I’d choose. 

Jeff 17:42
Great, so I look forward to visiting you at Summit. So thank you so much for your time today Kristin. 

Kristin 17:48
Oh yeah, no, thank you guys for having me. It's always fun to chat and we really hope to have you in the tap room.

Jeff 17:54
For more on the Summit Seltzer Company, visit our website B-U-Z-Z. While you’re there, check out previous episodes and tell us how we’re doing by completing our survey.

This is Charlotte Business Buzz ... Connecting Charlotte business through one-on-one interviews with UNC Charlotte faculty, staff, alumni and industry partners… presented by the Belk College of Business and produced in association with University Communications.