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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 19, 2018 10 months ago

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Tampa Bay area entrepreneurs have zeroed in on vodka — including revitalizing neglected brands — as the next big thing in spirits.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Craft beer still grabs the headlines.

But in the Tampa region, vodka revivals are all the rage.

Consider Ram Ramcharran, who recently breathed new life into Fat Dog Spirits, an artisan distillery founded in 2003 in Ybor City by investment banker Nick Carboni. Ramcharran and his primary business partners, liquor retail veteran Raj Patel and former Florida State University and NFL running back Reggie Johnson, have repositioned the company and its signature product, Touch Vodka. They've also refined, repackaged and expanded Fat Dog's line of handcrafted spirits, made with novel ingredients such as Valencia oranges, Key limes and honey.

Meanwhile, across the bay, Rich Roberts, CEO of St. Petersburg-based Edgewater Spirits LLC, acquired the U.S. distribution rights to Wodka — a storied brand of Polish rye vodka that had fallen on hard times. Also in St. Petersburg is Kozuba & Sons, which produces and sells a line of sprits that includes aged rye vodka, among other products. Kozuba & Sons is run out of a 20,000-square-foot converted seafood storage complex on Fifth Avenue South in the Warehouse Arts District, just southwest of Tropicana Field.

Since going into business together in 2015, Ramcharran, Johnson and Patel — whose friendship goes back more than 20 years (Ramcharran and Johnson were classmates at FSU) — have experienced some major success with Touch Vodka. The vodka, having won a gold medal at the 2006 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, comes with a sterling reputation.

“The guys who ran it before, they were only doing maybe 100 cases a month,” says Ramcharran, 48. “It wasn't that much, but they created a good brand.”

Today, after investing more than $1 million in the upgrades, Ramcharran and his colleagues are producing 600 cases a month and are on track to raise that number to at least 1,000.

“We could easily do 10,000 cases per year if we add one more still,” Ramcharran says. “We're right in the middle of raising capital to meet those demands. And we have two new products that we plan to launch in 2018, which we think will move the needle.”

Ramcharran expects the company's 2018 revenue to be in the range of $900,000 to $1.2 million, exclusive of out-of-state sales.

Patel, 42, adds that Touch Vodka is available in many retail liquor chains, including Total Wine and Luekens Liquors. A few Sam's Club and BJ's Wholesale Club locations also carry it. And the company recently landed a deal with Texas Roadhouse. “The anticipation is that by February, we'll be in all 51 of their locations in Florida,” says Patel, the company's COO. “Locally, we're in a lot of the high-end restaurants, like Bernini's, Gaspar's Grotto and Cafe Ponce.”

While Touch Vodka aims to increase market share, aided by recently naming Ron Bartholomew, former head of sales at CBS News in New York City, president of Fat Dog Spirits, the executives behind Wodka are on a crusade against the perception that pricey vodka is the best.

With a retail price tag of $12.99 to $14.99 per bottle, Wodka beat out competitors that cost more than $40 per bottle last year at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Roberts, a former Seagrams executive with more than four decades in liquor and spirits, was attracted to Wodka because of its strong brand identity and history. Since launching in the U.S. in January 2017, Wodka has become available in about 20 states, with more coming.

“People sometimes have in their mind if it's a higher price, it's therefore a better quality than something that's lower priced,” says Roberts, 69. “But the proof [against that] is when you win these gold medals against the expensive vodkas in spite of your price.”

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