Restaurant Notes extra: Crossroads Kombucha wants to take its fermented tea nationwide

Crossroads Kombucha is stepping up production of its fermented tea. (Screen capture from News-Sentinel.com video)
Robert Johnson, founder of Crossroads Kombucha, stands next to one of the company's fermenting tanks. He hopes to start production in the company's new space next week. (Photo by Lisa M. Esquivel Long of News-Sentinel.com)

We went to the Crossroads to meet Robert Johnson and, instead of the blues, we got a peek at a small start-up that makes fermented tea and hopes to one day rival the West Coast powerhouses.

Johnson founded Crossroads Kombucha and hopes by next week to start production at its new facility at 810 Donnell Ave. Maybe then he can get a little sleep because he’s only gotten about 2½ hours a night in the last month as the finish line approaches.

Tom Brookshire, the efficiency side of the duo brought in by Johnson, has a simple goal: take MillerCoors in America’s title of most efficient bottling line in the U.S.

“I want to put Fort Wayne on the map,” Johnson said. When people think of kombucha, he wants them to think of Fort Wayne alongside Portland, Ore., and California.

The company’s kombucha is already sold in local and regional stores, including Three Rivers Co-op Ted’s Market, 12628 Coldwater Road, and Joseph Decuis Emporium in Roanoke. Never having tried kombucha before, we bought a couple of flavors a few weeks ago. We were met with a very acidic smell, what Johnson refers to as vinegary. It was definitely not the sugary drinks we’re used to on the market, but we weren’t put off by it.

“Kombucha has no sugar added to it. The flavor comes from the fruit, not its juice,” Johnson said.

“Kombucha is a fermented food,” he said. “As such it’s going to have a naturally … acidic flavor to it. Most companies add juice to flavor it to mask that vinegary taste. We use fruit.”

For the last several weeks the co-owners have been installing equipment in a warehouse. They hope to hire 6-10 people that they plan to pay higher-than-average wages, perhaps $15 an hour with some sort of profit sharing, thanks to the efficient layout of the production facility.

“We designed it with it being as efficient as possible,” said Johnson, 39.

Those familiar with Six Sigma will see the well-thought layout, designed for maximum efficiency, right down to the number of steps a worker has to take to accomplish a task, said Brookshire, who has studied Six Sigma for 10 years.

The assembly line will be moveable because their flavoring tanks have wheels on them.

They hope to produce 2,000 gallons a day if their delivery partner makes runs on time.

Brookshire, who has owned several salons and spas, credits Greater Fort Wayne for help they’ve received.

“It’s awesome how many entrepreneurs are willing to help other entrepreneurs,” he said.

They see Chuck Surack of Sweetwater, where Johnson has worked, as a role model for creating a company environment where people want to come to work, Brookshire said. Satisfied employees will cut down on turnover, he said.

Johnson hears from people that his dream has come true. However, “it was never a dream. It just happened. I found kombucha by chance.”

He was suffering from tendinitis that he says went away after adding kombucha to his diet. With a wife and two children and him making little money as a book author, “I couldn’t afford to buy bottles for all of us.”

So he found a recipe and made a batch “that literally blew up in my hand. The second batch tasted horrible. The third one was the charm.”

He gave it away to friends and family who said he should sell it. He learned people were willing to pay $3-$4 a bottle when he sold 62 bottles in 1½ hours through Facebook.

Employees in the fruit area will chop and smash the fruit that they hope to source from as nearby as possible, something that isn’t going to be available year-round locally.

“You can’t get your produce around the corner,” Johnson said.

Brookshire said, “We’re blessed. We’ve got the best berries in the area.”

That will make a difference as they move deliveries toward California, where kombucha is already popular.

They have 10 flavors, four of which are seasonal. “As we expand outside of our general vicinity, we will likely launch with five flavors – keeping some of the other seasonal ones available in the Fort Wayne region,” Johnson said. “We haven’t narrowed it down exactly, but they will be taken from this group,” he said:

• Blackberry-Mint

• Blueberry-Sage

• Mango-Strawberry

• Pineapple-Coconut

• Raspberry-Rose Hips

• Strawberry-Basil

Seasonals for the northeast Indiana area that will still remain are:

• Apricot-Ginger

• Cinnamon-Peach

• Lavender-Grape

Mango-Strawberry is popular for those new to kombucha, Johnson said.

The duo has a vision. One that has them doing $20 million in sales in 2022, Year 5 of production. By then they’d like to be operating at the planned Electric Works on Broadway in a former General Electric building that’s part of the $300 million mixed-used development.

Let’s hope they’re on the road to success.

Have restaurant news? Call Lisa M. Esquivel Long at 461-8354 or send email to lesquivel@news-sentinel.com or write Restaurant Notes, C/O The News-Sentinel, PO Box 102, Fort Wayne, IN 46802.

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