Claire Marin is an entrepreneur who started as a purveyor of sustainably made, local honey in the Catskill region of New York. After discovering the small, rural town of Long Eddy in the Catskill Mountains, she found herself drawn to the bees and how they work in easy harmony with each other and their surroundings. Inspired by their example, she began building her own business drawing upon the local natural resources of Upstate New York. Today, Marin tends to over 300 beehives in Delaware, Sullivan, and Madison Counties in New York State, in cooperation with other local beekeepers to create small batch, hand-packed honey harvested several times a year.
The Catskill Provisions community has grown to include locavore restaurants, hotels, and specialty stores whose shared goals include a commitment to sustainable, raw, organic, local food products. She took the time to speak with the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center to provide insights on the journey of the company.
Tell us, what does “entrepreneurship” mean to you?
CM: Taking ownership of my own success is one of the biggest rewards to having my own business. The freedom to make my own choices and make changes without having to make decisions by a “committee”, is essential in avoiding delays and missed opportunities.
How did the idea for your company come to be?
CM: During my years as a Magazine Executive, Beekeeping became my hobby. It truly helped me through some tough moments by transporting me away from the stressful demands of the competitive world of publishing. This went on until in 2010, when I had a big “Aha moment” and realized that I was super passionate about connecting chefs and consumers in the NYC area with locally sourced, sustainably produced ingredients found in the Sullivan Catskills. At that time, there was little recognition of the wonderful resources we had in the Catskills and I saw a clear path to success for the area with examples such as Vermont and the Hudson Valley. I thought, “Why not the Catskills?”! So I started branding the area in my own little way. Thus Catskill Provisions came to be. We began with our 100% raw wildflower honeys followed by maple syrup, chocolate honey truffles, ketchup, apple cider vinegar, pancake mix and of course rye whiskey infused with a dash of our honey! The whiskey was always at the center of my mind as I saw its tremendous potential to benefit local farmers and the surrounding community. Rye grows beautifully upstate and it is also a cover crop, meaning it is planted when nothing else is growing through the winter. It also helps protect the fields from erosion. So it seemed to me like the perfect grain to start distilling. Oh, and it is spicy, aggressive and complex so a drop of honey is a perfect balance for it!
What is the biggest experience or lesson gained on your journey so far?
CM: You must be nimble, patient and be open to learning from your mistakes because there will be a lot of them! As an entrepreneur, you are in a constant state of evolution of yourself and your vision which suits me perfectly. I have never been one for comfort. I believe that growth comes from challenging yourself. Having my own business and keeping it growing and thriving allows me to constantly stretch my own boundaries.
How is Catskill Provisions changing the landscape?
CM: We have truly brought more attention to the good qualities of honey in balancing acidic or bitter flavors, like vinegar or dark chocolate, as well as the heat of whiskey. By using just the right amount of just the right varietal we have left many a chef, mixologist and consumer pleasantly surprised at how usable honey is. It is certainly not just a sweetener and much more of a flavor balancing agent. I’d also like to think that in building one of only a handful of female-owned and operated distilleries in the United States, I’ve helped break through this barrier a bit more for women in the Spirits industry.
What do you wish you knew when you started? Is there anything you would do differently?
CM: I wish I would have known more about the craft distilling industry as I have received some hard knocks. It is very male-dominated with many new players, all trying to protect their stake. When I initially started distilling, I worked with other facilities until we were ready to build our own, but we always were a low priority. I lost a lot of time adapting my business to others’ parameters which held us back in ways. As women, we tend to be pleasers and not make waves, so even though I was the client, I was so accommodating that I limited my own company’s growth. I would definitely be a bit tougher and less concerned about being liked if I’m ever being taken advantage of again.
What advice do you live by as you grow the business?
CM: Does what I’m doing feel good? Does it do good? Am I staying true to our values? Am I authentic? Be true to yourself and your vision!
What advice do you have for fellow entrepreneurs about building and leading teams?
CM: I think the most important thing is to hire the very best people you can afford. Don’t go cheap! It’ll cost you. And definitely never hire family or friends. It’s just not a good idea and usually a source of drama. I’ve heard a couple of good tactics to keep things healthy and moving forward, “hire slow and fire fast” and “if you can’t change the people change the people”. it all has to fit together and it really begins with your clear vision and it continues with your team. It is important to stay positive and strong at the same time. You will notice a consistent energy and drive that you will want to spread amongst your team. By being expressive about your passion, helping each team member grow and rewarding them fairly, there will be very few moments of negative exchange. But you have to start with good people who are into what you are creating.
Where do you find inspiration when faced with challenges?
CM: By viewing all of the challenges and obstacles I’ve faced as learning experiences, I have been able to overcome them. There are many times of worry and concern for me but I work very hard at catching myself and doing positive things like working with the bees, exercising, listening to music I enjoy, reading an enlightening book or article, and watching less TV, which tends to be so negative these days. I find the bees to be incredibly inspiring in their communal work toward the common good. Their organization and support of each other just gives me hope! I am forever striving for more of that in my own life and I think I achieve some of it every day.
What does “success” look like for you? What do you think will help you achieve it?
CM: I know it sounds corny but success is seeing the positive reaction people have to our products and my story, which still surprises me! I feel success everyday honestly. It will continue to evolve and include my community upstate in a more direct way. The building of our own distillery and tasting room in Callicoon, NY, which will open to the public in the Summer of 2019, will be the phase I have been dreaming about for years! It will be a place with a product line that will exceed people’s expectations of the Catskills, support the local community and always give back to protect our pollinators.
What is your proudest and darkest moment so far? Share a key high and a key low from your journey if you can.
CM: One of the proudest moments was when I received a call from Madison Square Garden telling me that we had become the official honey whiskey at the Garden. They ran a blind taste test of all brands and our whiskey won! That was pretty special. The lowest point was when the quality of my whiskey was once compromised by a contract distiller we had used. That was a dark day. All of our hard work getting respect and awards for the whiskey was in jeopardy. It was very difficult to retrieve all the bottles distributed but we did it. While the product still tasted great, it didn’t look good at all and could have hurt our reputation but we managed to avoid any disappointed customers. I had a hard time believing it was happening, but it only made me stronger. There is a wonderful quote that says “you tried to bury me but I am a seed” I kind of live by that. Life can seem so unfair and it is sometimes but we have choices and the ability to learn from all of the tough knocks to turn things around.
What lesson did 2018 have for you? What do you look forward to in 2019?
CM: 2018 Lesson- if you want something done right, do it yourself. I would recommend always having as much control as possible over your products and company. Some of the darkest moments were caused by not trusting myself and giving up control. We have huge plans in 2019! I can’t wait to open our Distillery and Tasting Room upstate! Next up we will be creating a NY Pollinator Gin, infused with pollinator-friendly botanicals, and a Wanderer Gin, utilizing nectar from milk thistle, the primary food source for the endangered Monarch Butterfly. As with all of our products, a percentage of proceeds will go to environmental causes to help these power pollinators. I’m planning on growing all of this on our 32 acre farm, as well as growing our own NY Rye for the whiskey.
Many entrepreneurs continue to perfect their daily routines to support their work and greater vision; would you mind sharing your morning routine or a regular ritual that grounds your work each day?
CM: My morning routine starts with a euphoric giggle from my two dogs and a cup of coffee with my wife. Then I do some form of exercise, usually running or pilates. I also try to catch up on paperwork before heading to the office, which helps clear my mind of the clutter from too many things on my plate. I get up between 6-6:30 and go to bed by 10. Rest is super important for me to be charged up to deal with the daily battles.
What kind of an entrepreneur do you want to be known as, as in, what do you want your legacy to be?
Always remaining authentic, giving back to my local community, and raising funds and awareness to save the bees and other pollinators. I also hope I’ve inspired others to be brave enough to get out of a job that isn’t fulfilling, reinvent yourself and follow your dreams! It is never too late.