Meet the Pros: Vanessa and Michael of VAMS Culture
We’re proud to introduce our friends Vanessa Montemurro and Michael Doehle, the hardworking couple behind craft fermented beverage brewing company VAMS Culture, and our partners in creating Greenhouse Pro. The B.C. natives took a break from brewing and bottling delicious kombuchas and kefir waters infused with organic herbs and juices to tell us about how they got their start, what excites them about probiotics, and how they find balance as partners both in business and in love.
Like most life stories, this one begins with a mother. The “mother” that started VAMS was, fittingly enough, a gift from Vanessa’s mom.
(Glossary interlude: in fermented speak, “mother” is one word for the stringy thing you’ll sometimes find in your bottle of raw kombucha, also known as a “SCOBY,” or Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. This is the home base of the cultures that make kombucha probiotic; you can’t give life to a new batch without one.)
Vanessa and Michael were visiting Mrs. Montemurro at her at her home in B.C. and drinking a particularly good batch of her homemade kombucha when it occurred to them that this was a product that they wanted to share with the world.
“I fell in love with how tart it was,” Vanessa says of her first kombucha experiences, years before. “It’s something totally unique.” Michael adds that their love of probiotics has a lot to do with digestion. “We’re both foodies. We cook a lot,” he explains. “To have kombucha with food really does compliment digestion.”
Vanessa’s mom shipped them the mother from her batch, sealed in starter liquid to keep it alive, and they followed the Montemurro family recipe to brew their first bottles of green and black tea kombucha (later named VAMS Original) in their apartment.
“We set up almost a lemonade stand out front of our place in Parkdale,” says Michael, referring to the cozy, 250-square-foot basement flat where they made their first batches.
“People would be like ‘kom-buuuuu-cha?’ It was so totally foreign to most people we introduced it to– including our roommates and friends,” laughs Michael.
Heartened by positive feedback from their test audience (including Adrianne Ho, to whom they delivered bottles by bicycle), Michael enrolled in the Ontario Self-Employment Benefit Program, which he describes as “a crash course in becoming self-employed,” and the couple rented a commercial kitchen in Kensington Market. They shared the space with another now well-known Toronto brand that was just starting out at the time: Glory Hole Doughnuts.
The two young businesses also shared an industrial dishwasher, which had its pitfalls.
“When we delivered our first round of VAMS to Essence of Life, a grocer in Toronto, my landlord called me,” says Michael. “He said, ‘I saw your stuff in the store– all of your labels are peeling off.’” Residual donut oil in the dishwasher, it turned out, was thwarting the labels’ adhesive.
”That was my first delivery,” says Michael. “I had to bring them all back, and call the guy who manufactured our labels and say, we need a new adhesive that’s donut resistant!”
Many batches later, the pace of VAMS’ growth accelerated when they gained access to the use of a friend’s car.
“A neighbour of ours was a stewardess,” says Vanessa. “I would driver her to the airport, and she would let us use her car.”
Having wheels allowed VAMS to participate in the Whole Life Food Expo in the winter of 2013, where offering samples of their kombuchas and kefir waters to attendees allowed them to raise awareness about the brand, propelling their business forward.
“Our sales doubled after that,” says Michael. “That’s been our sole marketing tactic: we know if people can try it, they will buy it. And ever since then it’s really been about: how fast can we make this stuff?”
“I imagine our next milestone will be: okay, now we can make enough!”
Currently, making enough involves working long hours six or seven days a week.
”It batters you down,” Michael acknowledges. “Mentally, too,” Vanessa adds.
“You really have to do some soul-searching to just level out,” says Michael. “We spend a lot of time on recovery.”
Over their years of partnership, Vanessa and Michael have developed some tricks for levelling out while working around the clock as a couple.
“Cold walks,” begins Vanessa. “Exposing ourselves to cold therapy has really become a passion of ours.” (We can attest to this: one of our first meetings took place on a frigid winter day, and Michael was casually dressed in denim shorts. “Winter is the new summer,” he said in response to our uneasy glances.)
Other tactics include floating (in float tanks), meditating, reading (books), taking magnesium sulphate baths, and grounding (being electrically connected to the ground, to balance the charge that builds up in us from wireless signals).
“Spa life,” says Michael, summing it up with a laugh. “If you’re not working, you might as well be spa-ing.”