By Chelsesa Hohn | Photos by Edda Pacifico
The James sisters file in one by one, and Jenny, 29, the first to sit down, begins nibbling on a cookie and happily chattering away. All of the sisters are tall and dark haired, with an infectious energy about them that extends naturally to their business, DROUGHT Juice, the successful raw juice company based out of metro Detroit.
Jessie, 30, is next. She bursts through the door with her curly hair wildly framing her face. She immediately takes a chunk of the cookie from Jenny, asking if she can have a bite when she’s already chewing. Julie, 34, is the last to arrive and slyly takes a piece of the cookie without asking. Jenny barely bats an eye. Apparently, the James sisters know how to share. They’re only missing one, Caitlin, 32, a new mother.
Now that DROUGHT is in its fifth year of business, they’ve opened six retail storefronts and created a brand that is the leading organic juice brand in the Midwest and can compete in the crowded national market for specialty juices. Their success has landed them press in publications like The New York Times, Elle, and Vanity Fair. They ship nationally and their retail storefronts are located in Plymouth, Downtown Detroit, West Village Detroit, Bloomfield Hills, Royal Oak, and Ferndale.
When I asked how they gained in popularity, Jenny said it comes down to working hard to produce a premium product. It also helps that they were the first cold-pressed juice company in Michigan, and they’ve been working to educate people on the benefits of cold-pressed juice for six years now.
DROUGHT features about 15 juices at any time, sticking to old favorites like apple, lemon and ginger, green juices, and beet juices. They use all organic, non-G.M.O. ingredients 100 percent of the time and they don’t cut corners. This means not using cheaper filler ingredients like celery or cucumber. They use the cold-pressing method, which allows most of the nutrients from the ingredients to remain intact in the juice, as opposed to centrifugal juicing where some nutrients can be lost. In addition to full juices, they offer potions, smaller more concentrated juices, and shots like ginger and turmeric. They also recently started offering food like chia pudding and raw oatmeal.
DROUGHT’s attention to detail and commitment to quality of course come at a price, putting most 16 oz juices at about $10 per bottle. This price also speaks to their high standards for running their business.
Though they launched national distribution this past summer, the sisters didn’t set out to start a large company. Jenny and Jessie were living in New York City when the idea for a juice company was planted. They realized the availability of healthy options was far wider in the City than it was in the Midwest, and the James sisters saw that as an opportunity.
“We thought, you know, there’s a DROUGHT of healthy options in Detroit specifically,” said Jessie. With that, the sisters launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised $13,000, just enough to buy a few juicers and get a production line started.
Now successfully moving forward after doing $2 million in sales last year, they have come far from their days starting out in their parents’ kitchen. Jenny explained that their success has come from their careful attention to detail, their sourcing, and their process.
Each juice comes in a glass bottle recognizable for its minimalist design, an aesthetic that is incorporated into their marketing materials and storefronts as well. Their look is carefully crafted, thanks to Julie who handles most of the design and marketing, and extends from the counter where you buy the juice to the bottle you walk out with.
Marketing has mostly been by word of mouth. This exclusivity, paired with their crisp, clean aesthetic and premium ingredients, has helped them in the luxury brand market and among the health conscious community.
Sharing a strong work ethic is something that has propelled the sisters forward into success. It was an expectation in their family to have a job by 14 years old, instilling in them the value of a dollar and their time.
An entrepreneurial spirit was also an asset they’ve possessed since they were children. The girls would go door-to-door selling newspapers that they made themselves (wonderfully titled Kidz Nooz). Their father also taught them about wholesale when they were young, such that selling their own gossip columns wasn’t their only business. They enticed neighbors into buying repackaged potpourri from their parents’ house. They would sell their own t-shirts, and of course, there were lemonade stands.
Their upbringing had a direct hand in how their business is run now. “My mom was always creative and she always taught us that if we don’t have something, to make it,” explained Julie. “We didn’t have the money to buy things, so it was like, make it and sell it!” she said.
Their family was raised between Detroit, Plymouth, and Livonia. Their father had a luxury appliance distribution company as young man, and went on to have other businesses. Their mother is a ParaPro and works with kids with special needs. No doubt their hard-working spirit had an effect on the four sisters, as well as the rest of their family.
In addition to their parents, other family members support them. They have another brother and sister, Mark who is 36 and Jane who is 35. Both have personal investments in health and wellness and have had a role in helping DROUGHT continue forward. Julie also has a daughter, Stella, who can be found time to time running the juice counter like a pro. Jessie is married to Bianca, who helps to make the few small food items DROUGHT now offers as well. It’s truly a family affair.
According to the James sisters, starting a business with your sisters means sharing roles and creating new ones, dividing responsibilities, and working to create a business that caters to each sister’s strengths. “There wasn’t a lot of conversation. It was just that some of us were naturally good at things,” said Jenny. Their availability and natural skills determined the way things were divided up, and since the beginning, haven’t changed much.
Falling into their roles naturally is another factor that makes having a family business a little bit easier. Non-verbal communication comes in handy as well. “We all know what we have to do,” offered Julie. She explained that because they all share similar work ethics, it makes for fewer confrontations and allows them to have the same expectations for each other. They all know just how hard they should be working.
Their love for their business shows in the quality of their product and in their dedication to making DROUGHT grow. The quality is evident in their consistency; their recipes are always the same. It’s evident in their meticulous attention to detail; each storefront shares a similar aesthetic featuring clean design, modern shapes, and a few lively details like small plants and natural wood.
But what sets DROUGHT apart from its competitors? Personality. “We’re interested in having fun and presenting ourselves the way we want to, rather than the way the juice market needs to see us,” explained Jenny. “We can tap into our creativity and insert what we like and what we see as being the next wave into our business.”
It’s the combination of four engaged, lively, and dedicated personalities that trickle their way into their business that gives them their success. The sisters are genuinely pleasant, so it’s no surprise that word of mouth has gotten them this far. All of the women have an exciting social media presence, and can be seen flitting in and out of their stores.
They say it’s also the closeness of family that helps their business run smoothly from the backend. “We don’t have to run into things where it’s like, ‘I have to tell a co-worker something but I don’t know how they’re going to respond and they’re going to be mad at me.’ She’s my sister so I already know she’s going to be mad at me!” Julie said laughing.
When asked if there are any challenges with so much closeness, Jenny said one challenge is that there’s not a very big separation of family. “We hang out together, we work together, we happen to enjoy each other’s company, so there’s not a lot of, ‘OK, we’re done. Have your own time.’ But it always turns into work,” she said.
Even at Christmas, even when they swear they’re done talking about work, the subject always happens to creep back in. But they make a distinction by turning their phones off every once in a while, taking trips away from each other, and carving out time to just eat dinner without interruption.
In defense of working incredibly hard, Jenny pointed out that it’s the reason they’ve grown so much. “If we were to just be like, ‘I need my alone time, I don’t want to work at this time,’ I don’t think it would be growing the way that it’s growing,” she said.
As they’ve grown, they’ve added staff members who allow them to live their own lives a little more. Expansion adds challenges though, and letting go of the control has been a necessary step for DROUGHT, one that has proved to be fruitful from their continuous success.
“You can’t force anyone to care as much as you care,” explained Jessie. “They’re never going to have the mind that you have about your business, but we’re lucky we have a lot of great people working for us right now.”
As DROUGHT continues to grow, the sisters are focusing in on different things for 2016. Instead of focusing on expansion with new stores, they’re delving into their brand and focusing on how to continue forward. With all the money they make going back into the business, and not having private investors to pressure them, they have the ability to focus on growing different parts of their business when they see fit.
They make sure their juices benefit the customer’s health and also benefit their suppliers by supporting local agriculture. They’re hoping to focus on refining the brand and getting back to the creative side of their business. Asked about the future, Julie hinted that their next venture is slightly more philanthropic. “What makes us unique is all of our ideas,” explained Julie. “I think that we need to showcase more of that, now that we have help on the backend, and have more time to propel to the next level and become more unique than our local and national competition.”
DROUGHT certainly already has the demand to be in Ann Arbor, explained Jenny. They hope to open a store here in the future, but for now the best way to get a DROUGHT juice is to make the trip to Plymouth or place an order for delivery.
As their family business has grown, it’s made them closer as a family as well. They feel supported by their parents, siblings, and extended family. Their mother has worked at one of their shops before, and their father will post promotions on his Instagram — if only to his twenty followers, Julie said laughing.
The James parents should be proud of what has come out of their household: four successful businesswomen who have grown a small cold-pressing operation into a big success.
For more information on DROUGHT Juice, visit www.DROUGHTjuice.com.