All too often there are stories of hobbyists turning entrepreneurs, but very few make that transition to successful business owners. Reginald Smith’s story is one such example, and his passion product is none other than the humble vinegar. Yes, the substance that you use in your pickles and sauces, or sometimes substitute for a cleaning agent at home. However, Supreme Vinegar, Smith’s business of almost five years, is unique in its offerings.
Aside from the usual suspects such as rice wine vinegar and apple cider vinegar, Smith’s focus is on more pure, traditional fruit vinegars. He is one of only a select few possibly in the United States who manufactures fruit vinegars for the consumer market in large quantities. Unlike most vinegar makers who use concentrate, Smith makes his products from the fruit or fruit syrup. Think watermelon, peach, pumpkin or pineapple. How often have you seen those available at your local grocery store?
“I make custom products, I am one of the few vinegar makers that can do small batch and specially designed vinegars,” says Smith, a home brewer long before he began his business. An effort to make maple liqueur turned into maple vinegar which tasted way better than his originally attempted concoction. In researching how to produce vinegar in larger quantities, Smith designed and constructed equipment he needed to brew at home, and also found a mentor in Helge Schmickl from Austria, author of “The Artisanal Vinegar Makers Handbook,” from whom he learned how to make vinegar on a scalable manner.
Armed with the process and technology know-how, Smith soon realized that the American market is pretty concentrated – approximately 90 percent is comprised of white, apple cider, wine, and balsamic vinegars. No other traditional vinegar was made on any sizable scale. However, he observed a high demand for date vinegar in the market, popular in Middle Eastern communities. “Though it was once available in the U.S., date vinegar supply was disrupted from countries such as Syria and Iraq, and it is illegal to import from Iran,” he shares.
As a result, date vinegar became the first flavor that Smith produced at Supreme Vinegar. In fact, his date vinegar was awarded a silver medal at the International Vinegar Competition, the world’s largest bi-annual vinegar competition presented by Vinavin, a Spanish organization of professional critics and aficionados of wine and vinegar. Some of the other fruit flavors he offers include sweet potato, raspberry, maple, strawberry, cherry, fig, and blueberry. He also began helping others by selling mothers of vinegar so they could use it to brew their own vinegar at home. Supreme Vinegar products are available online through Amazon and the mothers of vinegar (the substance used to create vinegar) sell at homebrew shops around the country.
It is rare enough to meet someone who owns a vinegar business, let alone someone in the African-American community who owns and manages one. But Smith shares that many have made their mark in vinegar-verse. One of the most popular books on vinegar was written by Lawrence J. Diggs aka The Vinegar Man, who lives in Roslyn, S.D., and runs the International Vinegar Museum there. As far as small pure, independent vinegar makers go, there may only be a handful of black manufacturers globally other than Smith. To his knowledge, there is one each in South Africa, Senegal, Guadeloupe, and Martinique specializing in unique varieties of vinegar.
Supreme Vinegar will turn five this August. Smith has moved from a shared kitchen space he rented for two years in New Castle, Del. to renting his own space in Bensalem, Pa. where he now operates. Though not from the food or manufacturing industry, Smith’s business background (he has an MBA in supply chain operations from MIT) proved integral in deciding not to focus on mass-market vinegars that are widely available. “The manufacturers who make those vinegars rely heavily on high-volume to make money and I am not a high-volume producer at all,” he says. “Most companies cannot do what I do, they are too large and have their regular products that they don’t deviate much from.”
This year, Smith plans on launching a new sweet potato balsamic vinegar and a private label sherry vinegar, among possible other flavors. Additionally, he has authored the book, “The Eternal Condiment: A History of Vinegar,” that is currently on press at the time of this interview and will be released later this year.