April Wachtel spent 13 years honing her skills behind the bar before working as a brand ambassador for Bacardi and consultant for Diageo. These experiences helped her identify the lack of access to high-quality cocktail ingredients, like fresh-squeezed citrus or house-made syrups, for enthusiasts beyond the bar.

To fill that gap in the market, April started a refrigerated mixer brand called Swig + Swallow and then, in 2019, she pulled that brand apart and put it back together as Cheeky Cocktails. In our interview, April shared her insights into the evolution of Cheeky Cocktails and the current challenges and advantages for women-led businesses in the beverage alcohol industry.

Our Interview with April Wachtel

Tell us a bit about Cheeky.

Cheeky is a line of premium syrups and juices for the home and bar that make labor-intensive cocktails a breeze. Our products are shelf-stable for up to two years and include 100% citrus juices and essential bar syrups, like Espresso Syrup, Agave Syrup, Honey Syrup, and more.

We launched in the first wave of the pandemic four years ago, and we are now sold in 44 states in over 500 accounts. This quarter, we’re launching into our first National Accounts (another 700 stores). We are sold primarily in brick-and-mortar retail but also behind the bar in on-premise accounts like the Standard Hotel, Eataly, the Bellagio in Vegas, and more.

What was the first big lesson you remember learning as a business person in the beverage alcohol industry? 

It’s a people business through and through, whether you work in bars, restaurants, in brick & mortar retail, or really anywhere throughout the three-tier system. People do business with people they like. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, “People may not remember what you say, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.”

Did you have any mentors within the industry?

The person who has helped me the absolute most is Kim Lawton. She is one of the owners of a two experiential marketing agencies, Enthuse and Inspira. She’s also one of the founders of the Enthuse Foundation, a non-profit that supports women founders in food, beverage, and CPG.

The entrepreneurial journey is full of crucibles, and especially as a first-time founder, you create your playbook from scratch nearly every day. Having a mentor who is a huge supporter, has been down this path before, and is a current working entrepreneur has been a game changer.

What challenges did you have to overcome as a woman in the beverage alcohol industry?

Before I founded Cheeky, being a woman in beverage alcohol was mostly “helpful.” In particular, in my brand ambassador career, there weren’t many women brand ambassadors, and being one of them in a “sea of men” made me stand out more and gave me better opportunities.

That said, now that I’m a business owner, it’s hard to know if it’s a help or a hindrance. Substantial irrefutable data shows it is more challenging for women to raise capital than men, regardless of industry. Across the board, for example, women receive less than 4% of all venture capital investments. (This goes for raising money from female and male investors, by the way.) It’s hard to say if this has affected my fundraising journey, but the data are hard to ignore.

What would you say has been your greatest advantage as a woman-led business?

In the past few years, the movements to support women-owned and minority-owned businesses have grown substantially. This is true for consumer sentiment and corporate mandates that can afford meaningful opportunities to small businesses like ourselves.

What’s your best tip for networking or establishing a network within the industry?  

Be authentic. If you’re grumpy and tight-lipped by nature or outgoing and gregarious, be that. Don’t try to behave in a way that’s not natural to you. The journey will be more fun and successful if you attract the right people and push the wrong ones away. Showing your true colors helps this happen organically.

How do you feel the beverage alcohol industry has improved regarding the inclusion of women over the last several years?

I don’t think the industry has become exponentially more inclusive or a drastically “better environment for women” in the past few years. That said, there are more examples of successful women entrepreneurs and successful women in corporate roles than ever. Seeing somebody you aspire to be like as a young woman in the industry is hugely valuable and will impact generations to come. 

Do you have a go-to book on business or leadership that you would recommend? 

I love Seth Godin’s work. He’s a serial entrepreneur, a thought leader, and just a brilliant human being. I’ve loved all of his books, but I particularly love What to Do When It’s Your Turn (and It’s Always Your Turn). It’s a thought-provoking, beautifully designed book on fear, opportunity, and taking opportunity. I recommend it to entrepreneurs and creatives alike, anyone who is on a journey of bringing an idea to life.

What’s your best advice for women looking to start a business in the beverage alcohol space?  

Getting started is the hardest thing, and momentum begets momentum. Whatever you’re thinking about, put one foot in front of the other and just start in that direction.


More Interviews From Park Street University

Our Interview with Jill Kuehler of Freeland Spirits

Our Interview with Mara Smith of Inspiro Tequila

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