To say that Chanel Turner broke the mold in the vodka world would be an understatement. She pretty much smashed it to pieces.
The spirits industry is fairly staid, with few new formulas being created. Most vodka companies get passed down through families for generations. But Turner developed her own formula, started her own company from nothing. She’s a woman in a field where there are very few. She’s African-American; also highly unusual in this business. She was only 25 years old when she started the company. And, oh yeah, she sells her vodka in a lightning-bolt shaped purple bottle.
Turner works as an IT specialist at the Pentagon. She attended Bowie State on a full basketball scholarship, majoring in business administration. After briefly working in the private sector doing web design, Turner began her job at the Pentagon, where she still works today.
The idea for starting a vodka company came to her while sitting around with friends, drinking vodka-based mixed drinks. When they ran out of chaser, no one wanted to go to the store to get more. And there was no way they were going to drink it straight. “When people drink vodka, they want to mask the taste, the harshness, the burn,” she says. “I thought how great it would be if there was a vodka that you could actually enjoy on its own. We all laughed about that, how someone really needed to make that vodka.” By the next morning, most people would have forgotten all about the idea. But not Turner.
She started doing some research. “The spirits industry is a billion dollar industry. Vodka’s share is about 60% of that. There are a lot of vodkas out there, but a lot of something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. There was definitely a void in the market.” She decided that she would be the one to fill it.
Turner first needed to find a distillery. Very few vodkas are actually made in the United States, but Turner knew she wanted an American-made product. Once she found a distillery in South Carolina that was a perfect fit, the next step was working on the actual vodka formula. “We worked for about six to seven months and went through roughly 87 formulas before I found the one that’s in the bottle today. We’d try out one formula, tweak it, try again.”
What she ended up with was a vodka with a hint of flavor. At the point of distillation, the vodka is infused with five separate ingredients: pomegranate, lychee, ginger, kiwi, and lime. This creates what Turner refers to as a vodka with flavor, as opposed to a flavored vodka.
Once the formula was created, the next step was to consider the bottle. Most vodka bottles are round and clear, but Turner wanted her vodka to stand out. “I wanted it to be something very powerful, very different. I came up with the idea of a lightening bolt.” But Turner learned pretty quickly that there is a reason that most bottles are round. “I got turned down left and right from at least ten different glass companies. Everyone thought it was a cool idea; they just thought it couldn’t be done. At first, I was crushed. I had already worked with designers on the bottle, but now I was hearing from manufacturers that it was impossible.” Eventually, though, with her trademark determination, she found a glass company that not only loved the bottle, they wanted to give it a try.
Since the bottle was a lightning bolt shape and made in France, Turner chose the name FOU-DRE for her new vodka, a play on the French word for lightning. And even before she had chosen the bottle shape, she knew she wanted it to be purple, to symbolize unity, power, and royalty.
All of this research and development required significant amounts of money, which wasn’t easy to come by. Turner’s mother contributed money, cashing in her entire 401K to do so. Turner also had a small inheritance from her grandfather. She looked for outside investors and while she did find at least two who were seriously interested, she felt they wanted too much control over the company, something Turner simply wasn’t willing to give in the early stages. “I knew that if I gave up control at that time, everything I wanted for the company, my vision, would have changed. I wouldn’t do it.”
For now, the 31-year-old Turner has kept her job at the Pentagon, which basically means working two full-time jobs. “When I get paid, a good portion of my check goes toward growing the company, and the other takes care of home expenses. Everyone at work knows what I’m doing and they fully support me. They give me the flexibility that I need because they know I’m a hard worker and I’ll get the job done.”
When asked how she can possibly find the time to work full time while running a brand new company, she replies simply, “I don’t sleep. I have to put in 8-9 hours at work, and then another 8-9 into the business. That’s standard for me right now, and that’s okay.”
Still, she will leave her full-time job when the sales of FOU-DRÉ are such that she can afford to pay herself a salary.
Does she regret it? Not today. During the early years, there were certainly times when she second-guessed herself. “There were times when I had to sacrifice a house bill in order to keep the business afloat. I had to check my bank accounts every day. But I did what I had to do, and I’m okay with that.”
By the end of 2013, Turner’s vodka was selling both domestically and internationally. Sales are up, though still not to the level that she’d like to see. But she sees momentum building, and she is optimistic about her prospects for 2015.
“For me, it’s all about the relationships. Relationships have gotten me to the next level and the next level and the next level. I can’t say it’s about money because we don’t have much of that yet. It’s through these relationships that we’ve managed to get this far.
“I have a huge support system as far as my staff and certain family members and some friends. But then there are those who really don’t support you, and that’s okay. Social media can make you feel like you have a whole lot more support than you really do,” she laughs.
Turner readily admits that there are some things she would have done differently in retrospect, but she is resolute that she would do it all again. Other women who hear her story are inspired and have reached out to her with questions about starting their own businesses. “I’m not telling them don’t do it; I certainly didn’t want to hear that. But I can tell them some of the lessons I’ve learned. You are going to run into some challenges; you’re going to hit some road blocks. Don’t give up. Keep pushing forward.”