fall founders series

With Haus, Helena Price Hambrecht Wants to Transform How America Drinks

Her plan starts and ends with aperitifs.
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· 9 min read

Raise a glass: We’ve reached the end of the Fall Founders Series. I couldn’t think of a better way to toast nine weeks of conversations with retail entrepreneurs than a sit-down with Helena Price Hambrecht, founder of Haus.

Haus, for the uninitiated, is a D2C, low-alcohol aperitif brand—and it’s on a mission to transform casual drinking in the U.S. I spoke with Hambrecht about her plans to convert customers to aperitif culture and where Haus will go after establishing its brand online. Read our conversation below.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You got your start in branding for several Silicon Valley companies. What was the catalyst for you to leave your old professional life and create Haus with your husband (Woody Hambrecht)?

I didn't have the most likely career transition, I would say. Prior to Haus, I was doing visual brand work, everything from commercial photo shoots to more strategic storytelling projects for tech.

Then I ended up moving up to Sonoma County to be with Woody. Woody is a third generation wine and spirits guy. His family's been in the industry since the 70s, and he ended up coming back to run the ranch about 10 years ago that we live on now.

When I met Woody, he was already making aperitifs and he was doing everything right from a traditional industry standpoint. His aperitifs were in the best bars and restaurants in America.

But the way that bartenders serve aperitifs in the United States is very different. We would end up being this tiny little sprinkle in a 10-ingredient cocktail that was full of booze. It wasn't like his products weren't being served in the way that he wanted them to be. They were in high proof cocktails, instead of being served on the rocks like you do in Europe. Then the drinker also had no idea who we were even though we were in the best cocktails in America.

That was my first exposure to what it's like being an independent liquor creator. You have very little control over how your product ends up in the market.

At the same time, I was going through my own drinking dilemma. While there's something very beautiful about the ritual of gathering over food and beverage, there were these downsides that were getting to me. The hangovers were something I did not like. The calories were something I did not like. For something that's such a huge part of people's lives, the fact that there were that many downsides felt strange to me and they didn't feel necessary. I was just asking myself, why is there not a better way to drink?

How long did it take to go from making these observations to then getting to work and putting Haus together?

Faster than you’d think. I didn't think that Haus could exist because you can't go [typically] go direct to consumer in liquor; it's illegal.

I was complaining about what a shame it was that there's no Everlane or Glossier of liquor that actually meets the needs of our generation because it's not legal. That's when Woody was like, actually, there's a loophole that I've never thought about using until this moment. Most aperitifs are in the liquor category. But there is a loophole where if you're under 24% alcohol and you're made mostly of grapes, you can choose to be classed as a wine.

When you're a wine it's a totally different set of regulations than liquor. You can go direct to consumer, you can sell on the Internet, you can open retail, you can do all of these things that liquor can't do. We were creating an aperitif that you drink like a liquor. It's historically been the same category as liquor. But thanks to this regulatory loophole we could be the first to ever build a direct to consumer brand. We had a moment when we were like, we have to build this company. So that was August 2018 when we made that decision.

How did you land on the flavors in your initial assortment?

The two flavors that we have, the citrus flower and the bitter clove, are loosely modeled on the very traditional aperitif model of Bianco and Amaro. We felt like those two rough flavor profiles have worked for a century now. We wanted to take that as a starting point and then totally reinvent the recipe for the American palate. When we tasted through hundreds of aperitifs in our research, we found that all aperitifs are very, very, very sweet. And most of them are very, very, very bitter. We decided that the drink that we want to drink all night isn't so bitter and so sweet. We wanted to make something that was much more dialed back and more palatable.

So when you taste a traditional Amaro and a traditional Bianco from Europe, and then you taste us, probably the first thing that you'll notice is that it's much less sweet. Then that overwhelming bitterness, we took that out as well to make something that was more just appropriate for the American drinker.

Who was the customer that you had in mind? How did you translate that personality to a visual profile for your company?

I was hyper-aware of all of the direct to consumer brands that were out there on the market today. And I didn't want to look like any of them. I didn't feel like there was life coming through. Most of the imagery that I saw on the Internet, it was always a product on a clean color background. There was no indication of how it should live in your world.

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I was much more inspired by tradition and nostalgia, taking this ritual that's been around for thousands of years and putting a modern spin on it. So I was really, really inspired by print editorial. I was inspired by old photographs, things that really felt richer and they had more depth and that they were more kind of relatable and approachable and gave us a home.

We're really lucky we didn't come up with this idea in a Harvard Business School class. We came up with Haus in a way that was pretty epic and authentic to us. I didn't have to worry too much about the origin story because it kind of wrote itself. Our challenge as a brand was, how do we take this product that's generally unfamiliar in the US and, using the internet only, let people know where this product lives in their life?

We baked that into pretty much every touchpoint in the product. You can look at the photos and understand just based on visual cues, it's like, oh, you should gather your friends together in your home and drink Haus together. Everything for me was about like education and context and using every opportunity that we could with words or visuals to educate the customer on where Haus belongs in their life.

How have you approached brand education and growth? What channels have been most successful for Haus?

Our growth so far has been 100 percent organic. We just started running tests on ads. But every single one of our customers that we've acquired so far had come through word of mouth or the press.

There are very natural behaviors around drinking and gathering that we felt would be the foundation of organic growth for our company. When people drink, they gather together and they share that experience with other people. Instead of ignoring that and pumping a bunch of money into advertising, we could work really hard to make that experience a positive one for people, and one in which our customers are like our spokespeople.

A lot of it was putting that early effort into the product and the customer experience so that our early customers would be our biggest cheerleaders. Someone will buy the product on our site because they heard about it from their friend and then they'll bring their friends together and they'll all have a really great experience. And then those friends will go and repeat the cycle.

When we think about growth in the future, we're less about how can we go raise a bunch of money and dump it into paid? It's more like what are the customer behaviors that we're seeing and how can we 10x those behaviors?

We have a really high percentage repeat rate, higher than anything else in the industry. We're noticing that customers are repeating their purchase every three to four weeks. The number one request those customers have is a subscription model, which is a great coincidence, because Woody and I literally come from the world of subscription alcohol. So that's something that we were planning to build into the model regardless, but it was amazing to see the behavior already there.

Obviously you're a digitally native brand, but that experience of gathering friends and drinking together is so core to what you're selling. Which offline channels, if any, strike you as a future avenue for Haus?

We just launched a headquarters in New York. It's an office for the team and it also doubles as an event space. It’s not open to the public, but it’s our testing ground for what the future of retail could look like for us. We're going to bring programing and events here for our top customers to see what our community wants from events.

We'll be able to take those learnings with us when we eventually open retail. Another amazing thing about this regulatory piece that allows us to be direct to consumer, it also allows us to open retail. You've never seen a Maker’s Mark brick and mortar because it's illegal. But we can open brick and mortar in the major cities.

But it's also a place for us to think about reinventing an IRL drinking and gathering space for our generation. People are not going into the bar anymore: It's loud and it's boozy and they're creepy dudes hitting on you. People are choosing to meet in different places now, like a coffee shop or The Wing and alternative spaces. So it's a really exciting time to be thinking about like, if we could create the perfect gathering space for people to meet over a drink, what would that be? There's so much that we can do in that space.

We obviously have to make a little bit of progress and raise more money before we can go and build a bunch of those spaces. It's absolutely a part of the road map and feels like ultimately a core piece of the business for us.

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