Zoey Shamai from Tonica sparkles, just like her wildly popular kombucha supertonic! We hear Zoey recount, with laughter, the early days of beginning her business to becoming the second largest kombucha brand in Canada.
It all started in 2006 when Zoey, a yoga instructor, was introduced to fermented tea at a yoga retreat in New Mexico. When returning home to Toronto, Zoey began making kombucha out of her kitchen. Loving how it made her feel and with digestive benefits, she introduced it to her friends, and shortly after began bottling and selling it to friends.
Zoey comes from a family of women entrepreneurs. Her grandmother was the first Canadian realtor and her mom was the owner of Ruth’s Hemp Foods. Zoey accompanied her mom to countless food shows as a kid and picked up the skills to meet and engage with customers and suppliers.
In 2008 Zoey took the opportunity to travel in India for a couple months. Prior to leaving, she told her partner that if orders keep coming in, she would accelerate the business and if not she will move on and do something else. Weeks into her trip, her partner called her and told her that orders were coming in. That was the turning point. Two months later, Zoey returned to Toronto and decided to jump in and build her Tonica Kombucha business.
The company grew slowly as she invested her profits back into the business. Today Tonica Kombucha is the second largest kombucha brand in Canada and business is going well.
In 2013, Zoey appeared on Dragons’ Den with her small business. She received an offer but ended up declining, choosing to look for assistance in production instead. However, it did bring Tonica national awareness and helped educate Canada on the benefits of kombucha!
Kombucha became wildly successful around 2014 and Tonica was perfectly positioned to capture market share. Baby boomers were realizing how important gut health was and were willing to pay $4 for a bottle of kombucha.
Zoey loves developing products. Tonica is now introducing a low sugar kombucha in cans, with varieties like blue lemonade and pineapple flavours.
Zoey recounts one of her worst experiences, when in 2013 Tonica moved into a new/old facility and Zoey realized that the building wasn’t fit for manufacturing. She had to stop making products for six month. However, stores and customers worked with her and waited for her to fix her manufacturing problems. At that point she decided to go ahead and do everything in her power to make things work. If it didn’t work out, at least she knew that she did her best. Her biggest learning experience was that relationships matter.
Tonica has a core group of employees who have been with the company for a long while. They are highly valued and trusted in the organization. That said, Zoey also learned that she needs to let go of people that are not a fit, as quickly as possible.
You can find Tonica in over 2500 retailers across Canada, including Whole Foods, Metro, Fornitos, Farmboy, Shoppers Drug Mart, Walmart and it can be found on tap at Organic Garage. In five years Tonica will be everywhere in Canada, already available in Vancouver at Choices and Fresh St. Market. Breweries also use the kombucha for cocktails. And they will also be making kombucha for other brands.
Tonica continues to grow at a pace that Zoey likes. She will be manufacturing kombucha for other brands. But these days labour and ingredients are hard to come by and because of that prices will likely soon reflect the changes.
Zoey participates in several programs at York University, helping mostly women entrepreneurs and she feels that giving back is important as well, supporting organizations through donations to Feed Ontario, GiveWell, Because I Am A Girl, Nia Centre, Stella’s Place and American Civil Liberties Union.