When Austin Sherman graduated from New Tampa’s Wharton High School in 2001, he headed to the nearby University of South Florida to pursue a degree in communications.
At that time, he wouldn’t have guessed he’d be where he is now — leading a company brewing kombucha, a fermented, probiotic tea that is increasing in popularity and market share, with products in many major grocery stores, such as Whole Foods and Publix.
Austin and his wife, Alexis Korman, who co-founded Big Easy Bucha in New Orleans four years ago, expect to sell 3 million bottles in 2018.
And, with the way they’re growing, Austin says they’ll sell 10 million bottles next year.
It’s not how Austin envisioned his future. He left college in 2005 to join a commercial real estate firm in Seattle. He remembers it being a busy, stressful time, while he worked hard.
“Every dollar I made, I would invest in more real estate,” he says. “I was 25 years old, with a couple of million dollars in real estate. Then, I woke up one day and it was all worth nothing.”
The real estate bubble had burst. Over time, the firm he worked for let its employees go and shut its doors, and Austin came back to New Tampa to figure out what to do next.
He landed a job as a bartender at the old Ciccio & Tony’s in Tampa Palms, where he met people like Dan Costello.
“Dan was one of my favorite customers,” Austin says. “He was very active in the beverage and salty snack business, and I found that fascinating.”
Austin was living with his younger sister, Chelsea, who was studying to be a nurse. It was Chelsea who learned how to brew kombucha. Many people drink kombucha because of the health benefits associated with its probiotics.
“In nursing school, all of my peers were super health conscious,” says Chelsea. “Some were brewing kombucha; and we all were drinking it. We were trying to be health forward for our patients.”
Chelsea taught Austin how to brew kombucha, which he had been introduced to in Seattle.
“I had been in bartending and mixology, so I knew how to put ingredients together and get a desired result,” says Austin. “I made my first batch with pineapple and elderflower.”
He began experimenting with different flavors and made small batches to pass out to his friends and family.
He moved to New Orleans, where Alexis was living and working as a writer.
In 2014, they officially launched their company in New Orleans and called it Big Easy Bucha.
“I really didn’t have a vision of what this could become,” Austin says. “At that time, it was just a hobby.”
Just four years later, it’s so much more. The friends and family he used to pass out samples to are not only his customers, they’re also his biggest supporters — and some are even employees.
Chelsea left nursing to work full-time as a marketing associate for the company.
Meanwhile, Dan Costello has served as an advisor and has just transitioned to the role of president of Big Easy Bucha.
Austin’s best friend from high school, Ted Krawsck, lives in Wesley Chapel and says he’s now a Big Easy Bucha “one-a-day-er.”
Ted says he was surprised to discover the positive effects kombucha has had for him.
“It had huge health benefits,” Ted says. “As someone with stomach problems, I instantly started feeling better. My stomach felt completely different.”
Austin says he and Alexis had tried other brands and were put off by the flavor, so they wanted to be a “gateway” drink for people who are new to kombucha.
While the kombucha trend started in the west, Big Easy Bucha is focused on the growing markets in the southeastern United States.
“Big Easy Bucha is definitely based on the Southern palate, with flavors that are very fruit forward,” such as strawberry, blueberry, pineapple, and satsuma — a citrus fruit similar to a Mandarin or clementine orange, Chelsea says.
Austin’s favorite flavor is still that first combination he put together in his first brew in Tampa, pineapple and elderflower. Now, that combo is known as Big Easy Bucha’s “Jazz Juice.”
A highlight of the company’s story so far is that last year, Big Easy Bucha was successful in getting its products into Publix stores.
“It’s really hard to do,” says Austin. “I’ve been a customer of Publix my entire life. I remember shopping at the store on Cross Creek Blvd.”
He adds that in the year that Big Easy Bucha products have been sold at Publix, the chain has opened 50 new stores, for a total of 1,196 Publix stores nationwide. Whenever a new Publix opens, it stocks Big Easy Bucha.
“It’s been fun,” Austin says. “We’ve been able to grow in Publix.”
He thinks Publix likes working with Big Easy Bucha, too.
“We’re known to Publix as innovators,” Austin explains. Recently, a Publix buyer suggested an idea for a new product — a kombucha “shot” for people who want the probiotics and healthy organic acids of the drink, but don’t want to have to drink a full 16 ounces.
“Within four weeks, we had samples for them,” says Austin. “Coke and Pepsi can’t move that fast. It takes them a year to get it through research and development and another two years to get to market, if they decide to make the product.”
Now, the four-ounce shots also are available at all Publix stores and Big Easy Bucha is the first kombucha company making the product, which are called Lil’ Easy Kombucha Shots.
“It’s the same strength and efficacy, in a fun and festive shot format,” explains Austin. “We’re in New Orleans, so everything’s festive (here).”
To buy Big Easy Bucha, visit any local Publix store and look for it in the refrigerated aisle, next to the juices. For more information about the company, visit BigEasyBucha.com.