BGBS 047: Jamba Dunn | Rowdy Mermaid | Welcome to the Kombuchaverse
Jamba Dunn is the proud founder and CEO of Rowdy Mermaid, the first kombucha company to reimagine the 2000-year-old beverage as a plant-based medicine that is safer and fitted to anyone’s palate. Yes, even a toddler. You’ll soon see that the awesomeness of this company stemmed from Jamba’s roots in the punk rock scene, his passion for Egyptology, and most importantly, his love for his daughter.
Jamba’s path to being rowdy actually looked much more musical than it does today. Jamba traveled across the US with The Pandoras and made some money DJing, hoping to someday fall into his own band playing guitar. Little did he know that someday a sour fizzy drink would fall into his lap instead and change his life forever. You’ll have to listen to the details because you don’t want to miss it! We commend Jamba’s foundation in countering conventional culture, which helps us question, how can we all own our alienation rather than stand within the crowd?
In this episode, you’ll learn…
- Jamba was actually born James. He got the nickname from a friend in the 80s!
- When Jamba was first introduced to the punk rock scene, he actually wasn’t interested in it. His friend showed him the safety pin he had through the back of his hand and Jamba thought that wasn’t cool at all.
- Jamba had a very musical life for a while, which included meeting The Ramones and DJing until he dropped out of the music scene and started his life over
- Jamba’s father and grandfather were both great entrepreneurs and inventors, and although he rebelled against this life early on, Jamba could help but return to his roots
- Once Jamba’s toddler asked to try some of the beer he was brewing in his garage, he realized that he wanted to make something she could have as well, thus inspiring his interest in kombucha
- According to a market research survey in 2012, only 5% of Americans actually knew what kombucha was. Jamba had a lot of work on his hands to find a recipe that was just right.
- In the early days of Rowdy Mermaid, much of the brewing, deliveries, etc. were done in Jamba’s garage with the help of some volunteers
- Today, Rowdy Mermaid is present across 48 states with a vibrant team of 30 people
- The name Rowdy Mermaid was discovered at a hot spring in Colorado, although it wasn’t until much later that Jamba chose this as the name
- The design of Rowdy Mermaid’s logo is inspired by Jamba’s love of Nordic minimalism and Egyptology
- The anti-establishment agenda that punk rock stood for influenced the flat organization structure of Rowdy Mermaid
[21:44] Punk rock absolutely spoke to me. It was all about taking your alienation and owning that and turning that into something that you could wear physically to show other people, “I’m not like you, and I’m proud to be different from you.”
[24:35] Being lower middle class and not having the ability to get a leg up, it seemed like everything was turned against me or us. I think part of that might be true, and a lot of that was illusion.
[37:56] It was a huge divide in my life, education. But it was something I was passionate about and something that I decided was more important than a lot of the relationships I had at the time. So I pursued education.
[43:20] I sat there like, “Wow, that was really interesting. That wasn’t just a beverage that was kind of an experience.” And I went back into the market, and I bought another bottle and went back out to my car and thought, “Well this one I’m just going to kind of sip,” and I downed it completely again. And I thought, “What is this?”
Jamba Dunn 0:02
I felt alienated. I didn’t know how to enter into conventional culture. And I, in many ways over romanticized, what it would be like to be in conventional culture and to, to be popular to have the nice clothes to know more about the world around me and to feel confident in that world. And I just didn’t have that and, and you’re right, punk rock absolutely spoke to me. It was all about taking your alienation. And in owning that and turning that into something that you could wear physically, and show other people. I’m not like you and I’m proud to be different from you.
Marc Gutman 1:00
Podcasting from Boulder, Colorado, this is the Baby Got Backstory Podcast, where we dive into the story behind the story of today’s most inspiring storytellers, creators and entrepreneurs. I like big backstories and I cannot lie. I am your host, Marc Gutman, Marc Gutman, and on today’s episode of Baby got backstory, how his son of Scottish immigrants combined his passion for punk rock music, a thirst for learning, and the love for his daughter into a kombucha juggernaut. And before we get into the episode, I need to do my usual reminder.
If you like and enjoy the show, please take a minute or two to rate and review us over iTunes or Spotify, iTunes and Spotify use these ratings as part of the algorithm that determines ratings on their charts. And we like good ratings, who doesn’t? You’d be surprised how happy I get when you click on all those stars. It’s almost like you gave me money. Almost remember, ratings help us to build an audience, which then helps us to continue to produce this show. So please go ahead and give us a rating if you think we deserve it.
What do Scottish immigrants, Southern California, punk rock music, Egyptology, and a 2000 year old beverage have in common? Well, it turns out a lot. Today we are talking with Jamba Dunn, founder and CEO of rowdy mermaid. What is rowdy mermaid? Is it a woman surf brand? Is it a punk rock band? Is it an odd character from SpongeBob SquarePants. Not even close.
Rowdy mermaid is kombucha and not just any kombucha. conceived as the first plant based kombucha. Rowdy mermaid thinks of itself more of a functional plant medicine company than a kombucha company. One that’s on a mission to bring as many functional plants to as many functional people as they possibly can, using only the fruits, fruits, mushrooms and botanicals that nature created. And 20 years ago, if you walked into any grocery store, or even a whole foods, kombucha was not something that was readily available. We take for granted all the choices of kombucha we see on the shelves today. And generally speaking, kombucha is a fizzy sweet and sour drink made with tea. And for centuries, many people have believed it to be an elixir that relieves or prevents a variety of health problems. kombucha has been around for nearly 2000 years.
It was first brewed in China and then spread to Japan and Russia. And it became popular in Europe in the early 20th century. kombucha is now experiencing revival and you can see it almost on every shelf at every grocery store in almost every neighborhood in America. The basic ingredients in kombucha are yeast, sugar, and black tea. And kombucha has been around for nearly 2000 years. It was first brewed in China and then spread to Japan and Russia. It became popular in Europe in the early 20th century. And now we’re seeing it pop up on shelves all over America.
Rowdy Mermaid, such a cool name and a great brand. And of course, you rarely find a cool brand without an intriguing founder. Jamba Dunn is certainly intriguing. I could have spoken to him for hours if we had time. We covered so much of his story and only touched on his passion for Egyptology, which is probably a whole nother episode that we could go into for probably another couple of hours. And not to get too sidetracked or weird. But speaking of Egyptology, a year or so ago, I was at the National History Museum in New York City and they had an Egyptian accent. exhibit and it struck me as odd. Why we don’t carry on some of their traditions? Well, I’ve made it known to my family, but now it’s here on public podcast record. I’d like to be buried in a cool Egyptian sarcophagus, probably Fox style, and then put into some sort of pyramid. You heard it here first.
Okay, enough with my eccentricities. We’re here to talk about Jamba Dunn, and rowdy Mermaid, and in 2012, while experimenting with kombucha in his garage with equipment that was originally intended to home brew beer, Jamba fell into brewing kombucha. Actually, his daughter wanted to be a part of the hobby. And being a good dad, john felt his three year old daughter should probably not be brewing and drinking beer. I think that’s being a good dad. Anyway, as a way to include her in his hobby. He brewed kombucha and the rest. Well, this is his story.
I am here with Jamba Dunn, the CEO and founder of rowdy Mermaid, rowdy Mermaid, what is that? You know, you might be thinking it could be maybe some crazy surf brand. It could be the cool new bar down the street, but it’ s kombucha. So before we get going Jamba, can you tell us a little bit about rowdy mermaid and then we’ll jump into a bunch of your story?
Jamba Dunn 6:35
Absolutely. Rowdy mermaid is a functional beverages company that I founded in 2013. And it was founded on the idea of bringing a safer plant based kombucha to market and now we’re expanding into different product categories, or at least, we’re experimenting with different product categories right now.
Marc Gutman 6:59
There’s so much I love about the name and the branding, and we’ll get into that, but I want to save that for a little later. But you know, I want to think back to a little bit of the beginning of your story. And when you were a young boy, I mean, did you even know what kombucha was? We’re gonna kombucha say like, eight years old, like what are we doing around that time?
Jamba Dunn 7:23
Well, I don’t think anybody knew what Kombucha was when I was eight years old. GTS is the largest kombucha company and they’re about I think, 21 or 22 years old right now, before that, no other kombucha have been brought to market. So let’s see cut back though, eight years old. That’s an interesting time for me. I was living in Southern California, and just recovering from a major accident where I fell out of an automobile. And I think just really, at that time starting to recognize the the world around me in Southern California in the 1970s. With surfers and music and all the other things happening in California at that time.
Marc Gutman 8:14
That was like the the golden age, I think of California, or at least one of them. They’ve had a few but you know, the 70s and in Southern California, and I think, you know, like you mentioned, you know that that was the the blossoming of that 70 surf culture. There’s a lot of different things going on there. What were you doing? Like, what, what were your interests? Where did you grow up? What was your family like?
Jamba Dunn 8:36
Sure. So you’re right. It was one of those many Golden Ages that California had in the mid 70s, mid to late 70s. And I wouldn’t fully drop into my experience of California and all it had to offer until a little bit later. But around that time in the mid 70s. My family was we’re in Huntington Beach and my family is second generation Scottish American. And we were extremely blue collar, my family, my father and my mother. And we were surrounded by a very changing atmosphere. A lot of people were white color. A lot of culture seemed to be in transition around that time. I had an uncle who had started plastic fantastic surfboards, which has kind of a now sort of cult surfboard brand from Huntington Beach. And I had a cousin who was already surfing and would go on to become a very good surfer. And for me at that time, it was just more about the beach and school and trying to understand the world around me a little bit.
I definitely played the role early on as this sort of translate Later between my family and the outside culture, I guess you could call it because my family was very different from even our immediate neighbors. And my mother and father were extremely reserved and cut off from other people and didn’t really want to have much to do with them. And so, I would play, like I said, the translator between our neighbors and the waitresses and the the people who would come to our house for services. And so it was interesting time for sure. But, you know, cut forward a few years. About five years when I started high school, that was definitely the height of punk rock in Orange County. And that was a culture that definitely brought me out of the home and more into what Orange County and California had to offer at that time.
Marc Gutman 10:55
Yeah, and you know, I’m intrigued by this, this idea. And so if I heard you, right, your parents were first-generation immigrants. And are you in your second generation at that time? Is that correct?
Jamba Dunn 11:05
Yeah, that’s right. Yeah.
Marc Gutman 11:06
And so you, were you born Jamba?
Jamba Dunn 11:08
No, I was born James. And it wasn’t until the mid 80s. That friend of mine started calling me Jamba. And it just it stuck. And it’s, it’s stuck ever since then I could not get rid of it. So now it’s my name.
Marc Gutman 11:27
It’s a great name. I was wondering where it came from. And I wanted to get in a better story than I thought. And so and just before we move on, like, you know, you mentioned your your folks were blue collar, like what were they doing in this Southern California environment for a living like, what were you seeing and modeling after at that time?
Jamba Dunn 11:46
So it’s kind of an interesting and convoluted story in itself. And I actually once tried writing a book about it, but it’s hard to summarize. So I’ll just tell one story. My grandfather on my father’s side had come to the US after being a foreman in Europe and the series of factories. And he wanted to make a better life in the United States, but couldn’t find work. He ended up becoming a milkman in Milwaukee, and saved up his money to try to, I guess, afford a better life, a better house, etc. And my grandmother, his wife, convinced him that she had a scheme that she knew about that was going to work in California. And that was to raise chinchillas, which at the time was all the rage, people would raise chinchillas, then they would sell them to a farrier. And they would come and take them all away and turn them into coats. And they would make lots of money off of that. And so he decided to take the bet and put all of his money, all of their money, all of the family’s money into chinchillas.
They then packed up the car and drove across the United States with my father and his brother and landed in Long Beach, and they rented a house. And a couple of days later, the chinchillas arrived, and they put them all into the garage and close the door. And the next morning, every one of them was dead, because they had no understanding of what they were doing, or what they were getting into, or how to take care of this animal that they had only just heard about. And my father had a meltdown and nervous breakdown. And he ended up dying shortly after. And my father found himself in California having to figure out how to make a living. And being somebody who is really not only industrious but but quick on his feet and smart with his hands.
He started figuring out how to fix things. And he fixed different types of machinery, and ended up fixing, adding machines at the time. And then he went into the military and started fixing uniacke, and UNIVAC, the first computer systems that were installed on submarines. He got out and continued to to fix adding machines and later on copy machines, ditto machines and those types of things and started his own business. So that’s how we we kind of landed in California and my mother had been a housewife her entire life. And so the two of them patch together a life like this. And that was what I came into
Marc Gutman 14:47
The way it works, you know? And that’s the way it works. And so what did you think about that? You know, what did you think about your father? I mean, were you like, Wow, that’s really cool that he’s fixing all of these things, or were you like Like, you know, I can see there also potentially being conflict, you’re looking around Southern California at the super cool culture and being like, this isn’t cool. Like, like, Where did you land on? Like, what do you think about all that?
Jamba Dunn 15:11
So it’s a really interesting question. And it’s something that I’ve been trying to understand my whole life in some ways, I actually wrote a book about my dad that I need to go back and edit and try to do something with at some point called the baloney generation. And it was really about his lifestyle, growing up in the United States in extreme blue collar situations coming out of it, figuring out how to really fix anything that he can get his hands on, and in turning that into his living. And you’re right, I mean, here I am. And I’m growing up in Huntington Beach, which at that time was a really up and coming cool place with surfers, I had an uncle who was in surfing. And as I mentioned, my cousin, cool culture was all around us. And we were just not a part of it. We were extremely low, middle class, and we ate very poorly. And my parents didn’t know anything about nutrition.
They didn’t know anything about culture, or at least the culture that was around us. Both my mom and father had grown up in Catholic school. And so they knew a lot about Catholicism. But now they had given that up, and they wouldn’t allow anyone to practice Catholicism in the house. And we were very removed from everything. So you’re absolutely right. It wasn’t easy to bring a friend to our house. Because my friends at school where we’re from completely, I just I thought of them from being as from a different culture than I was in a lot of ways. And so it wasn’t until later that I started to hang around with my father more.
I started working with him at one point, when I was a teenager and into my early 20s, I actually started going out and fixing machines for him because he didn’t have anyone to help him. And on our drives, he would let in on these stories that I just they seem completely different from the Father I had known. And so I became sort of addicted to hanging out with him and, and trying to get these stories out of him that he wasn’t really willing to share in stories that he also thought were just kind of like beside the point that weren’t really important enough to tell. One of them was growing up in Milwaukee, he was very interested in inventing new ways of listening to music and cars. And he was the first person that he had ever known that had installed a record player that can play singles on a spring inside of cars. And you could listen to it and drive and it wouldn’t skip. And he was installing them into other cars and became kind of well known for a while when he was younger in in Milwaukee.
Another one was this crazy story that still just seems odd to me. But he was working in Oakland at a company that fixed adding machines. And one day he was visited by these three men is three African American men. A one of them was very nicely dressed. And the other two were wearing leather jackets. And he said they they were very big guys. And the nicely dressed man came in to ask for his adding machine back. And my father told him it wasn’t ready. And that wasn’t a good enough answer. And they told them they wanted it now. And they ended up actually closing off the door and knocking over some machines and some cabinetry and things in there and telling him like, Listen, don’t you know who we are, we’re the Black Panthers. And my dad because he was so naive about culture thought that they were a Car Club, which I guess was a big thing when he was growing up. And so he tells me he looked out the window at their automobile. And he saw this, you know, lowered primered gray car with, with blue walls on it. And his perspective was he could never be pushed around by somebody who had blue walls on their car.
And it just was like so crazy to me that to hear these stories to have grown up knowing who the Black Panthers were in my father still not knowing who they were but relaying these types of stories that I just realized that there was there was so much more there than I had ever done. Growing up, and it was very interesting.
Marc Gutman 20:03
I can imagine and to me, it sounds like you’re straddling two worlds, you know, you’re struggling a little bit this immigrant world with your, your parents and then trying to adapt and assimilate in Southern California. And you mentioned that as you got older, you started to find the punk rock scene. And that really kind of spoke to these people that felt like they didn’t belong, that they didn’t have a place like, you know, were popular music was they weren’t, you know, it was a different kind of music for a different kind of person who didn’t have a community and the type of music that spoke to them. Is that what was going on for you at that time? Were you really finally finding your people, the people that spoke to you and that punk rock scene?
Jamba Dunn 20:52
Absolutely. I would say that the one thing that’s often missed about people reminiscing about the punk rock scene isn’t necessarily the music. It’s, it’s really what it stood for. And it stood for all of those people who felt alienated by conventional culture. And I was 100% in that category. I felt alienated I didn’t know how to enter into conventional culture. And I, in many ways over-romanticized, what it would be like to be in conventional culture and to, to be popular to have the nice clothes to know more about the world around me and to feel confident in that world. And I just didn’t have that and, and you’re right, punk rock absolutely spoke to me. It was all about taking your alienation. And owning that and turning that into something that you could wear physically, and show other people. I’m not like you, and I’m proud to be different from you.
Marc Gutman 22:05
And so who were you into at that time? And do you remember your first punk rock? I’ll call it experience because it might not have been like a show. But like, yeah, who were you into at the time? And what was your first memory of like your standout punk rock or like your first, you know, punk rock experience? Yeah, my
Jamba Dunn 22:21
My first punk rock experience wasn’t a very good one. It was a it was a very good friend of mine from school, who pulled me into an alcove at school to show me that he had put a safety pin through the back of his hand because he was really into punk rock now. And I literally had no idea what he was talking about. I was horrified. It didn’t seem very cool at all. And then I remember him, like shortly after showing me pictures of Johnny Rotten, and how Johnny Rotten had, you know, safety pins in his ears. And I was like, That still doesn’t really resonate with me at all. And it was like, shortly after that, that I started hearing local bands. Oh, yeah, the local bands were great. I mean, we we had TSL in the crowd. And in Orange County, I believe in Orange County, or LA, we had adolescence.
The adolescence were a huge band for me, there were, of course, black flag was around in Santa Monica at that time, and there were so many bands around us, and a lot of them in Huntington Beach. It was kind of it was a little bit like being in London in the 1960s for the birth of rock and roll or the growth of rock and roll there. It was just everywhere, and you’d hear new songs and giving, you’d have to find out who it was. And there were record stores popping up in neighborhoods that would only sell punk rock albums. And we were drawn to those types of places. And eventually, that became my entire friend group. And, you know, they they weren’t into, you know, self mutilation, or anything, the way their early punks seemed to be, but it was all about rebellion. And that was 100% something I could get on board with.
Marc Gutman 24:20
Yeah. What were you rebelling against?
Jamba Dunn 24:23
My parents, my upbringing, the feeling of being so removed. The feeling of being a translator and not having my own voice. Being lower middle class and not having the ability to get a leg up. It seemed like everything was turned against me or us. And, you know, I think part of that might be true, and a lot of that was illusion. And a lot of that was just how to lessons but I certainly at the time, I couldn’t distinguish those.
Marc Gutman 24:57
Yeah, and so if we’re still kind of in that high school, period, you’re falling in with the punk rock scene. It’s, it’s you’re finding this this group of people to rebel with I mean, what’s your plan? What do you think you’re going to do at this point? Do you have a plan? Are you just like, I’m just just trying to like get through high school like I’m gonna do I’m gonna work for my dad, like, What are you thinking?
Jamba Dunn 25:16
Yeah, plan. That’s very funny.
Yeah, there was no plan, there was no, there was no weird to go there was there was no, there was no strategy. There was no anything. It was 100% day by day. And I had no real guidance through all of that my family had no one in my family had ever gone beyond high school. And my parents had just barely gone beyond high school. And so they I couldn’t turn to them for academics. My sister, who is four years older than me, really didn’t want to have much to do with me. She was in a whole different music category.
My sister was going to kiss shows and Queen shows and David Bowie and a lot of the bigger groups around the time and she was sharing some of her experiences with me, but we, I felt like I was in a different world from even what she was in. And so I was definitely drifting there was there was no plan. But I like your enthusiasm.
Marc Gutman 26:34
All right, well, so you’re drifting and you’re going through and I imagine at some point, you drift and matriculate, like that were matriculate through high school, and the real world is on the other side, and you can fill in any gaps where I might have missed that. But assuming that that to be true, that’s true. And you kind of hit hit the real world and you’re staring at the rest of your life, like, what does that look like? And what do you do
Jamba Dunn 26:59
So I didn’t realize it at the time. But in my, in my last year, my senior year at high school, there was definitely some partying and there were definitely friends that I would stay out all night with. And there were concerts that would happen all night, and sometimes on weeknights.
I didn’t realize at the time that school was just falling by the wayside completely. It wasn’t serving me public school was not helping me whatsoever. My teachers were not engaged with the students. It all sort of felt like something of a dream. And it wouldn’t be until several years later that I ended up actually getting therapy and finding out that I had gone through post-traumatic stress during high school. And I had basically been just blocking a lot of my life out at that time. And that was from my my fall that I had mentioned earlier, the accident that happened when I was six. And so I started putting things together a couple of years after high school, and I started understanding that I had to, as you say, come up with a plan. And I had to get a little bit more serious about my life. And by that point, I was heavily involved in the garage music scene in Los Angeles. And my girlfriend at the time was the keyboard player in a band called The Pandoras.
And she eventually went on to play with white flag and the leaving trains and other punk bands. And I decided that something had to change. And so when the the Pandoras went on tour, I went with them to the east coast and traveled around for a while and lived in New York and hung out with some of the bands out there. Got to meet Joey Ramone and hang out with the Ramones and lived with the fuzz tones for a minute. And he had a very, very musical life at the time. But I still didn’t fully understand what I was going to do. I was making a little bit of money by DJing and clubs here and there. But the world around me was changing drastically and rapidly. I thought that something in the music industry would eventually work out for me. And so I moved back to California and started to write a fanzine for 60s Garage music, and I thought that was going to be the direction but I just I didn’t have the dedication.
I really just didn’t know what I was doing. And so that kind of fell apart. And so I found myself kind of hanging out with people like Rodney being and heimer from Rodney on the rock and Greg sharp who founded bomp records that produced you know, everything from the Ramones to modern garage music, and I thought that Something would occur there and I’d find my way or I would fall into a band playing guitar. And in just everywhere I went, it was just not meant to happen. And it wasn’t until about the late 80s, about 89, that I decided to simply drop out of all of it. And I got in my car, and I drove up to Central Coast, California. And I found a group of people up there that seemed friendly enough, and I decided to just stay and start my life all over. And when I started my life all over, I decided I would just leave behind any presuppositions I had about people in the world and how I should be in the world and how things should be and music and all of that. And it was like a personal rebirth in a way. And I spent a lot of time in Big Sur, and I spent a lot of time in San Luis Obispo and that area, Cambria. And I really started to to get into different areas, literature and food and understand people’s stories.
And I felt like at that point, there was a major transition that occurred in me and I realized that the one thing I had to do was go back to school, and to really learn this time. And so I eventually did that I went back to school. And I did very well in school. And I took a course that is now you know, kind of a very well known course, at Cuesta College, a several year course in the history of civilization, I became friends with the professors, I would hang out with them, I was just a sponge for everything around me. And I felt like that really, really propelled me forward and saved me in a lot of ways. And education to me seemed like the right direction. And it’s interesting because I did go on to study at Berkeley, I got my MFA, I got my PhD later on. And I’m still friends with my, with my, my group of, you know, girlfriends and pals and everyone from the punk scene and the garage scene. And it is fascinating to see how different we all became.
Most of them are still into music and publishing and recording. And I’ve definitely built a much different life for myself after all of that not to say it’s better, just, I’m not sure where I would have ended up if I hadn’t had taken that move out of California, or out of Southern California.
Marc Gutman 32:58
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And thank you for going into that and extrapolating that that journey, I mean, that was going to be my question and looking at your bio and looking at your history as you were talking and telling me that you weren’t a good student. And you kind of went on this journey in to New York City to get into, you know, the music scene and I’m looking at your bio, and I’m like, at what point did you get this like thirst for learning? And it really is like the tale of two Jambas you know, and it’s, it’s interesting, and you very eloquently referred to it as a rebirth and a new awakening. I mean, can you get into a little bit more specifics as to like what flipped the switch for you?
Jamba Dunn 34:39
I think it was, wasn’t about subject matter which schools before me had always been about. It was about people and structures. And I started meeting people who are professors who really took the time With me, whereas nobody had when I was younger and, and they took me under their wing a little bit, and they told me or I was going wrong. And they pointed out areas where I should maybe think about focusing. And they asked me what I was interested in, and what I liked about their courses, or what I liked about studying. And in a lot of ways, I realized I didn’t understand my own desires. You know, growing up, it was easy to have a sense of rage and a sense of feeling on the outside and feeling like the whole rest of the world was entitled. And, you know, here I was, though, being asked, What do you want? And I didn’t know. And so, school gave me the opportunity to start learning about the world in a way that I think, you know, hopefully my children get that now in really connecting to pieces here and pieces over there, and going back to these professors and asking them, hey, do you have more of this, or this is what I like, can you direct me and getting that direction, and really just feeling like I was on a kind of a journey.
And interestingly, even though for the first time I was having this revelation of about education, and about all the different things that were going on in the world around me, and all the different avenues that I could take. My parents still didn’t fully understand what I was doing, or why I was doing it. Because if, you know, in their eyes, you weren’t studying to become a mechanic or to fix a machine or to become a doctor or to do something that was a position in the world that they knew about, then it just seemed irrelevant to them. And I remember even when I graduated from UC Berkeley, and I had been studying Egyptology and several other areas for years and years and talking about it, every time I saw them, they thought that I had gotten a degree in sociology. And when I told them, I didn’t they, they just couldn’t understand it. And they would be like, yeah, yeah, well, we’ll just like pretend that you’ve got a degree in sociology, because I have no idea what you’re talking about. And this huge divide opened up between myself and my parents. And if it wasn’t there already, in the early days, it was definitely there then. And it opened up between not only myself and my parents, but myself and the rest of my family as well.
My cousin who is my age who decided to surf instead of going to school. I remembered him saying things like, you know, you come around here with your big words, and nobody can understand you. And it was a huge divide in my life education. But it was something I was passionate about. And something that I decided was more important than a lot of the relationships I had at the time. So I pursued education.
Marc Gutman 38:11
Yeah, and I feel like we could spend hours talking about this topic. So I’ll just shift gears a little bit and I want to move into kombucha and I want to know, When was the first time that you even heard of kombucha or even realized kombucha was a thing?
Jamba Dunn 38:32
Yeah. Interesting. So because there are a lot of lives that lead up to kombucha You know, a lot of my past, basically, that leads me to Boulder, and I’m at Boulder. I’m in Boulder and I had been teaching at a university here. And I remember going to a Whole Foods Market in 2009. And there’s good old Steve o from high country kombucha standing by the kombucha set, handing out free bottles of kombucha. And, you know, I took one and he he told me a little bit about what kombucha was. And I could tell that he really, you know, he had kind of a stick and he wanted to like, tell talk with somebody. And so I hung out with him for a little bit. And he told me how I can take a bottle of his kombucha, pour it into a jar, put a lid over it, you know, or cloth over it and set it on the counter and grow scoby and eventually, I could make my own kombucha.
And it sounded very abstract to me at the time, I did not comprehend how it was possible to take something off of the shelf of the grocery store and grow it and turn it into basically an engine for making more of that product. And so I brought it home and instead of making it I decided just to kind of drink it and you know that maybe someday in the future. I would do something else with that knowledge. But it wasn’t until a few years later in 2011, that I was brewing a lot of beer in my garage at the time, my wife had given me a beer brewing kit. And it was something that had always interested me. And my daughter came walking into the garage. And so what I was doing, and I told her, I was brewing beer. And she asked, Well, is there you know, can you make me so Can I have some? And I said, Well, no, it’s alcohol. And she didn’t know what that was. And I told her, it wasn’t for kids. And she got really sad and asked if, you know, there was something that I could make for her. And at that time, I kind of looked around the room, and I realized, I could spending a lot of my time in the garage, making beer and other things and getting really into this. And here’s my sweet little three year old, you know, and I’m not spending time with her doing anything for her. And so I remembered back to Steve O.
And I thought, well, this is going to be easy. I’ll just take a, you know, bottle of kombucha and I’ll put a thing over the top. And I’ll make some for my daughter. And so I did that. And I did it with several different brands. And I realized that only one out of three of those brands actually started to grow. And I think that was the point at which I started wondering Hmm, like, what is this actually? And why didn’t those other ones grow? And so I started to reach out for information. And I found that there was not much information about kombucha at that time. And I think that seeing that there was a lack of information and knowing that kombucha was a growing category, it just immediately fed my curiosity, and I had to get into it.
Marc Gutman 41:48
And so up to this point, between that and your first interaction with Steve, I get that right, Steve? Oh, is Yeah, keep thinking Steve. From the jackass movies. That’s what keeps coming into my, into my head. But um, so I was like, I was like, I can’t be here. So you have this experience with Steve Oh, and and all the way to when your daughter puts you on the spot and says, Hey, what about me? Like, what’s your relationship with kombucha? Between there? I mean, you have a relationship? Are you consuming it regularly? Is it just this thing that’s like, kind of out in the consciousness and you know about it, but you’re not really into it? Like, what’s your relationship with kombucha at that point?
Jamba Dunn 42:26
So yeah, it’s, it’s interesting. I remember that that day, when I went to the market, and I got my first kombucha and, and I remember going up to the car and drinking it and feeling like man, like, I don’t really know what this is. It’s kind of like a soda. It’s kind of sour. I’m not sure if I actually like this. And then it was a couple of weeks later that I, I remember, I’ve been doing some kind of like hard work, and I was really exhausted and overheated. And I went to Whole Foods again. And I was walking around trying to find something that would quench my thirst. And I thought, whoa, the kombucha maybe I’ll try that again. And so I went out to my car, and I closed the door, and I drank it. And I started drinking. And I mean, I took a couple of sips. And then all of a sudden, it just was like this, this like drive where I just downed the rest of the bottle. And I sat there like, wow, that was really interesting.
That wasn’t just a beverage that was kind of an experience. And I went back into the market, and I bought another bottle and went back out to my car and thought, well, this one, I’m just going to kind of sip and I downed it completely again. And I thought What is this, there’s got to be something here that you know, is just very, very different than anything I’ve ever had. And that kind of sat at the back of my mind. And when I started brewing kombucha from my daughter, I was kind of taking a passive role. Like, I don’t know what this is, you know, don’t really care what it is. I’ve had it, it tasted good. But something about my daughter in the way that she was reacting to kombucha. She was getting really, really hyper and running around the house. The next morning, She’d wake up early, and she’d have her little cup and she’d be standing by the area where I was brewing kombucha, wanting more.
And I was thinking, well, this is unusual. Like, she kind of has that same reaction that I remembered having, you know, years before in the car. And so, you know, I I didn’t fully grasp what fermentation was what the beverage was. And so it was at that time in 2011, that I started really asking questions and I went around I look for all the literature, I read everything I could find. I went to the University, I read everything that they had on file. I started reaching out to kombucha companies and talking with CEOs and founders of other kombucha companies. Then, in 2012, I started paying people and offering $100 if someone would sit down and talk to me for 30 minutes, and what I quickly realized was that here are people that had thriving businesses that were actually doing quite well at the time. But not all of them understood what it was that they were doing or what kombucha was.
A lot of people still thought it was kind of like a mystical thing that happens, you just kind of, you know, you put it into this jar, and you mix this in here, and you close the door, and then voila, there you go kombucha, you know, and, but nobody could tell me exactly what it was or exactly what the processes were, or why it was that it was making my daughter extremely hyperactive. And so that’s where I really took a huge interest in kombucha and decided to go out and hire a microbiologist and a brewer and we work together to fully understand what was going on and what they helped me understand what was going on in the process. And I started looking for ways to hack that process.
So you know, having gone through, you know, years of university and having gotten my doctorate in, in research, basically in philosophy, I had the ability to to understand when when I saw Bs, and what I was reading on a lot of websites at the time about the history of kombucha just smacked of total BS, there were no historical records there were, there was nothing that I could find at that time, that basically corroborated the idea that this is 2000 years old, except for the fact that I had studied ancient history. And I did know that there were lots of vinegar, I guess, drinks and attributes from the ancient world. And maybe this was kind of like those, but to relate what kombucha was today with those ancient elixirs just seemed not right to me, and something seemed odd about it. And so I did get heavily involved with this microbiologist in understanding that kombucha is basically a semiotic relationship between yeast and bacteria, the yeast consume sugar, that’s you make a sweet tea with sugar in it. And you put in a starter culture and the yeast break down the sugars or oxidize the sugars and create alcohol, and the bacterial strains translate that alcohol into different types of acids.
And so you end up hopefully with a low alcohol, low sugar beverage at the end. But that turns out not to be the case, oh, and low caffeine as well. And so what I did was I looked at all of the misunderstandings that occurred with kombucha around that time. And granted in 2012, we did a market research survey, and it showed that only 5% of Americans actually knew what kombucha was at the time. So a very small subset of people. And there were a lot of misunderstandings about it.
People thought that by the end of the process, that it had no alcohol, that it had almost no sugar, and that it had no caffeine. And so I decided, I knew a little bit about research, and I could talk with people at research institutions and laboratories. And we could do some tests. And we could sort of prove that out. And so I started taking in my homebrews. And they showed that they were wildly, wildly out of spec, they were high on alcohol, they were high on sugar they had, you know, all these things that I didn’t want. And so trying to figure out how the market leaders were doing it became a sort of obsession for me.
Marc Gutman 49:20
And at what point did you take obsession in in sort of this garage mythology and mad scientist tinkering in your garage for the joy of your daughter and following your own obsession? And at what point were you like, Oh, this is a business. I’m gonna like make a run at this.
Jamba Dunn 49:38
Well, let’s see. The first inkling about potentially turning this into something else was definitely in 2012 when a market survey came out, saying that over the next five years that they they thought that kombucha was going to turn into a $500 million a year business with seemed just crazy to me at the time, because there were only a few kombucha companies. So there weren’t that many companies and certainly, you know, only a couple of market leaders. And so it seemed like there was a lot of open space for other brands to get in. But I didn’t have anything to offer at the time. So I couldn’t make anything that was in spec.
I certainly didn’t make anything that was different from what the market leaders were doing at the time. And it wasn’t until I think, mid 2012, that I got in touch with a brewer who had been the brewer for another major kombucha company. And she and I decided that I would lease a warehouse and she would come and help me with recipes, even though she wasn’t very interested in doing that. And we rented a warehouse space and in 2013, started, really just doing iterations on different flavors, and herbs and herbs and plants was a place that I’d always been very interested. And pursuing.
I’ve been growing a lot of herbs, I’ve been making a lot of teas. And so I decided to start taking some of those flavors from the TEAS I was making and her knowledge of herbs from India and other places. And we started building these recipes. And, you know, we would do iterations that would be you know, like 30 different batches of the same type of thing with, you know, one gram of ingredient less in every bucket, and really doing kind of this like pseudo scientific research and seeing if we couldn’t land on something. Granted, I was doing all of this and throwing out hundreds of gallons of kombucha at a time because I had nobody to take it. And I still at that point wasn’t thinking that I would turn this into a business. And it wasn’t until we really hit on a series of recipes, and a series of methods for making kombucha that were really different from anything I’d ever tasted in the market.
It was less acidic, it had low sugar, it did have low alcohol, although tended to waver sometimes depending on barometric pressure, temperature, other types of things. But it was relatively stable. And it tasted great. And suddenly I had people all around me asking if I would sell it to them? or could they come by and fill up their milk carton full of it. And it was at that point that I realized, we’ve got something like I’ve got something here. And wouldn’t it be interesting to make the first plant based kombucha and really, instead of relying on the probiotics as the reason for believing in the beverage, put together these recipes that were based on age old herbal wisdom, and create herbal recipes, functional recipes, the based off of the herbs themselves, and use the kombucha as a sort of background for highlighting the ingredients that we were putting in.
And if I could make a three year old or however old she was at that time, love it, then I knew that I would have a certain audience in America that would like this. And so I decided to drop everything that I was doing, and really just put 110% into building this business. And so that was in 2013. And it took me until April of 2014 to actually get the tasting room up and running. I and rowdy mermaid was born.
Marc Gutman 53:57
And where did the name come from?
Jamba Dunn 53:59
So when I decided to break into my family that I was going to leave my my stable job at Rosetta Stone and start a kombucha company. I took my family down to these hot springs in Colorado. And I’ll never forget my daughter was really out of control at the the hot springs playing mermaid. Although it sounded much more like a dolphin to me. And she was making these dolphin noises and jumping over people’s heads etc. And she was just really high on life and having the best time ever. And I was in an another pool and I told my wife Hey, listen, I got some news. I’m going to start my own business. And the first question out of her mouth was what do you call it? And I hadn’t put any thought into that whatsoever.
And right at that moment, I remember my daughter was jumping over someone’s head into one of the hot springs. And I had to turn to her and say, Hey, sweetie, stop what you’re doing. You’re being very rowdy. mermaid. And that phrase rowdy Mermaid, just it went into a little room in my head and just stayed in there. And I didn’t believe that that was going to be the name. So I actually went out and hired agencies to come up with names, and I did crowdsourcing for names, etc, etc. And it wasn’t until a while longer later that I think I was speaking with the CEO of another kombucha company. And he told me, you know, like, you have to use a name that is authentic. Otherwise, you know, what are you doing in this industry? Right, because everything we do is based on authenticity.
And I realized he was absolutely right. So I would use rowdy Mermaid, because it was for my daughter, after all, but I had to figure out some way to keep it from being rowdy and keep it from having mermaids because I didn’t want it to turn into craft beer. And so I found myself in artists, and we went out and worked on the the logo and the branding. And we came up with something based off of Nordic minimalism, and I felt like we got it to a very good place. And here we are today.
Marc Gutman 56:14
Yeah, and I love it. And I think that, you know, it has this real kind of Explorer, you know, take me to other worlds take me to someplace new experience. And you mentioned, you know, all the different ingredients that you’ve been using, both at the beginning and probably today in your kombucha, like, you know, herbs from India and different plants and all these different things. So it has this real kind of like, take me to lands far away feel and I was going to ask you about the unique Oh, and some of the unique characters in your branding and in your, you know, typography and stuff like that, but that Oh, so from what I’m gathering is Nordic and and what do you call that?
Jamba Dunn 56:56
Um, so that, that no, you’re talking about the newest font that we use from the it’s, it’s a Montreal font, that that’s part of the brand new branding from here studio in California. But the real brand came from that original, what we call the logo lockup, which is the the tail and water. And that’s kind of interesting story, maybe a long one, but I’ll see if I can cut, cut it quick. I wanted something that represented both my interest in Nordic minimalism, and also the brand, the rowdy Mermaid, and also my interest in Egyptology. That’s what I had been studying at Berkeley. So we decided to go with the tail with the water under it on three straight lines like that would represent water.
Three wavy lines also in Egyptology represent water, but a straight line represents somebody’s name. And so we decided to do the tail with a straight line under it not only to represent a mermaid tail coming out of water, but also to really define mermaid in that instance, just the way you do it with cartouche. And because I didn’t want anything to be too rowdy, we decided to put the lockup around it. And that’s how that was born. But there’s also if you turn it on its side, a hidden k in there for kombucha. And we went back and forth for a long time about whether or not we should turn it on its side to show the K. Or just keep that as a secret. And we decided to keep that as a secret.
Marc Gutman 58:40
Well, thanks for sharing the secret. I see it now. And I can’t unsee it. And I love it. And thank you for going into it. That’s great. I love it. And I think that that’s just such a great lesson and a great logos that has meaning beyond just it being assemble. And you really were thoughtful and it really whether or not we ever knew that it has roots in your Egyptology studies and passions like it’s there. And I think that’s just you know, what a great a great Mark does, and I love it. I love your brand and your branding. And so you started in the garage, you didn’t set out to be you know, you’re kind of like an accidental kombucha guy. And what does the company look like today? I mean, it started with you in the garage just kind of Ruin and now you actually have a like a company like what does that look like?
Jamba Dunn 59:28
Yeah, well, it’s it’s not uncommon for entrepreneurs as I’ve been finding over the years, but to find yourself in this situation where you feel, you know, a little bit like an imposter because you’re right. You know, we started in my garage and we started with a concept and we started with a lot of research and not much else, not much money. It was a hard struggle for many years with me doing everything at the business from you know, bookkeeping and answering During the emails to making the kombucha and making the deliveries myself, the only people who worked for the company for the first couple of years were just volunteers. And so that was pretty much the way it was. I had, I think two full time employees in 2017, 16 started in 2016. And in November 2016, I fell, had a horrible fall and broke my arm. And I had complications from that. And I could no longer do all the jobs. And so I had to bring people in.
And the first person I brought in was my wife, who was a wonderful sales woman. And she helped build a sales team and and I stepped away from doing manufacturing and production and started really focusing on the business itself. And what do we want? And where do we want to go and put together a plan that we’re still following today. And today, we’re in 48 states, we’ve got a vibrant team of about 30 people. I’ve got incredible team members, both people from the brewing industry here in Boulder, who are very experimental brewers.
My first taproom salesperson is now our Director of Sales operations. And she’s fantastic. We have a VP of Sales and Marketing who came from background and Coke and Pepsi. And we’ve got a food service person who just came over from Clif Bar, and we’ve got a really vibrant, interesting culture happening now. And I just I absolutely love it. And I get to finally step back again from a lot of the day to day and, and really help guide the business towards what I feel like we should be focusing on. And I just, I feel like that’s my happy place. And it’s a wonderful, wonderful life now, very different from our starting years.
Marc Gutman 1:02:06
It’s taken a lot of sweat and a lot of a lot of risk and sometimes some desperation so I can I can relate. So john, as we come to a close here, I want to thank you so much for for sharing your story. And as you think back I have one last question for you if that young, eight year old jumbo who is in Huntington Beach and kind of feeling awkward and straddling two worlds I ran into you today. What do you think he’d say?
Jamba Dunn 1:02:37
Stay away from cars, I would tell him that he should not lose hope and should not be angry about the way things are. Because if it’s one thing I’ve learned over the course of my life, it’s that everything changes, and you’ve really, really got to learn how to enjoy the ride. Otherwise, it’s never going to be very much fun.
Marc Gutman 1:03:06
And that is Jamba Dunn, of rowdy mermaid. The day after we recorded this episode, I received an email from Jamba. And with His permission, I am going to read it on edited Marc, Thanks again for the conversation today. It was fun. Although I woke up last night filled with a sense that I missed so many opportunities, and perhaps didn’t paint the right picture. I wanted to get it off my chest. My father and grandfather are entrepreneurs and inventors. And although I wanted to do anything but follow in their footsteps is they lived externally difficult lives. And we often had our power shut off, or we had to hide from collection agencies when times were tough. Entrepreneur ism was for good or for ill in my bloodstream. You asked about me at eight years old, and I later recalled my father working all night repairing typewriters and photocopy equipment in the garage.
He was also a master mechanic. And he had a side hustle of buying, repairing and upgrading old cars that he’d sell. And weekends when I was eight, I’d visit my grandfather who 20 years before had invented a device for squeezing all the toothpaste from the tube and who ran the manufacturing company. And so the idea was stolen out from under him. And he was always working on new devices, when I recall was for controlling the television from his chair using strings and another for generating custom address signs which he later sold door to door. So while I was unsure of who I was or what I wanted at that age, and later I would rebel by getting into the punk and Garage Band scenes. I was also subtly ingesting a sort of anti establishment agenda that will become crucial to my mental blueprint when dreaming up the structure for my own company. Where we are a flat organization, and everyone has a say in how we progress. Although my parents were somewhat shut off from the outside, they also valued Straight Talk.
My father, for instance, always loved the waitress who would tell him he looked like crap. And who would ask if he slept under a bridge the night before? Because some days he did look rough, and he loved that honesty. Looking back, he had a level of personal transparency that has become a hallmark of rowdy mermaid. So while at first, it all seems superficial and not very pleasant living with my parents when I was eight, growing up in a vibrant and changing Orange County. It also taught me the lessons I needed to be successful in 2020. Best, Jamba.
Thanks for adding that Jamba. We do appreciate it. And the thing that keeps sticking with me after our conversation is the focus on your daughter, brewing kombucha, to get her involved her rambunctious nature being not only the namesake of the company, but the essence of the brand as well. And that’s the thing about truly authentic brands. They’re part of the people that build them. They’re living, breathing feeling entities, and even when you don’t know like the little tidbit about the rowdy mermaid logo Mark being a nod to Egyptian hieroglyphics or the hidden k in the white space that symbolizes kombucha. You know, you can feel it, sense it, believe it. Believe in the promise that the brand is making, just in the way that I believe in rowdy mermaid.
I will link to all things rowdy mermaid in the show notes so you can find and drink some of this delicious kombucha goodness for yourself. And a big big thank you to john but done and the team at rowdy mermaid. Keep brewing kombucha that means something kombucha that is changing the world.
And if you know the guests who should appear on our show, please drop me a line at email@example.com our best guess like Jamba come from referrals from past guests and our listeners. Well that’s the show. Until next time, make sure to visit our website www.wildstorm.com where you can subscribe to the show in iTunes, Stitcher or via RSS see you’ll never miss an episode a lot big stories and I cannot lie you other storytellers can’t deny.