Delicious Drinks & Inspiring Ideas: An Interview with Toma founder, Hispanic business owner Alejandro Lopez
Fun, fresh, and full of flavor — That’s what you get when you drink Toma. Alejandro Lopez, founder of premium Bloody Mary mixer brand Toma, shares his insights into how he got here and what he’s learned along the way. Read on to find out more about this incredible Latino entrepreneur!
Why did you create Toma?
Part of the experience of going out is enjoying a great meal and a cocktail. And for me, the Bloody Mary is an excellent excuse to drink that cocktail during the day! I was living in Queens at the time, and I just felt very frustrated with the quality of the Bloody Marys when I went out to brunch in NYC. So, I decided I needed to learn how to make them for myself. I was already experimenting with making my own hot sauces at home, so this gave me a good reason to try using them in the Bloody Mary mixer I was developing. Then I moved from Forest Hills to an apartment in Astoria, closer to Manhattan, where I started hosting friends for brunch and Sunday football. Offering up homemade Bloody Marys was the perfect excuse for my friends to cross the East River and hang out in Astoria for some daytime cocktails.
People started asking me for bottles of my mixer for bachelorette parties, bridal showers, and other special occasions. And then, at one point, I shared it on social media, and a friend said, “Hey, I’ve got friends in the restaurant industry. I can make some intros. ” And I said sure. The first restaurateur/chef I met, took me into the back of the kitchen to taste the mix. He was able to describe my mixer’s flavor profile! Maybe better than I could. He realized the complexities of the different ingredients, how layered they were, and how they would build on top of each other. I’ll never forget that moment because it really gave me validation.
How did you start the business?
Most people I knew enjoyed their Bloody Marys at a restaurant, so I decided to focus on helping restaurants streamline their bar operations while serving a high-quality cocktail. I also knew I wanted Toma to be served in casual to fine dining restaurants, so it had to be produced with clean ingredients and have a decent shelf-life. So, I worked with Cornell University to achieve this objective and determine our production method. Most restaurants batch their Bloody Mary mix which is time-consuming and hard to keep consistent when you have multiple bar staff making it. It also doesn’t have a long shelf-life. Restaurants quickly realized the value we were adding with Toma.
Tell us about yourself — What led you here?
I am a first-generation Latino American, born in Louisiana, but I grew up in New York. My mother is Cuban. She left Cuba in 1968 and moved to Mexico City, where she lived for a year until she could get the proper paperwork to enter the US. My father is Colombian. He immigrated to the US in 1970 and moved in with his brother in Jackson Heights, Queens.
My mother was the inspiration for Toma. She was the one that taught me to cook. Cuban cuisine is by no means spicy, but it certainly is savory. These flavors and some influences from her time in Mexico, are the reason I created our own chipotle tomatillo sauce to use in Toma. It’s also what makes our mixer super unique.
I’ve always wanted to start my own business from a young age, so naturally, I studied Marketing at Villanova University for undergrad. After graduating, I started working for advertising agencies, helping our clients develop marketing strategies and advertising campaigns to raise awareness. I really loved working on so many different types of businesses while working in the advertising field. It was after I received my MBA at Fordham University that I started thinking about leaving the corporate world to start Toma.
Where is Toma produced and distributed?
We manufacture it in upstate New York, and we’re distributed in five states. New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and California. We currently have over 1,100 accounts, made up of restaurants, grocery stores, and wine and spirits shops. Our mixers are also available on Amazon and on our website, drinktoma.com
What’s been your biggest challenge so far?
COVID was a huge challenge. It really all came down to cash flow problems. NYC was the epicenter of the pandemic, which led to immediate restaurant closures. We lost 70% of our business overnight. Fortunately, we were already developing our ecommerce channel and figuring out our logistics plan. Shipping heavy glass products was also challenging but we were able to develop a custom packaging system that delivered Toma to consumers’ doorsteps, efficiently and safely. We were ready to flip to an ecommerce model by April 2020, which helped us survive the pandemic. In addition to selling Toma on our brand website, we also launched on Amazon. We ended up doubling our sales in 2020, and then again in 2021.
What piece of advice would you give to a new entrepreneur?
Operations is probably the most essential aspect of the business, from procuring the raw materials, to production, to logistics. If you don’t know the costs of each, it can get unruly. So, just know your numbers and understand your timelines. If you can manage that and get it streamlined, things can go pretty smoothly. That’s the fun part, right? That’s the work that I do well.
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