Four James sisters set out to introduce a healthy juice to Metro Detroit. Now, they’re making it easier to drink Drought nationwide.
By Stephanie Steinberg
Photography by Hayden Stinebaugh
It’s rare to get the four James sisters in a room — all together — but they take a quick 20-minute break and gather in their 15,000-square-foot Berkley headquarters, a former broom factory they renovated last spring.
“There’s never really a dull moment,” laughs Jenny James, who’s done everything from make deliveries and train the 35 employees, to clean toilets.
The sisters ages 31 to 36 have been on the move since they relocated back home nine years ago to pursue an idea — and live and work together to make it a reality.
Drought, their organic cold-pressed juice, is now in 50 retailers nationwide, and they opened a prime retail spot in Detroit’s new Shinola Hotel last month. The sisters also recently launched a 30-bottle case called the Stock Box, which uses high-pressure processing technology to expand the juice shelf life from 5 to 45 days. While Drought is sold locally in Bloomfield Hills, Detroit, Royal Oak and Plymouth stores, now anyone can order the raw juices online.
“Now that we have mastered this HPP line and it’s gone to market and it’s growing, it’s beginning to eclipse our retail business. We’re pulling back on our retail shops,” says Julie James, chief marketing officer, explaining a few intentional store closures last year. “They’re going to kind of turn into marketing hubs for our brand, but this way, we can get our product out further.”
The four women didn’t know what to expect when they launched their juice company out of their parents’ Plymouth home kitchen in 2010. Shortly before that, Jessie, Caitlin and Jenny were living in New York in a 400-square-foot apartment they compare to a shoebox.
“We were all not really settled into our careers yet,” says Jenny, now 31. “We were all looking for the next step.” Growing up, their entrepreneurial father emphasized they could do anything. “Our dad really told us that we could be businessmen, and girls could do whatever boys could do,” Julie says.
Starting a business together was a no-brainer. “We wanted to start something that we felt ethically we could get behind, that was sustainable,” says Jenny, Drought’s COO who curates the local produce. “In New York, healthy options and juice bars are like coffee shops. They’re on every corner, so we really started enjoying going to them more. We were like, ‘Hey, we’d love to try this here (in Michigan).’ ”
But a decade ago, organic juice bars weren’t common in Metro Detroit or even the Midwest. Caitlin recalls even applying for a license with the health department was a challenge. “We made the juice so simple that they were confused by it … they had never heard about a cold-pressed juice before — and then the next year it was like 40 applications for a similar business,” she says.
The four of them moved back into their parents’ home to focus their energy on Drought — a name they picked that symbolized the “drought” in healthy food options in Metro Detroit at the time.
Their father, a regional luxury appliance sales manager, lent his office as a “war room” and watched as they tinkered with recipes. “I used to laugh while (the juice) was shooting off the kitchen ceiling, and they were pulling all-nighters and doing all the things you gotta to do to start a business,” says Mark James, 59.
Their lucky break came thanks, in part, to Michigan’s film tax incentive. “Oz the Great and Powerful” was filming in Pontiac in 2011, and Jessie, a hairstylist-turned-Drought president, told her actor and actress clients from New York that her sisters had a juice bar.
“We didn’t,” Jenny laughs. “We had a logo. We had an idea.” But actress Michelle Williams didn’t know that.
“She was like, ‘I want a juice cleanse.’ We had plans to make a juice cleanse, but we didn’t actually have the cleanse yet,” Julie recalls.
So they did what any entrepreneurs would do in a pinch: “We just did a ton of internet research. We stayed up all night,” Julie says. “We mixed recipes, and then we sent out one.”
“She was like, ‘I love it! Everyone on the set wants one too.’ So then we were like, ‘Oh my gosh. What have we gotten ourselves into?’ ” Julie laughs.
Many startups launch with a finished product, and then wait for the customer. “We did it backwards,” Julie adds, “but we were like, ‘OK, this might work!’ ”
Their father couldn’t be more proud to watch them graduate from their “mini juice factory” in his home to real factories and stores. “It’s been quite an amazing thing to see them produce from my kitchen, to downtown Plymouth, to a small factory they used in Ferndale that Garden Fresh used and then to build this factory in Berkley they built from the ground up — it was a shell,” he says. “They’ve come a long way in nine short years.”
Their mother, Beth James, a retired school nurse, helps her daughters by pitching in at the shops or looking after the six grandkids. Another sister and brother not in the business also lend support.
While some presume there’s infighting with four siblings leading a growing company, “it’s completely the opposite,” says Caitlin, the CEO. “We know how to work with each other. …We hands down trust each other.”
“There’s a lot of ripping the Band-Aid off and being like, ‘I’m having a problem with this. Can you help me?’ So we get to the root of problems really quickly — even if we have a disagreement,” Julie adds.
The four agree the best part of running their own business is the freedom that comes with it — and proving that you can be a mom and run a business. Even if that means bringing babies to meetings.
“Sometimes people are like ‘Uh, OK.’ And we’re like, ‘Uh, sorry. We’ve got a baby today.’ And most people end up lightening up,” says Julie, adding that she’s proud to set an example for her 9-year-old daughter who grew up peddling Drought samples, like a lemonade stand, outside shops.
“She’s watching me be the boss, and I think that’s really positive for her to see like, ‘Cool, my mom and my aunts are doing this, and I can do the same thing,’ ” Julie says.
Caitlin adds that they’ve accomplished what they set out to do: “make it easier for ourselves to live well.”
Each 16-ounce bottle, sold for about $11, contains 3 to 5 pounds of produce. No water is added — just pure fruits and vegetables.
When it comes to fighting colds and flu in the winter, Caitlin says most customers turn to their 4-ounce Immunity Potion with apple, lemon, ginger, oil of oregano, cayenne and turmeric. “It’s very powerfully antimicrobial, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory,” she says. “…It’s one of those things you consume most specifically for the health benefit. It’s our top-seller almost year-round.”
Depending on the season, 50 to 75 percent of the produce comes from five Michigan farms. It’s important to support local agriculture, Jenny says. “We are genuinely going back into that local ecosystem and giving people fair prices on their produce, so we’re really trying to create a sustainable relationship.”
Kari Molter, co-owner of Molter Family Orchards — a fifth-generation 700-acre apple farm in Benton Harbor — sends their certified organic honeycrisp, gala and Fuji apples to the Berkley factory every two weeks.
“Their support has really helped grow our business, and it keeps the dollars within Michigan’s economy, so I think it’s awesome how they support their neighboring farms and the state of Michigan in general,” Molter says. “Every year we’ve been able to grow together, and we’re looking forward to seeing where they’re heading in years to come.”
Whether the e-commerce expansion takes off or not, Jessie says it doesn’t matter because they’re doing what they love — together.
“It’s about the flexibility,” she says, “(and) the exciting part of working with your family, which is always fun.”