Meet the Man Behind Jack Rudy Cocktail Co.
Brooks Reitz, founder of Jack Rudy Cocktail Co., started working in a country club restaurant in high school as a way to make a little pocket change. Like most teenagers, having a job was a way to assert a bit of financial independence from his parents. However, for Reitz the restaurant was more than just an after school job, it was in his blood. As the son of a former bar owner, he grew up hearing his dad tell tales of his time in the industry before he closed up shop for a steadier paycheck and better hours in the insurance business. But Reitz's vocational calling and entrepreneurial spirit had another creator — his great-grandfather and family legend, the serial inventor, Jack Rudy.
Reitz recalled the stories his family told him of Jack Rudy’s seemingly mythic deeds which included flying an airplane under a bridge on a dare, engineering a houseboat from a city bus, and making his own bullets which he shot into the dirt wall he had constructed in his basement. And then there was Jack’s love for entertaining and a damn fine cocktail.
Throughout college and his twenties, Reitz worked his way up through the restaurant ranks before landing a position behind the bar and eventually becoming a general manager while still having a hand in the beverage programs at award-winning restaurants like Proof on Main in Louisville and Fig and The Ordinary in Charleston. It was behind the bar at Fig where Jack Rudy and Reitz finally merged their entrepreneurial spirits in the form of a cocktail tonic.
“I like simple drinks like the gin and tonic. At the time I started working behind the bar, cocktails were being created with like 19 ingredients. It was less about the drink and more about bartenders showing off. I’ve always been fascinated with how people like my great-grandfather used to drink, the ingredients they used to craft cocktails. Creating my own tonic allowed me to set my simpler drinks apart while exploring traditional ingredients.”
Reitz had created his tonic, a hat tip to Jack and his own Kentucky roots, behind the bar at Proof. But it was at Fig he realized the tonic’s true potential. People were ordering drinks with his elixir and asking where they could purchase it. He soon found himself researching production and bottling for wholesale in his down time.
“When you work in a popular place like Fig, you talk to as many as 60 people a night. Being hospitable is key to being a great bartender and can lead to potential connections critical to your career. You never know who you’re talking to at the bar.”
One fateful evening at Fig found Reitz flexing his friendly bartender muscles with a couple of visiting spirits professionals in town for a wine show. The two gentlemen had come in for dinner and ordered cocktails containing the tonic. They asked the server about the drink’s ingredients. Reitz seized the moment and told them his story. Two months later he was shipping 30 cases of product. Orders began to trickle in and the media took notice.
“I felt like we were going to be a success after ‘Tasting Table’ covered us in 2011. Right after that story hit, we started getting inquiries for testing our product at bars, leading to more orders. Within a month of launching, I met with chef Sean Brock of Husk in Charleston.”
Reitz tasted Brock on the tonic, who was in the process of opening what would prove an award-winning restaurant. Brock had made it his mission to only stock Southern-made products in his kitchen and bar. He was sold on Reitz’s tonic. It was a turning point for Jack Rudy — more and more people were exposed to the tonic at Husk and Fig. Then there was the tap from PDT to stock Jack Rudy on their shelves.
While Reitz spent a few more years running other people’s restaurants as he grew Jack Rudy, he never stopped dreaming of opening his one restaurant. That day came in 2014, after leaving a year-long stint at The Ordinary and opening Leon’s Oyster Shop.
“I often joke with my fiancé that Leon’s is the house that Jack Rudy built. I knew when I launched in 2010 I wanted it to fund my first restaurant. I paid particular attention to the structure of the company — creating thoughtful products, farming out the production and bottling, not having a storefront or equipment. Lower overhead meant more profit to play with.”
Through the success of Jack Rudy and now Leon’s, Reitz has gone on to open more concepts like Saint Alban’s Cafe and the forthcoming Little Jack’s Tavern. He believes appreciating the exposure being a bartender affords you was critical to his success. Having a good idea isn’t enough, you must maximize your time behind the bar and the potential opportunities to network.
“Don’t underestimate any of the skills you’ve developed as a bartender. You never know which one of those skills will help launch your next endeavor, you also never know who you’re talking to. My days behind the bar really prepared me to communicate my ideas and sell them. As a bartender, you’re constantly making conversation with strangers. That’s a skill most people never learn to master. Bartenders have a leg up on people outside of this industry.”
But, Reitz says being an entrepreneur also means being realistic about your opportunities for success.
“Explore all of your ideas. Not all of them will pan out. With each idea, ask yourself who’s doing similar things locally, regionally, nationally? What sets your idea apart? Is that enough to make it successful? Jack Rudy is now in its sixth year, but it took a couple of years to get it off the ground and another year for it to become successful and still another couple of years for me to quit my full time job and grow my other ventures. Success takes patience as much as it does capital and a great network.”
Reitz says the hardest lesson he’s learned as an entrepreneur is loosening the reins and allowing the talents of others to shine.
“When I first started Jack Rudy, I was doing everything myself. My cousin came on board about a year later as an investor and partner. He’s a CPA and took over the bookkeeping and day-to-day operations. I was nervous at first, but realized I wasn’t as good at that part of the business and didn’t like it. I moved into a creative role, creating the products, marketing and sales. Managing from 30,000 feet rather than 20 feet allows me to grow my businesses and maximize the talents of my people. It’s helped to balance out my life and enjoy what I’ve created.”
Six years after launching his cocktail mixer company with one product, a simple tonic he had created with his great-grandfather’s inventive spirit in mind, Jack Rudy now carries three tonics, two syrups, bitters and even cocktail cherries. The success of the company has allowed Reitz to realize his dream of owning his own restaurant, travel the world in the name of Jack Rudy, and open other ventures in his adopted hometown of Charleston.
“I never in a million years thought Jack Rudy would be as big as it’s become. The people I met working behind the bar (the CEO of this company, the director of sales of that corporation) changed my life. I’m able to distribute to 42 states and open my restaurants because I sold my idea to two guys at my bar in town for a wine show. Never underestimate anyone or any opportunity.”
And what of his company’s namesake?
“I think my great-grandfather would be proud of what I’ve accomplished. Hell, if he were alive, he probably would have beaten me to it.”