Q&A by Bowl & Plant Magazine
BOWL & PLANT MAGAZINE // ISSUE #2 // AUG 2019
Philippe Trinh and Julian Lesser are creatives with a wealth of combined experience in the fashion and digital marketing industries, which helped them on their path to serendipitously becoming entrepreneurs. Their journey to creating amazing kombucha began with BORO, a magazine that served as a guide to local destinations, artists, and restaurants in New York’s Western Queens region. BORO paved the way for Philippe and Julian to invest in Hudson Valley real estate, which laid the financial foundation for the two to start their specialty food & beverage lifestyle company, Seek North Provisions. They reside in Manhattan during the week and retreat to Hudson Valley on the weekends with their rescue pup, Coco. Bowl and Plant Magazine recently sat down with Trinh and Lesser to learn about the beginning of their story together, the process of launching their kombucha business, and the challenges and triumphs that have helped them grow as entrepreneurs.
B+P: How did you guys meet?
TRINH: Julian and I met at Splash in NYC about 13 years ago. I had just moved to New York about a year prior, and at the time NYC was bustling with the best gay clubs like Roxy, Duvet, and Element.
The instant I saw Julian that night at Splash, I was like a giddy little boy. I gave him the biggest smile, and I think I might have even given him a little shoulder dance (laughter). He returned the smile and I introduced myself and bought him a drink. I made sure to kiss him before he left the club, and we exchanged business cards. It’s absolutely wild to think back about how that one chance encounter would change both of our fates and that we’d become partners in life and in business.
B+P: Tell us a little bit about BORO and what led you to publish it?
LESSER: Philippe and I moved in together in Astoria, Queens right after he got laid off in 2009 during the big recession. He was living in Manhattan but we chose to move to my neighborhood in Astoria because it was much more affordable at the time. 10 years ago there was no local magazine or much press for Astoria. It was really hard to figure out where to eat, play, and drink in Queens neighborhoods.
Philippe and I had talked about starting a business together, but we couldn’t decide what to do. We loved Astoria but it was so hard to get friends to come visit us. No one really knew what Queens had to offer, and we really wanted it to become a destination for more than just great Greek food.
In 2010 we decided to launch a free, glossy lifestyle magazine dedicated to all things local. We featured artists, new stores and restaurants, and local events. We included a map of Queens with a directory of all our favorite destinations, and we curated an expansive event listing for the entire month. Philippe and I are both artists, so we knew we could create something really creative and beautiful—but we also wanted to make money. Our strategy was to offer a free, enticing magazine to locals and visitors and to distribute through active and passive distribution to get it in as many hands as possible. We would literally gather a street crew to hand out our magazine at every subway station in Astoria and LIC the first week of each month. The magazine was also available for free at a couple hundred locations throughout Queens.
To make money, we charged for printed ads in our magazine. Advertisers could pay for a ¼, ½, or a full page ad. In the first couple months we sold a lot of smaller ads, but as it became more popular we got full page ads from big businesses like Brooklyn Bagel and Coffee Company, Modern Spaces, and Carnegie Hall. Boro Magazine was actually profitable by its second issue, and after two successful years we were purchased by a big local publisher. That sale provided us with the capital to start investing in Hudson Valley real estate and to start our food & beverage lifestyle company, Seek North Provisions.
B+P: What started your passion for fermentation? Tell us a little bit about your journey with Kombucha.
TRINH: I’ve always had a passion for all things sour and fermented. It started with me pickling our summer harvests at our home in Kingston, NY. I’m not the gardener here—Julian has a green thumb, so he had two English garden boxes filled with seasonal vegetables and herbs. At any given point in the summer we would have an overabundance of a particular vegetable, so I would preserve them to make them last longer. I made craft pickles like scotch and lime cucumber chips, Sriracha kimchi, and kombucha using our garden herbs. A few years ago Julian got sick with Neurological Lyme Disease. It’s a terrible disease, but it made us really look at what we were eating and drinking. Julian and I learned that 70-80% of our immune tissue lies within our digestive tract, so we decided to get serious about our health, especially our gut health. We decided to jump start both of our bodies and our health.
LESSER: That’s when Philippe really started becoming a mad scientist in our kitchen. Our kitchen always had a sweet aroma of vinegar in the air. From lacto fermented pickles to fermented tea (kombucha), Philippe was literally fermenting everything. I wouldn’t say his kombucha was amazing in the early years, but he started experimenting with exotic flowers, herbs like exotic rose petals, tropical hibiscus flowers, lavender…that’s when he was really on to something— when he started mixing and using super herbs and fruits to really enhance the benefits of his tonic.
Because of our first hand experience with Lyme Disease, a portion of our profits are donated to Global Lyme Alliance to help promote awareness and change. Global Lyme Alliance is a leading nonprofit dedicated to conquering Lyme disease through research, education, and awareness.
B+P: What’s the craziest thing that you’ve ever fermented or something that’s gone astray in that process?
TRINH: At the peak of Julian’s illness we were also making cold pressed juices, and we would be left with so much fibrous pulp. I decided to use that pulp to make a really nutritious kombucha packed with fermented fruit and vegetables. I used swivel cork tops at the time, and when I opened the first bottle it was literally explosive after just a day and a half of second fermentation. It was Julian’s favorite super green juice— kale, cucumber, apple, and pineapple. Our entire kitchen was coated with what looked like green slime! We were still cleaning that explosion for years to come.
B+P: What are some of your favorite kombucha concoctions and what are a couple things that sets your booch apart from others?
TRINH: We initially launched with about 2 dozen flavors on tap at Dean & Deluca, and just earlier this year we decided to bottle our three best sellers. Our lineup is pomegranate, blueberry, and lemon; pineapple and elderflower; and ginger with hibiscus. Each one of our flavors includes a super fruit or herb that relates to the kombucha’s name. In Seek Harmony, we featured ginger due to its soothing digestive properties. Elderflower in Seek Immunity was chosen for its infamous healing properties and its ability to boost immunity. It’s also great for seasonal allergies and helping to combat colds and flus. And blueberries in Seek Clarity were used for their brain-boosting properties.
LESSER: Our kombucha is certified organic, 100% raw and unfiltered, vegan, certified kosher, and alcohol extracted. We actually spin out our alcohol using a large spinning cone to keep our kombucha under .5%, which is the legal limit for commercial kombucha. We wanted to create a very accessible kombucha that everyone could love. We wanted to create a kombucha that people could drink every day. That is why our booch is low in sugar and has full flavor while also packing in all the good benefits like probiotics, acetic acid, and vitamins like B12.
B+P: Have you faced any difficulties in being an LGBTQ owned business?
TRINH: In the beginning we didn’t really want people to know our company was a gay owned business. We were afraid it might hinder our sales or reach. When we initially pitched our kombucha to stores, we told people we were business and life partners. Luckily for us that didn’t change their view on our product. Everyone greeted us with open arms and the product pretty much sells by itself. After seeing the positive response to our openness from retailers, we started opening up more and sharing more about our personal journeys together on our social media.
B+P: You’ve mentioned that you’ve considered a CBD/hemp kombucha but are facing recent setbacks in New York. Can you tell us more about that?
TRINH: When we launched with Dean & Deluca over a year ago, they expressed huge interest in developing a CBD kombucha. Earlier this year I began doing lots of R&D on CBD kombucha. We developed a few flavors with Dean & Deluca and a couple of other retailers. But then, all of a sudden everyone in NYC started pulling CBD beverages off the shelves. One minute it was everywhere and the next week it was nowhere to be found. Until there’s clarity on its regulation, many companies like ours can’t take the chance on offering it in our assortment. Some brands are circumventing this some by offering hemp CBD kombucha, which we’re experimenting with. It’s basically steeping dried hemp leaves instead of using CBD solvents in our kombucha.
B+P: You guys are doing quite well it seems in the realm of kombucha. You’re in about 70 stores, what do you attribute to its success?
TRINH: Julian calls me the mad chemist and scientist, but he’s the mad digital marketing guru. After the Conran Shop, Julian got a job at a big digital marketing agency—Acronym Media and then Centric Digital. We eventually launched our own digital agency called Northern Seekers. Julian’s experience with luxury retail and history of working with brands such as La Perla, Yves Saint Laurent, Citeralla, and The Row made it quite easy for us to create a compelling product. This product would be carried at premier grocers like Dean & Deluca, Foragers hotels like The Kinsley and The Whitby, and popular work hubs like WeWork.
I’m a fashion designer by trade, and I’ve worked for Phillip Lim and Adam Lippes, and I even designed for Perry Ellis runway shows for over four years. I’ve launched many fashion brands, so creating something from scratch comes quite easy for me. Between my creative direction and Julian’s marketing and sales experience, we make quite the power duo. It’s served us well in designing and selling homes, creating a publishing company, and starting a kombucha brand. We really wanted to create a kombucha that combined our luxury and fashion background with a taste of Upstate life. We wanted to share health and wellness and share a piece of our journey through kombucha.
B+P: What’s something you two enjoy doing when it’s not about business?
LESSER: Philippe and I live in Manhattan during the week, and we love retreating to our home in the Hudson Valley. We have the cutest little munchkin, Coco, our Dachshund/Jack Russel rescue pup and we love going on hiking adventures and exploring new areas upstate. It always seems like we’re running and hustling, so we love just cuddling with our furry monster.
B+P: It’s clear that you two have a passion for entrepreneurial projects, do you have any advice for others aspiring to create their own business?
TRINH: If you have an idea, don’t be afraid to talk about it and to tell all your friends and family about it. What’s the saying— you’re only as strong as the people you have around you? In all of our business ventures including owning a magazine, a digital marketing agency, real estate, and owning a successful kombucha company, we couldn’t do it without the support we’ve had. When we told people what we were doing, we were astonished by the love and resources we were greeted with. We had friends and family that were graphic designers, photographers, writers, lawyers, accountants, etc., all of whom were more than happy to help us. A big shot out and thank you to all of those who have supported us from our humble begins through our continued growth.
KOMBUCHA BOURBON SOUR
Seek North Kombucha - Pineapple Elderflower
Fresh ginger - peeled slice, 1" x 1/8"
2 ounces bourbon
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/4 ounce maple syrup
Muddle fresh ginger in a shaker
Add bourbon, fresh lemon juice, maple syrup and a pinch of cayenne pepper
Add ice and shake
Strain cocktail over a glass of ice
Add 3 ounces of Seek North Kombucha & stir gently
Garnish with a fresh slice of ginger and serve