What Does It Mean To Be Business Friendly? A Conversation with Valentine Vodka's Rifino Valentine

Local, local, local. It isn't just a trend for Rifino Valentine. It's a way of life.

The president, founder and master distiller of Valentine Vodka makes sure every part of his double-gold medal-winning vodka comes from his backyard. If not from there, then from his state, or his country. The firm that does the art work for Valentine Vodka's bottle is based in Grand Rapids and was able to hire back one of its workers when it took on the Ferndale-based distiller's work, according to Valentine.

"The whole idea is to bring manufacturing back to this country, this state and this city in particular," Valentine says. "That's why we use Michigan-based suppliers. The whole product is made in America and it's 99 percent made in Michigan. We start looking for suppliers in Detroit. If we can't find them in Detroit we expand to Michigan. If we can't find them in Michigan, then definitely in the U.S."

The 41-year-old single man whose best friend is his English sheep dog, Sherbert, is building his business by building his community. The Leelanau County native left a job as an independent trader on Wall Street a few years ago to found Valentine Vodka, a venture he was determined to make happen in Detroit.

Valentine worked for years and spent tens of thousands of dollars in planning preparations trying to open in the city of Detroit. Unfortunately, the city's notorious bureaucracy got in the way. A quick phone call to Ferndale, and his microdistillery was open within six months. That was three years ago. Today, Valentine Vodka employs half a dozen people and the occasional intern after more than doubling production in each and every year. It has close to 1,000 accounts in Michigan and just opened up the Chicago market. Valentine has his sights set on Tennessee, Canada and Colorado in 2012.

Valentine likes to joke that mainstream alcohol has been Wal-Martized by big-name brands owned by foreign companies. Those companies don't look out for the communities they serve the same way local firms do.

"The economy isn't going to turn around because Chase or Citibank comes into your town and opens up a big bank," Valentine says. "It's not going to come from the big companies. They have already shown who they are beholden to. That's not the small community and it's not the American worker."

The big companies also don't make the same high-quality product. It's why Valentine Vodka's goal is to turn his Detroit-based spirits into a top-shelf liquor brand. The success will follow that.

"For the whole theory to work, you need that product behind it," Valentine says. "That's what we have."

Valentine recently invited Metromode's Jon Zemke to his microdistillery in downtown Ferndale to speak about niche alcohol, local economic development and the pinup girl that graces his bottles of booze.

Your struggles to open Valentine Vodka in the city of Detroit and your ultimate decision to set up shop in Ferndale are well known. Could you sum up in a sentence or two the difference between doing business in Detroit and Ferndale?

Ferndale understands what we're doing here. They understand the whole company philosophy. We're building a business and trying to change the economic structure of this state, for one. I'm not certain Detroit understood that.

Why does Ferndale get it?

It's the whole progressive attitude of Ferndale. People here are more open to new things they might not have heard of or seen before. That attitude is prevalent in not only most of the people here but the city government, too. That's why you see not only us but B. Nektar. These guys created one of the most ground breaking meaderies in the country. I don't think it's a coincidence they're here.

All cities promote themselves as business-friendly. How can an entrepreneur tell which ones are walking the walk?

A city that looks for ways to get you in instead of finding ways to keep you out.

How did you know that was the case with Ferndale?

I spent tens of thousands of dollars and years on planning and review processes in Detroit. When I called the city of Ferndale, the city planner called me back in 10 minutes with buildings to look at. It was absolutely astounding. That permeated throughout the entire process.

Ferndale is one of Michigan’s more dynamic cities for small businesses. It’s also the only place I can think of that has a microbrewery, microdistillery and micromeadery. Is this a coincidence?

No, it's not by chance that B. Nektar is here. That's one thing Brad from B. Nektar and I speak about -- creating a beverage district here that people can tour.

Can we measure how business-friendly a city is from how many local, niche-alcohol establishments it has?

Probably, because there are so many barriers to entry, liquor especially. There are still laws on the books from Prohibition.

Craft brewing has really taken off in Michigan over the last decade. It seems like every city has its own microbrewery. Considering all this competition for beer, is the most promising future of craft brewing in niche alcohol, like what Valentine Vodka and B. Nektar Meadery are doing?

No. If you make quality product and take care of what you're doing, that comes through in the end. People recognize it. Whether it's in the taste of the beer or the company attitude, you can tell whether a company cares about what it's doing.

Valentine Vodka takes a slow-food approach to making its vodka, using fresh, local ingredients. This seems like a logical move considering Michigan’s place as a top-tier agricultural state and the urban farming movement in Detroit. Should we expect to see more of this slow-food approach from local entrepreneurs?

Yeah. We just opened in Chicago and it's amazing down there. We are running into a ton of restaurants where they don't carry any imported liquor. In a lot of ways they're at the forefront of this and Michigan is behind.

Really?

Now we have hop growers in Michigan. That's not happening because of the demand in Michigan. It's happening because we have some creative, forward-thinking entrepreneurs. I have yet to run into a restaurant that refuses to carry imported liquor. We need the consumers to catch up to the suppliers in this state.

Valentine Vodka is a big supporter of the Made in Michigan bandwagon, which has really picked up steam in the last decade. Should we expect that trend of local businesses banding together to continue as our economy rebounds?

I hope it does. That's one of the important things about being a community, working together. The recession will probably be long enough that it's ingrained in people that they do need to work together.

You gave up a career on Wall Street to pursue Valentine Vodka. How difficult of a decision was that to make?

I have always been self-employed so it wasn't hard for me. I didn't want to be working as a trader when I was 50. I wanted to be doing this. As a lifestyle choice, it wasn't a hard decision. Starting from zero and building up a company, that was a harder decision.

A lot of people try to turn their passions into a small business, but most of them, like most businesses in general, aren’t as fortunate as you were with Valentine. What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about leaving a successful career to pursue a dream business?

You have to take that leap and just go out and do it. There was no way for me to keep working my Wall Street job and do this on the side. It was a matter of one day making the decision, 'OK, this job is closed and we need to start a new one.'

The pin-up girl Valentine Belle is synonymous with Valentine Vodka. Have you ever considered creating a pin-up guy counterpart to appeal to the local female or gay populations?

(laughs) At every trade show, I get "How come you're not dressed up like that?' Because I wouldn't look good in it. Oddly enough, I got the idea of a pinup as a brand from an ex-girlfriend who collected Vargas. We probably have more women who like this image than men.

Jon Zemke is the Innovation And Jobs News Editor of Metromode and the Managing Editor of SEMichiganStartup.com. He conducted and condensed this interview. His last feature was From Passion To Profession: A Q&A with Itai Ben-Gal .

All Photos by David Lewinski

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