Two years ago, Caitlin James had never owned a business. But today, the 29-year-old is one of Detroit's more successful young entrepreneurs. DROUGHT
, the Plymouth raw juice bar James co-founded with sisters Jane, Julie, Jessie and Jenny in 2012, has won accolades from Food & Wine magazine
and earned James a spot on a panel at this year's Mackinac Policy Conference
"It seems like every week there's something pretty substantial happening," says James, who is DROUGHT's CEO. "I think the natural reaction is to be surprised and think, 'Wow, where did that come from?' but also to be grateful and see where it can take us."
Before DROUGHT opened, there was almost nothing on James' resume to suggest a future juice-making entrepreneur - but plenty that would inspire the endeavor. James graduated from Eastern Michigan University in 2007 with a degree in special education, and she says working with autistic children and other special-needs students presented her first experience with the world of raw juice. Many students, she says, were sensitive to processed foods and had vegan diets that often included special raw juices, homemade by their parents.
"It became very interesting to me, so I did a lot of self-study on it and I started living that lifestyle as well," James says. "I thought if it's affecting these kids on an obvious level, it's probably affecting me on a less obvious level."
But it would still be another two years before James and her siblings began turning that idea into a business. James went into the Peace Corps in 2008, spending two years in Jordan as a special education teacher and Arabic translator. In 2010 she moved to live with her sisters in New York, where they began discussing starting a business together. They agreed upon the idea of a juice bar, but the Livonia-bred sisters realized that to get the business off the ground, they would have to head home to metro Detroit.
"In New York, there's juice bars on every corner," James says. "There were none here yet. It didn't take a lot of time to figure out that, economically speaking, moving back home made a lot of sense."
The Jameses still had a considerable challenge getting the business off the ground. After raising $13,000 for the business via Kickstarter in 2011, James and her sisters set about readying DROUGHT's physical location in Plymouth, a process that she says involved a "significant" learning curve. An early plan to simply prepare the juice at home and sell it at farmer's markets was rendered infeasible by Michigan food laws requiring that raw juice be prepared in a licensed commercial kitchen unshared by other operations.
"There are some things in place to help people start businesses, but they all seem to exclude raw juice," James says. "We've kind of had to make our own path."
DROUGHT uses all organic ingredients in a slow-moving juicing process called cold press, so named because it skips the heating process involved in conventional pasteurization. The resulting glass-bottled beverages may combine multiple juices, and have a shelf life of only three days.
"Almost all juice is pasteurized," James says. "In most supermarkets, the juice you find on the shelves has at least an 18-month shelf life. In my eyes, that's not a living or healthy product."
Though the process and the product may still be foreign to many, that hasn't stopped James and her sisters from finding a host of ways to distribute the juice since DROUGHT opened in April 2012. Juice is sold from the Plymouth storefront and is also available for delivery throughout metro Detroit ("like a modern-day milkman, except with juice," James says). James recently signed a deal to distribute to Plum Market
, and is preparing to co-open a new storefront with Shinola
in midtown Detroit this summer. On top of the new plans for local distribution, soon DROUGHT will also offer nationwide delivery - thanks to insulated packaging and overnight shipping.
A little more than one year in, James seems eminently comfortable in the role of a business owner, and thrilled with her decision to go into business with her sisters.
"They're all very intelligent and very motivated and very trustworthy, basically everything you would look for in a business partner," she says.
Her siblings' enthusiasm for the arrangement is mutual; Jenny James says the beauty of starting a business with her sisters is that "no one really falls out of love with the project."
"As boring as it sounds, we really have always gotten along really well," Jenny says. "Specifically working with Caitlin is great, because she's always been someone who is level-headed, so she's able to take a step back and analyze the situation before jumping into something we're not ready for."
As director of research and development at Garden Fresh Gourmet
, George Vutetakis has worked extensively with Caitlin through Garden Fresh's mentorship program. He says James' previous work in teaching and the Peace Corps are more valuable in the business world than some might think.
"Having life experiences like that makes a difference," he says. "This kind of start-up business is not for everyone. It requires someone with the stamina and fortitude that the Peace Corps brings out in you."
Despite her remarkable success, James certainly seems to have her feet planted firmly on the ground - as exemplified by her one rule for maintaining DROUGHT's momentum going forward.
"The problem is if we get too excited," she says. "With all the press and everything, you can start to lose sight of what's behind it, which is just juice-making. A lot of these things will happen and we get excited, but then the next day I'm back in the kitchen squeezing juice."
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.
All Photos by David Lewinski Photography