How Sweet It Is: An Interview With Ray’s Lemonade
At this time we’re interviewing Ray Kinney, Ray’s Lemonade. Ray shared with us about their approach in making lemonades, working with clients, and more. Don’t miss a chance to get to know about one of the top cannabis-infused beverages!
Tia (AskGrowers): So guys, let’s start at the beginning 🙂 How did you start the business? What inspired you to commit to Ray’s Lemonade?
Ray Kinney (Ray’s Lemonade): Cannabis legalization in Washington was unique in many ways. Cannabis is a multi-billion dollar industry, with an already-existing consumer base with a multi-billion dollar a year demand. Yet, from the standpoint of normal industry development, branding development, established packaging and product supply chains, production development and differentiation, talent acquisition and development, consumer education, B2B relationships, and practices the entire industry is in its infancy… This is relatively unique, where all this massive demand is known to exist, but the industry was so undeveloped. Usually, this demand growth and industry development process happens in tandem with one another. But when we legalized cannabis here in Washington State under initiative 502 in 2012, there was a giant market out there very eager for someone to bring products that delight them.
My brother Daniel and I decided that this opportunity was too good to let it pass us by, but we decided that if we were going to start a canna-business we needed to offer customers a product where we added value in some way to the current cannabis experience. We went around and around about it, but Dan was adamant that it HAD to be infused lemonade. What a great product and its advantages are too good to ignore.
Americans love ready-to-drink products, teas, coffees, beer, wine, spirits, sodas, juices, energy drinks… they are all multi-billion dollar industries in America. In 2012 cannabis drinks were only a fraction of 1% of the cannabis market, most drinks had that “tacky-bitter weedy” taste, and potential drink customers were largely ignored. We decided that if we started a cannabis lemonade business, and developed along with the industry, it would give us a chance to be successful and bring consumers something delightful. Growth and development have been a long and insightful process over the last 5 years. We know so much more now than we knew back then, but the simple process of jumping out there and trying to compete made us grow along with the industry, riding that wave of industry development. Hopefully, we’re still going strong 5 years from now, and have even more delicious lemonade flavors for the world to enjoy.
Tia: What’s your personal story with cannabis? When was the first time you tried it?
Ray: Man, I’ve been smoking so long I can hardly remember just where it started anymore… My personal story with cannabis now features cannabis pretty heavily, which is something I never expected. Life takes you to interesting places sometimes. I know that my personal opinions about cannabis have changed greatly since I started my canna business. I used to joke that after medical marijuana is passed, suddenly all the 18-year-olds in town have glaucoma. But now that’s not so funny to me anymore.
I get to see firsthand how important cannabis is in so many lives. I see it being useful to give hope and comfort to ill patients so that they can withstand their treatments and heal. I see it giving peace and happiness for those who are lost, or at the end of their lives. I see it helping ease chronic pain which always required opioids before. I see it helping people break dependence on opioids and alcohol. I see the net good that it brings to all these people who are suffering. I also see a great many instances where cannabis potentially has curative medicinal value. The research into these medicinal benefits has been ongoing for decades in some places, and in other places, it is just getting started.
On top of that, I see the happiness and delightful experiences our lemonade gives to the people just having fun recreating. As I meet all these people who cannabis benefits, their stories are baked into my personal story with cannabis.
Tia: Tell us about your production. How does it all work? What processes do you guys follow in making your cannabis-infused lemonades?
Ray: A great beverage starts with premium ingredients. We only use the best quality cannabis distillates (contains 90-95% THC) in Ray’s Lemonade. In the highly potent distillates, impurities, pesticides, and heavy metals are impossible to hide and we can use this to ensure that our customers are not consuming impurities. The cannabis distillate is mixed to form a water-soluble ‘cannabis slurry’. The slurry is mixed into other ingredients in a 20 Barrel mixing tank. Then, after adding filtered well water, natural flavors, and colors, the full beverage is ready for QA sampling. Each batch, we send QA samples to two independent labs. After both labs pass the QA tests, we chill and carbonate the batches until the CO2 volume reaches the desired range. Then, the bottling machine fills the cold beverage into 12oz glass bottles.
The machine bottles and caps 24-30 bottles per minute. Before the products go out the door, each bottle is labeled with a manifest sticker which has a barcode for tracking purposes, as well as the store name, the potency, and the manufacture date.
Tia: What’s your production volume currently?
Ray: The monthly production is 60,000 bottles.
Tia: Are all your products made in-house, or do you work with an outside company to handle production?
Ray: All products are made in-house so we can ensure consistent quality in each batch. We ensure this consistent quality by rigorously following standard operating procedures with each and every batch. We work with outside companies as suppliers
Tia: What was the hardest moment in opening and/or running Ray’s Lemonade?
Ray: The hardest part of any food product is in protecting quality and attention to detail at all times. At all times during every day, we put an incredible amount of effort into controlling quality so that we ensure every single customer has a fantastic experience, every single time they try a Ray’s Lemonade. This is incredibly difficult because it requires putting processes in place to ensure that we have a 100% success rate on this, instead of some lower unacceptable success rate. Then it requires formally measured and evaluated processes to ensure that these control measures function as intended and guarantee quality.
For us, that means keeping a clean production environment. Keeping clutter out of our spaces and processes. Working to streamline our processes and workflow so that we are undistracted during crucial moments during production. Having multiple people independently verify key parts of the production process. It also means having robust testing, and high standards regarding quality. It is difficult, but necessary, as a food production company.
Tia: What was your favorite drink as a kid? Is it currently a Ray’s Lemonade flavor?
Ray: As a kid? I liked it when my grandfather took us out for pizza, and I’d get nice sarsaparilla. Maybe some infused sarsaparilla should be on the horizon…
My current favorite drink changes a lot, but right now it’s our Infused Diet Pineapple lemonade. We spend a lot of time developing our understanding of drink flavor and our lexicon to discuss it. We spend a lot of time trying drinks, both infused and uninfused, of all types, and talking about all the nuances of flavor profiles. This way we can keep bringing customers amazing flavor combinations.
Tia: Who brainstorms, creates, and tests your Ray’s Lemonade flavors?
Ray: The flavor ideas come from customers, budtenders, as well as from our team. Once we decide to create a new flavor, we create several different formulations, and conduct a sensory evaluation using a trained panel. The samples are randomized to avoid error. Aroma, taste/flavor, texture/mouth feel, and effects are all considered. Our Chief Food Scientist, Geyang Wu, Ph.D. leads our team to combine all the ideas and opinions to create an amazing finished product.
Tia: What’s your best-selling drink right now? Any reason why it’s currently your top product?
Ray: Huckleberry Lemonade in the 100mg version is currently and has been our number one seller. Nothing says Pacific Northwest in the summer like the delicious Huckleberry and it happens to be great in cannabis-infused lemonade.
Tia: What’s your personal experience with edibles? If you had to recommend one to a first-time user, what would you recommend?
Ray: If you are a new user it’s way better to have too little than to have too much. If you don’t know how much is right for you, definitely ask a reputable budtender near you. Maybe just try 5 milligrams of THC or less to start with. Edibles don’t start kicking in until they hear you talking smack about them. So if you’re starting to feel like your edibles aren’t working and you need more, just wait a few hours and make sure, they might still be kicking in. As our Chief of Operations Rodney Boast says ”when you eat an edible, you stepped onto a train that has left the station and you don’t get to get off until it comes to a complete stop”.
Tia: Top 3 strains to try for beginners?
Ray: For beginners to smoke? Ask your local budtender. I always ask my local budtender for the finest Sativa in all the lands, but I don’t think newbies should ask for that. If you’re a beginner, just ask for something dreamy, and make sure you take it easy. Maybe try a 10mg Ray’s Huckleberry Lemonade. For growers, if you don’t already know what does well in your specific growing environment then you need to try out multiple strains in a variety trial, and pick the best ones. The best strain to grow is wildly different between environments. I highly encourage beginners to learn all aspects of successful farming, post-harvest techniques, and various operational activities as a hobbyist before starting a commercial farm. Perfect growing, drying, curing, trimming, packaging, and selling just one or two strains, and branch out from there.
Tia: If you could smoke with anyone on this planet, who would it be and why?
Ray: I would want to burn one down with Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the super soaker.
Tia: What advice would you give to people just starting out in the cannabis industry?
Ray: Try to not spend any money, whenever that’s possible. Especially growing, the more you spend throughout the growing season dictates what you must do to finish the crop. Don’t assume you will only grow A-quality buds testing over 25%, and then start spending money during the growing season in line with that assumption. It makes your business incredibly heavy and unstable at the same time. Find a way where you can create a novel cannabis product, and bring that product to market. Focus on doing that one thing well, and build a core competence around it. Then, when you understand exactly what you’re doing, start spending real money.
Tia: Does Ray’s Lemonade have any plans for a new product rollout in the near future?
Ray: I think it’s supposed to be a secret, but I hear there’s Ray’s Kiwi Lemonade somewhere on the horizon…
Tia: Are there any brands you appreciate and follow closely?
Ray: Phat Panda, Phat n’ Sticky, Firehouse, Dabstars, Pax, Pure Form, Sticky Frog, FLAV, and Hot Sugar are all amazing brands. There are so many amazing products in the Washington market.