How did you start selling your coquito?
Regino: I was a bartender for a long time and mixology has always been one of my passions. (Regino now works for the city of East Providence as an urban planner.) But my wife and I started making coquito in our kitchen and selling it to people who wanted it. After a while, I realized we were driving all over the place – in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and across the border in Massachusetts – just to sell it. That’s when I thought we might have something here.
How many bottles did you sell during this period?
From October to February, we sold around 10,000 bottles.
How did you do this kind of volume before creating a brand?
It was really word of mouth, reaching out to friends and family to say I had it when they wanted it. It got off to a slow start because a lot of people – unless they’re Puerto Rican – don’t really know what coquito is. But over time people got to know me and learned a bit more about the drink.
So a big part of that was educating people about the drink itself?
I started telling people it was like a rum cream liqueur that looks like RumChata (a cream liqueur that uses Caribbean rum, Wisconsin dairy cream and Mexican spices). They would try it and keep ordering again. Before long, I was selling every time I got a shipment of bottles. We had to start pre-ordering.
Demand got so high that I brought in Olmo in 2019 (who is a budget analyst and accountant for the city of East Providence) to help me with the numbers. We brought in Escobar (Community Manager at Fidelity Investments and Founder and Chairman of the Board of Millennial Rhode Island) in 2020 to help with operations and management.
What are the tasting notes of Papi’s Coquito?
It is a Caribbean rum distilled from sugar cane molasses with sweet and spicy flavors, blended with a smooth non-dairy coconut cream. We use vanilla and cinnamon, as well as other exclusive spices.
Do you still make coquito in your kitchen?
Rhode Island is a three-tier state in the alcohol industry: manufacturer, distributor, and retailer. We didn’t have the start-up capital to open a distillery. We are indebted minority millennials. So we had to find an innovative way to sell our brand without having to deal with so much money. The way around this was to be our own brand, but allow someone else to blend our product using our proprietary recipe.
So we have a blender and a bottler in Kentucky. They signed a non-disclosure agreement not to share our recipe. We buy the products, send them to their warehouse where they do the blending, bottling and labeling process. Then they send it to our offices (which are located in the Lorraine factories in Pawtucket). We have a wholesaler‘s license, so we are basically the distributor of our own brand. This allows us to sell to retailers.
How does this compare to the “usual way” of building a liquor brand in Rhode Island?
This would force us to become a “manufacturer”. We will have to apply for a specific license, which costs a $1 million bond, and pay $250,000 of your own money before we even generate revenue. Instead, we pay a $4,000 annual royalty to the state, run it all with the same recipe, and sell ourselves. For me, it’s better than going through a distributor. At this point, they’re really just order takers.
Do you plan to expand flavors or offerings?
I think at the end of the day, we shouldn’t just be a “coquito brand”. There are a lot of different drinks and products that are missing in the market, especially here. The way we put this online is almost “hood inspired”.
What do you mean?
Escobar: Victor and a lot of colored people have to start this kind of black market selling when it comes to liquor. There’s a reason we have a lack of diversity in the alcohol industry here in Rhode Island. Many people want to make their own product, but there are [many obstacles] go through the traditional route first. And it’s not just the liquor business either.
We all hope that by launching this brand and making it “legitimate” we can show other entrepreneurs of color that you can have a legitimate business in this industry.
Where can you try Papi’s Coquito or buy your own bottle?
Escobar: brass monkey, Black sheepand Rebirth Brewing make frozen drinks with Papi’s Coquito. For liquor stores we are in: Standard Liquors, Jordan’s Liquors, Tropical Liquors and Enos Fine Wine – all in Providence – to name a few. (Some residents may also order delivery of drizzle)
The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are building new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to journalist Alexa Gagosz at [email protected].