In a future where we depend increasingly on Amazon, the fates of many small businesses hang in the balance. In this episode, Baratunde learns about a new model to help local small businesses compete with the online ease of ordering from Amazon. He speaks with whiskey distiller Marie Estrada, a small business owner who has pushed through the hurdles of the pandemic, while giving back to the community in ways that corporate monopolies just don’t.
Baratunde Thurston 0:01
Hey, I'm Baratunde Thurston and this is How to Citizen with Baratunde. In season two, we're talking about the money because to be real, is hard to citizen when we can barely pay the bills.
I just the moment we've been waiting for approaching your Boulevard at the intersection with North Avenue 50. I'm looking across cafe the Lecce haven't been there in a minute. Next I remember back when the pandemic was getting started. And I was taking my regular freedom walks these walks that got me out of my house winding through my neighborhood. Johnny's became my favorite like neighborhood dive bar. I met my locals there. But I can feel that like cheers vibe in there where you can become a regular everybody can know your name. And that just doesn't exist. And I was struck by a big change in the landscape. I've had friends there back when your businesses were closed and east along popular, absolutely shuttered and abandoned storefronts here. on the north side. It felt like a ghost town. And I live near enough to a major thoroughfare York Boulevard which I am used to having this hustle this bustle this color in this life. And that was gone. My favorite bar Johnny's closed, and I understood why so many of them had to be it was a public health safety measure. But over a year later, a lot of those businesses, they couldn't hold out any longer. In fact, I just learned at somewhere around 15,000 businesses in LA County alone have permanently shut since the beginning of the pandemic. For the fallout tonight A new study finds it 7 million small businesses across the country may not survive the economic crunch caused by the pandemic people are afraid to come. Some people don't care about cutting their hair anymore. sales are down a whopping 90% The worst part is not knowing what to expect tomorrow, how much worse is it going to get?
And we all know the other side of that story. We will ordering so much stuff online. I'm talking toilet paper, sweat pants, weighted blankets, and ring lights. Oh my goodness, if you were able to successfully order ring light off the internet in the first few months of the pandemic, you were super blessed. And while we were doing all that ordering, we were padding the pockets of rich corporations and leaving behind small local businesses to fend for themselves. Last week, we learned how a giant company like Amazon gathers up all this power and the effect that that has on our democracy. But Amazon is not the entire store. Yes, it's true. Some businesses couldn't hold on and they're gone. But others they're still kicking. They're fighting to stay alive. Because when COVID hit communities showed up, they citizen they participated they supported those local businesses.
Unknown Speaker 3:15
Here we go. Shall we stop man so once BlueJeans is blue tea tea matcha tea? Oh.
Baratunde Thurston 3:25
You should call this the Smurf Martin. Have you guys silver like ramen, aka ramen of York. They're still hanging in there. And then rosy bunny beam, which is such an attractive looking pet food shop. I thought it was a people food shop. And then we got just the saving grace bonacci Azteca, can they look like they've adapted? so well? We got Mario's liqueur. Mario did a major upgrade. And he's looking like he's doing great. So I hope that's true, but very new sign pristine. Mario is trying to keep up with the time. How are you doing? In fact, what inspired this episode was my wife reading an email, an email that featured Maya Kamara who started this business called shop in NYC? Now during the Haida COVID in New York City, shopping NYC created this online network of local businesses offering same day delivery, competing directly with Amazon. They even had this super catchy campaign get this Brooklyn, not vasos Oh, I love that. And shopping NYC is actually how I met my guests today. Because while people like Maya were showing up for her local community, those local businesses, while they showed up right back, helping their neighbors survive these unprecedented times. Maria Estrada is the co founder and co owner of moto spirits rice whiskey distillery in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, beyond making delicious libations in the spring of 2018 Wanna get the height of COVID? Maria was there for New York when New York needed her most?
So hi, Marie. Nice to meet you. Hi. Oh, it's
Marie Estrada 5:14
nice to meet you, too.
Baratunde Thurston 5:16
Well, thank you for taking some time to speak with us. Can you just for our purposes, introduce yourself and your business.
Marie Estrada 5:24
My name is Marie. Actually my full name is Marie, Eleanor Augustine. Estrada. thank my parents for that. I was actually born in the Philippines. So I'm an immigrant, naturalized and came here to New York, went to Columbia University studied English in anthropology, then then now I'm making whiskey at moto spirits, right across the street from a police precinct, actually.
Baratunde Thurston 5:51
And are they frequent visitors?
Marie Estrada 5:54
They are a nice way. You know, they come by once in a while and they're just like, Oh, you know, I think we need your air compressor help us with your tires that are you know, and I'm like, Yeah, Yeah, come on in.
Unknown Speaker 6:07
Baratunde Thurston 6:08
Okay. So you sound like you should be on the payroll of the NYPD. But that's like a different conversation. You're the auto body shop and distillery. And then what's, what's your role in moto?
Marie Estrada 6:19
I'm co founder. And so my my business partner guy, um, er, Danny, he and I run moto spirits together. And we're actually called moto spirits, because we ride motorcycles. Don't listen to that mom. And everything we make is inspired by motorcycle trips through different countries.
Baratunde Thurston 6:39
Well, okay. Tell me something about yourself that that might surprise people that's not in your official bio.
Marie Estrada 6:47
Well, I have my pilot's license. I've been flying since I was 14. And I flew sailplanes with my stepfather. And then I got my regular pilot's license back in 2007. So I think some people are surprised that I do that. They don't often see someone who looks like me, flying cessnas
Baratunde Thurston 7:09
owning a distillery fly in planes breaking all kinds of rules, Marie.
Marie Estrada 7:16
I'm proud of that. Actually, you know, you should
Baratunde Thurston 7:18
be you should be. Do you remember the moment you decided to open a distillery,
Marie Estrada 7:24
so I have to bring in my my business partner. And he and I live in the same apartment building in Williamsburg, we would have these amazing rooftop party barbecues and all kinds of things. And whenever there came a project, he would come to me, because I have certain skill sets that I wouldn't say, Well, no, they are on the other end of the spectrum as a guy and so you
Baratunde Thurston 7:50
sound like Liam Neeson you have a particular set of skills. Okay, well,
Marie Estrada 7:57
I actually, you know, I don't smoke like a chimney, I do all this stuff. So I have a pallet, he likes to kind of bust doors down, I like to still bust doors down. But you know, then clean them up and make them organized and actually execute things that are ideas that that's how we operate together. And so, when he first went on the first motorcycle trip to Vietnam, he came back, and he said, Oh, my God, Marie, or he calls me we I have this thing. It's amazing. And so he had me taste B's, plastic bottles filled with clear things. And my first reaction was, Oh, my God, this is terrible. It was just did not taste good at all. And I have no reservations about saying, My opinion about the way things taste. And he said, okay, and I said, I think you're colored by your experience there in Vietnam, because he had described falling in love with the people just discovering these people making moonshine basically, even though it was called rice wine. And he said, I want to find this. And his impatience was like, I can't find it. And so this was the two of us then realizing that, you know, we can find it but not really. And so that's kind of how it started some explosions a little bit and home experimenting. Wait,
Baratunde Thurston 9:13
I'm sorry. explosions. Tell me more
Marie Estrada 9:16
excellent. From so inside. What happened was we were trying to experiment with how to actually make this drink ourselves so that it was palatable. And all of this is I guess, the history of what happens you know, with legitimate distillers they tend to do things under the radar first, and then they they do things legitimately and avoid those kinds of pressure cooker explosions, things like that. And the ruining of someone's girlfriends, you know, Jimmy choos, and sneakers and things like that when that happens.
Baratunde Thurston 9:53
This is a very adventurous start. What are you making in your distillery? What are you distilling?
Marie Estrada 9:58
We're making two things, but the Whiskey we're making made from 100% rice. And turns out that officially the designation as a whiskey if you're using 100% grain and then aging them in barrel, and then we produce also what's called your buka. And your buka means apple in Croatian.
Baratunde Thurston 10:17
So what year did you found moto spirits?
Marie Estrada 10:21
So, whenever someone asks me the question, I have to answer legally. We started in 2016. Yeah,
Baratunde Thurston 10:29
but but you destroyed Jimmy choos and a pressure cooker.
Marie Estrada 10:34
Yes. One of the things about what we were doing, and we went into this very practically was that we don't know what we're doing. But the thing I think was both a guy and me is that we're not we're not the most normal of distillers, my stereotypical view is a, you know, bearded white man with ease, sometimes glasses or not, but I am not that and a guy is not that.
Baratunde Thurston 11:00
What does it mean for for you to not be seen as normal?
Marie Estrada 11:06
I wouldn't say I'm proud of it. It's not like I walk around saying I'm, you know, I have said this before, I'm a little brown person who's from the Philippines and I make whiskey, you know, but I am without actually saying it. And I don't mind representing something that's limited. I'm limited in this world.
Baratunde Thurston 11:31
After the break, COVID hits New York City, and Marie has to figure out how to keep her business, her community and herself alive.
Can you tell me? What was it like when COVID first came to your community, you know, as a business owner,
Marie Estrada 12:02
when COVID first hit, I think it was even March 12. You know, I put it on my calendar or something like that. When it became officially a pandemic. It took a little while for it to register that it was an actual pandemic.
Unknown Speaker 12:17
Today, Governor Cuomo announcing starting tomorrow at 5pm, a ban on any gatherings of 500 people or more murdered a stunning policy reversal New York City joining California in urging the general public to wear non medical face coverings to stop the virus.
Unknown Speaker 12:33
The Trump administration has declared New York a major disaster. The state accounts for nearly half of the nation's reported cases of COVID-19 we are literally scouring the globe looking for medical supplies. We're becoming crushed under a tidal wave of unfathomable numbers.
Marie Estrada 12:54
I even got COVID and I lost all sense of smell and taste for a month. And I was telling my business partner to at the time I said, You know, I just I don't know what's wrong with me. And this was before. We recognize that one of the main symptoms of getting COVID was losing your sense of smell and taste. And I said this to him. I said, I don't know what's wrong with me. And then when all of this information started coming, he said, Oh my god, you and COVID and so it wasn't, you know, so we did
Unknown Speaker 13:24
Coronavirus driving a consumer scramble for hand sanitizers. This is attorneys general in several states cracking down on price gougers. Last week, a 12 ounce bottle of hand sanitizer was selling on Amazon for $50 comparing ounce for ounce that's about 200 times more than the price of gasoline
Marie Estrada 13:42
when COVID hit what we started researching and hearing about was that you could make sanitizer right? We have the equipment and the ability to produce alcohol in the same way that's produced in sanitizer. And then what happened was one of my workers she had a friend who was working alongside New York City makes PP and so they said can you make sanitizer and we will help deliver the bottles of sanitizer if you just keep producing it. So we actually pivoted our business we started using our mixtures of experimental Concord grapes and rice and jug buka tails and re distilling them and produced our first sanitizer. So the large part of our business and my day to day was literally Okay, I have to batch cocktails, put them in containers. How do I put a label on sanitizer and is this legal? Okay, we're we're just gonna do it because no one has sanitizer right now. And we can make it and it wasn't a money making strategy or anything. It was all of these hospitals. And we were just seeing this lack of anything and not That's what our 2020 was like. I mean, that's what we were doing bottled cocktails and sanitizer, and making sure not to swap those labels.
Right, exactly. Exactly.
Baratunde Thurston 15:13
What was it like to change your production so quickly?
Marie Estrada 15:16
It wasn't too too much of a change, actually, because I think that's how we were lucky. We're not a huge production. And so any changes we make tend to start with experiments. It was ideal, in fact, because we could just produce it in a way that no one else could. And we made videos actually, so even taught people how to make their own sanitizer. We told people that they could even go to their liquor store as quickly as possible and get some, you know, XYZ, some everclear, whatever it was that they could get their hands on and use that. And then we showed them how using certain ingredients, based on who chose recommendations, and some people were like, Oh, my God, I did it. You know, I said, Don't drink it.
Baratunde Thurston 16:02
As a business owner yourself, how do you justify all of these activities, which were not prioritizing any kind of bottom line? It sounds like,
Marie Estrada 16:11
it was a human reaction. I think I thought to myself, wow, I'm in a rarefied position right now. I never thought I never woke up in the morning thinking I will. Oh, Mom, I'm making hand sanitizer, you know, it was never a cool thing. But you think about all these people who potentially are dying, and you don't know what's going on, you just you sit there and you say to yourself, okay, the world is in a pandemic, everything that's happening now has no code written or, or anything like that. And so anything that we do now, to even make a small difference will be a big difference, probably. But at the same time, there is a practical side, I don't want to paint us as you know, all their, you know, these ridiculously generous people I think we are but at the same time, we were thinking practically. And we said well, if we can't sell our booze right now, at some point, we'll be able to somehow balance out the fact that we can't sell anything else by somehow maybe just keeping ourselves afloat. And maybe this will happen. We were giving away sanitizer, and we were also getting donations from people. So we said, okay, if you guys donate to us, then we can keep producing. And then we can keep giving our sanitizer to folks. And that's what happened. A lot of people were incredibly generous. And they said, Wow, we love what you're doing and hear, you know, and if we couldn't fulfill a particular order than we were passing it on to someone else. And so there's a sense of it just has to happen, and someone would take it on.
Baratunde Thurston 17:37
What did you call your hand sanitizer?
Marie Estrada 17:39
We call it Don't be an asshole. And it's because that's actually written on our label. And it's always used protection. So we thought it was kind of a joke, you know, that people once they could always use protection? Don't be an asshole. So that's our sanitizer.
Baratunde Thurston 17:55
Did it change or highlight your own connection and your business is connection to your actual local community?
Marie Estrada 18:03
Quite a few people who I think it, I started realizing that people did love us in a way, which is something I didn't really recognize. Everyone was reaching back out to us the relationships that we had initially fostered with random things like motorcycles and dogs, and they just came, you know, everyone just said, Okay, well, we're gonna do this, or bartenders came, and we did this bartending event, once this competition. And they they reached out, they said, Hey, how about if we do, you know, a special cocktail thing for you online? And then we can, you know, give that money to a certain organization? And so that's, that's how we've been doing things now.
Baratunde Thurston 18:47
Yeah. How would you define community?
Marie Estrada 18:50
I think, for me, community is a healthy dependence on each other. I'm really lucky because I have a strong sense of family and I'm my sisters are my best friends. And my family's always been very close. But beyond that, I started thinking about all the things that I have to do or want to do. And I start reaching out to the people who are not necessarily always aligned with who I am, but who can we can help each other. And it's that sort of bond. That means you're part of a community. I don't when I think of community, I never think negatively, which is maybe naive of me, but I don't see it as a crowd, right? That's the opposite. For me. It's like there's power in crowds, but it's a louder thing. Where it's a community is you're in it. The businesses who I support, they often are my friends. One of my friends owns this really amazing spot and he's Pakistani, and it's called BK Gianni. But what happened with him after COVID was and he went he was hospitalized. He brought in program of Feeding under served people. And so now since June, he's, I think, going to hit 10,000 free meals. So this to me, I started thinking about this. And every time I order food, it's often there because I know exactly what he's doing. So that that's what the community is, I think, for me
Baratunde Thurston 20:22
when we come back how Marie balances values with necessity when it comes to that company that shall not be named? Okay. Hi, my name is Amazon. That's, that's the company.
Marie Estrada 20:52
When I think of Amazon, I don't think of community, I think of it definitely is a huge conglomerate as a business. And that's the difference, I think. But when I'm in this business, and I have to get something delivered in a certain amount of time, unfortunately, for me, I end up often having to get something from Amazon, because I need it in a certain amount of time with as little hassle as possible.
Baratunde Thurston 21:15
Why do you Why do you say unfortunately, you have to order from Amazon and you're trying to avoid ordering through Amazon? What is what is that about?
Marie Estrada 21:22
I wish it were a different world where Amazon wasn't almost overtaking so much. There's an intention with small businesses. That's why they're called mom and pop shops, you know, it's like, oh, there's a sense of community. Whereas I don't think Amazon has a sense of community except for a bottom line, like, okay, we will attach ourselves to an initiative, we will start promoting certain businesses like black owned businesses, Asian businesses, all kinds of things. But it's not the intention is not because they necessarily care, but they want to profit off of these communities. It gives me a terrible taste in my mouth. And I know they employ a lot of people. And look, I I know this and even some of the people I brought in for certain events and things had on the side been working at Amazon because they needed to make money. But goodness, couldn't we have alternatives?
Baratunde Thurston 22:17
Yeah, it from a from a customer perspective, when I am a customer of so many businesses. And I have felt that hesitation that this taste in my mouth, I guess I'll go to Amazon. What do you think a small business can offer a customer that a larger resource business like Amazon can't,
Marie Estrada 22:36
this is something if you do want someone to do something for you, that you want to help them with, or you bounce ideas off of. And that's what happens often when I am working with motorcycle businesses, other food businesses in the area who are in Brooklyn, any chefs or you know any anyone like that, then we create events, we do things together even a hairstylist, we did this event called moto Oasis, because, you know, we wanted to serve our community and have people outside safely get back massages and haircuts, you know, and eat really yummy Filipino food. I mean, who was? So you can't do that with Amazon?
Baratunde Thurston 23:16
Yeah, there's a word that's occurring to me, which is relationships? I don't, I don't know that. I feel like I have a relationship with Amazon, I have a have a series of transactions.
Marie Estrada 23:29
Baratunde Thurston 23:30
Very efficient transactions. But I don't know them. Right. So in the context of everything we've talked about, in particular, the community connection that a business can have with other businesses and with the public, is there anything you'd encourage a listener to do?
Marie Estrada 23:48
I think one of the things that I always remind myself to do, to kind of slow things down, and not rush entirely, and to be okay, with making those mistakes, I don't think I would have my business if we didn't have all those problems and those mistakes. And if we slow things down, and forgive ourselves a little bit for these mistakes, and to think about also doing things outside of our comfort zone so that we can actually allow ourselves to make those mistakes. I think all of those come together for me and that's what I would recommend slowing things down making some mistakes forgiving yourself. Wow,
Baratunde Thurston 24:33
that was not what I expected at all. So you can be like, shop small business Saturday's But no, you were hit to the deep end of the pool.
Marie Estrada 24:42
No, I mean, I wouldn't have my business if it wasn't for all the mistakes you made. You know, and I just I think people are so scared to fail. And you're not learning if you don't fail
Baratunde Thurston 24:54
honestly. And in the context of the value, you've been a part of have contributed to and benefited from in your community. As a business. Is there any advice you have to US citizen consumers out here? ways you'd like to see us showing up? More or better?
Marie Estrada 25:13
Oh, for sure. So I think something that would be really amazing to take a look at it, what you're actually purchasing and how much time and money you're spending on your online purchases, whether it's Amazon or not your online purchases, and the purchases and the things you're doing with your money that are local, and or brick and mortar. And if you actually did, you know, an Excel sheet or whatever it is that you want to do and said to yourself, okay, wow, I think I could spend significantly more on the local business and also the physical business. Maybe once you know, things open up a little bit more. If I can do that, then I think it would make a difference, actually. So that's what I would like recommend.
Baratunde Thurston 25:57
I love that that's a good. It's a good homework assignment. And it makes me wish that a platform like mint, or QuickBooks, or you know, one of these online finance things could let you like, you could probably flag it in there and see it over time. But it plants a good question in my head. Read thank you so much for the time.
Marie Estrada 26:15
Baratunde Thurston 26:16
you is Can I order your stuff to be shipped? Is that possible? Is there a way to get it to California? It's
Marie Estrada 26:21
not legal, unfortunately. Yeah.
Baratunde Thurston 26:23
So when I'm when I'm able to travel back to New York, I'm coming to Bushwick. And I'm coming to try your products, you better rice whiskey, and particularly. Our thank you again, so much.
Marie Estrada 26:36
Thank you. Thank you.
Baratunde Thurston 26:41
Marie just gave an excellent call to action, which is to really track how much of your spending is happening in your local community, and then try to increase that percentage. In that spirit. We're just going to pass the mic to Murray to shout out some of her local businesses that you should absolutely support. Brooklyn, this is for you.
Marie Estrada 27:01
There's BK Johnny means sweetheart, and Pakistani love Nelly also known as the drunk bakers, and they make the most delicious empanadas. bowlero, elevated street food Vietnamese, I mean, I could go on. There's engines for change. And then there's moto Valley. And then there's motor girl. And then there's
Baratunde Thurston 27:22
I got it takes a village and you're gonna name every member of the village. I would.
Marie Estrada 27:29
I would. And my mom, I have to thank her I wouldn't be here.
Baratunde Thurston 27:39
Next week, we speak with Bruce Patterson, technology director of Amman, Idaho. Don't let the small town of 17,000 fool you. They've managed to invest in a model of municipal broadband that any city would dream of.
You know what time it is time for actions. here to guide you through them is our producer alley.
Unknown Speaker 28:13
We want to know how you relate to local business. What locally owned businesses do you rely on? Do you know the owners? What do you most appreciate about it? What would you miss if it was gone? Try following some of your favorite local businesses on social media. Many have Instagram accounts where you can reach out directly. We often hear that it's good to support local independent businesses. But why exactly? The Institute for local self reliance actually answers that question in the article. Why care about independent locally owned businesses, it's in the title. If you want to do a deeper dive go to bookshop.org/shop/howtocitizen to check out more titles on this topic. Lastly, we want you to shop local and we want you to buy direct. If you live in New York City check out shopin.NYC a new online service for residents to shop from small businesses in their area, not Amazon. Shopping NYC has plans to expand so keep an eye out for one near you or reach out to them if you want to start a marketplace in your region. Meanwhile, the shop app by Shopify can help you spot local businesses selling directly online. As always, when in doubt, order directly from the business that is providing the good or service you are buying. You get the same great product and they get more of the revenue.
Baratunde Thurston 29:36
If you take any of these actions, please brag about yourself online using the #howtocitizen and send us general feedback or ideas for the show to comments at howtocitizen.com speaking of that domain name, we have one and we're using it visit howtocitizen.com to sign up for our newsletter or learn about upcoming events or even more stuff than that and if you like the show, spread the word. Tell somebody if you don't definitely just keep it to yourself. Appreciate you. How to Citizen with Baratunde is a production of IHeartRadio podcasts and Dustlike productions. Our executive producers are me. Baratunde Thurston, Elizabeth Stewart and Misha Yusef. Our producers are Stephanie Cohn and Allie Kilts. Kelly Prime is our editor. Valentino Rivera is our engineer. And Sam Paulson is our apprentice. Original Music by Andrew Eapen. This episode was produced and sound designed by Allie Kilts. Special thanks to Joelle Smith from iHeartRadio.
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