In continuation of my Creatives in the Catskills series, I interviewed Corinna Geib and Jason M. Geib, CEO and COO respectively of ImmuneSchein. The company produces health-focused elixirs based on ingredients such as turmeric, ginger, and elderberry.
I discovered the products at a farmer’s market one Saturday last year and was hooked on the bright, pure flavors. Ginger became the base of my non-alcoholic evening spritzer which I occasionally “spiked” with apple cider vinegar for bite. During a refueling visit to the tiny ImmuneSchein retail store one afternoon, I started chatting with Jason about the business and discovered he and his wife had left their careers to start the company. I wanted to know, as many who itch to ditch the corporate world to pursue a passion or idea: how did they get started and what were the challenges of doing so in a remote area like the Catskills?
Jason and Corinna, whose turmeric elixir recently won a Good Food Award, shared the story of their journey as well as tips for others looking for inspiration to follow suit.
What industries were you in before founding ImmuneSchein?
Corinna: My first education was in the food industry and retail. I owned a gourmet food store for 3 years in my early 20s. After that period, I further educated myself in business administration and from there on I was working in the medical industry for about 7 years with positions varying from Event Management to Executive Assistance for multiple CEO’s at the same time.
Jason: I started my career in the US Army in supply chain and logistics, and upon leaving the Army, I took my first job in a distribution center through a temporary agency for $10 per hour, but in understanding the inner workings of the civilian world, I spent the next 10 years working and going to school, completing my Bachelor’s in Organizational Leadership, my MBA, and a Six Sigma Master Blackbelt. In 2016, I left working as a VP for Continuous Improvement to support the demands of ImmuneSchein in 2016. Over my 25 year career, I gained knowledge and experience in leadership, warehousing, procurement, inventory control, customer service, sales, business development, and quality control.
How did the idea for elixirs based on roots like turmeric and ginger come about?
Corinna: Ever since I was a child, my grandfather would always brew roots and herbs into tinctures that he then gave to his children or grandchildren if they were sick or just to stay well. I believe that early on I established a curiosity about what nature has to offer, and it is very present with me today. I always liked the taste of ginger and read about the amazing properties of it when mixed with lemon and honey. So it became my ritual to have this concoction almost daily because I loved the taste but also knew it would keep me well. When I met Jason, I shared my ginger mix with him, and he instantly loved it. I attended an herbal remedy workshop in 2010 where I got inspired to try making the elixir in a different way. Previously, I would simply juice a lemon and add honey and grated fresh ginger. With my new knowledge, I created a longer steeping process where more of the ginger was extracted. I kept making more, Jason and I both took it to work, shared it with friends and colleagues, and before we knew it, people demanded more! At this point, I had no intention of creating a business at all but was happy people seemed to enjoy it very much.
With both of us having jobs including benefits, we didn’t dare at that time to risk the move of becoming self-employed. But the idea for our own business in the future was born. In 2012, we moved from North Carolina to New York, and Jason encouraged me to quit my job—which I was able to do remotely until then—and create my own business.
Do your customers buy these elixirs for purported health benefits or because they taste good (which they do)?
Corinna: I think there is a good mix of reasons people buy our elixirs. People nowadays, especially in our area in the Hudson Valley, are very educated about foods and what is healthy for them and their family. With our products being made with a lot of fresh ginger and whole food ingredients, it is a choice for health conscious people to provide their family with a healthy option to soda, for example. However, the taste is on the forefront for many as well. Customers tell us that they enjoy the simplicity of adding this to cold, hot, or sparkling water, or they tell us that the elixir is their secret ingredient in a cocktail, mocktail, or homemade sorbet. I think they also make great and unique gifts, and people have told us that they bring our ginger elixirs instead of a bottle of wine to dinner parties, or gift them for the holidays.
Talk a little about the Good Food awards, which product won and why.
Corinna: As an overview I would like to quote Sarah Weiner, Executive Director of the Good Food Foundation: “Through your very existence—by growing and thriving and continuing on through seasons of boom and bust—you show everyone that America’s appetite for truly good food is here to stay. At a time when the message of ‘us versus them’ grows louder, you quietly yet firmly send a different message about how this country works and what we value. Every day—through the choice to protect our land and waters, to pay fairly and transparently, to build community wellness alongside your businesses—you say, ‘All of us, or none of us.”
For us, the Good Food Award is more than just an award. It is a token of acknowledgement for social and environmental responsibility and integrity. In an era of low-quality, “convenient” food, the Good Food Foundation makes sure that winners of the Good Food Award are businesses that adhere to exceptional quality and high standards in food-making, running a company, supporting and giving back to the community, and much more.
In 2019, we won the Good Food Award for our Turmeric Ginger Elixir. Our elixirs are all very pure in their taste: We don’t add any water, tea, alcohol, vinegar, natural flavor, or preservative as an ingredient. Our winning product, Turmeric Ginger Elixir, is simply made with fresh organic ginger root, organic turmeric root, organic lemon juice, and local wildflower honey – 4 ingredients, that is it! Getting this award is guided by multiple integrity and ethical criteria, and we believe that one of the reasons we won is that our ingredients are of the highest quality and ethically sourced, especially when it comes to our local New York State Wildflower honey.
What have been the three toughest challenges to founding a company in the Catskills?
Corinna: The first challenge was learning how to start making your products in compliance with local and federal food safety laws. This included finding a commercial kitchen space that is certified by the state, and when we started, the main option was to find a church or a restaurant that would allow you to rent their space when they were not utilizing it, which was not easy. We were fortunate to locate another local crafter that had renovated a space and allowed us to rent time, which also was helping them to reduce costs. This has changed a lot over the past 6 years in our area, and there are many new facility options for mom and pops now that the demand and business opportunity has shown viability.
The second challenge was now that we were making the products, where were we going to sell them? It would seem easy with the amount of farmers’ markets and festivals that take place in our area, but as we started to apply for these, we found that the ones that everyone wanted to visit did not have any space for our unknown brand. We were able to find a few smaller local farmers’ markets that were willing to take on this new and unknown product. As we were able to prove ourselves as being dependable and our brand as desirable, the doors started to open as customers consistently mentioned our elixirs to other farmer’s markets, festivals, and local stores.
The third challenge was now that we had the demand, how do we get our product from the Catskills distributed to the larger metropolitan areas to help grow our business? Many of the stores in these areas require that you sign up with a distributor that will look to take 25-35% of your margins to provide you with the sales, delivery, and warehousing. While a few projects have been attempted by our county office to create grants, networking, and solutions to remedy this, the projects never seem to get going. The only solutions to date have come through private capital and local visionaries starting their own businesses, seeing the demand, desire and potential of placing local products like ours into more places. The other solution comes from the independent grocery store owners throughout the country that are open to mom and pops utilizing the mail to deliver our products directly to them.
Did you expect your company to grow as fast as it has? Can you talk about your growth pattern, because you started out at weekend farmers’ markets, correct?
Corinna: Absolutely not. When we made this step and created the business, the idea was to be working for myself and to be able to run this on my own, having fun, doing something good for people and making enough money to cover my part of our income.
From day one, we knew that we needed to be in front of our potential customers and explain this new type of product. We participated in local farmers’ markets and some festivals in our area where we had direct contact with our customers and were able to talk to them about the elixirs. With continuing this concept and building a personal relationship and trust with our customers, in the first 2-3 years our growth came 100% organically, meaning that we built a brand and a customer base only from word of mouth. 3 years in we were in approximately 70 stores, and we didn’t acquire a single one on our own—customers were just referring us to stores that were willing to take on this new local product. We had a very simple website that allowed customers to order online if they couldn’t make it to the farmers’ market. We started seeing orders coming in from the East coast all the way to the West coast and were just amazed of how we could grow in that way. With this change, we knew we had to build out our website, making the shopping experience better and easier, having a secure and professional website and offer free shipping as well as different volume discounts.
What started in November 2013 with 1 person and production of approximately 40 bottles per month is now an operation with 8 employees and production of approx. 6,000 bottles per month.
What practical tips would you give to someone looking to leave their corporate jobs and start a company?
Corinna: First of all: fear, excitement, doubt, motivation, courage, frustration . . . this is all part of the decision-making process. Being a gut instinct person, I would always advise to listen to your gut feelings; however, with a big move like this you need to have your ducks in row. What I mean by that is that you have to be realistic about your endeavors. What do I want to do? Do I have the resources? Am I in the right area? Can this be sustainable? What support do I have? These are just a few of many important questions you have to ask yourself. If you are in the food production business you definitely want to get yourself familiar with the requirements for food safety on a local and federal level. Much has changed just this year and regulations are much stricter now, which is a good thing. I asked myself the question: “What if this won’t work out and nobody wants these products?” Answer: “I always can find work again.” But if you have a product/service you believe in and you’ve evaluated whether there is a need and use for your offering, go for it!
What about emotional and mental health advice? Americans often leave mental tenacity, focus and well-being out of business discussions but it’s absolutely a key driver in success. Would you agree?
Jason: I would agree with this. In hindsight, we do have all that you mentioned, but we never set out with a checklist plan of making this how we operated. I guess it was innately who we were or who we have grown to be through the experiences. Not everything was working out the first time, and until you asked the questions here, I never thought of it in this way. I would say that all our experiences in the work world allowed us to learn, change, or build a plan to deal with the obstacle that might have been before us at the time. While we have grown to have an amazing team that we rely on to help create solutions, generate ideas, implement all of our visions and incorporate their skills and passions into this, we are all focused on utilizing good foods, nature, hobbies, and travels to energize and keep us in the best emotional and mental health possible. This does take work from us all, and the skills you mention of mental tenacity, focus, well-being are things that we all display at different times coming from all our team members, providing us with the foundation we need to grow our business.
Corinna: I agree 100%! I was born in Germany and lived there until my early 30s and grew up in a hard-working family. I experienced working in Germany and having access to 30 paid days of vacation per year, not to include sick days. This simply means that you are allowed to take time for yourself, your family, and your well-being which is essentially the base for your physical, emotional and mental health.
It is not easy to apply the same care for yourself when you first become self-employed, no matter where you live. There is ALWAYS work to do when you work for yourself! So, for me, this was a learning process, making sure I fulfill all my work-related tasks but to also ensure there is time for myself, even if it is the first thing I do in a day or the last. Without this balance, you simply cannot sustain a healthy life = healthy business.
Do you have any other products coming online in the next year?
Corinna: Yes, we do! For a few years now, we have been talking about creating a new product line that is either a collaboration with another local business or a new product on our own. We are excited to launch two new products later this year. One is a collaboration with Fruition Chocolate, an award-winning local chocolatier, and the other one is a snack product we created on our own, using ginger & turmeric root.
Anything else you want to add?
Corinna: We ask ourselves often, would we do it again? Luckily, so far the answer has always been yes! The 6 years being in business have been the most challenging, exciting, nerve-wracking, fulfilling and creative time! And nothing would get done without our amazing team: Garlan, Meirah, Diana, Greg, Luke, Meghann, Patti & James. You are the best team we could have ever wished for!