By GREGORY ZELLER //
The lightbulb moment was clear. But the lightbulb? That was more happenstance.
Entrepreneurial chef Alaila-Lee Lawrence can trace the branches of her Clovesz beverage line straight through her family tree: her grandfather, the Orlando restaurateur; her cousin, the Canadian caterer; her grandmother, the matriarch who migrated from Jamaica to England to the United States to find a better life for her family.
The heart of her drinks – sorrel, a perennial plant cultivated as both a leafy vegetable and garden herb – is a staple of Jamaican beverages. But the soul is all Lawrence: a proprietary blend of hibiscus flowers, organic cane sugar, water, ginger and cloves, which come from tropical evergreens and are another mainstay of the chef’s culinary heritage.
Lawrence, a graduate of the now-defunct Culinary Academy of Long Island, wears that “chef” title loudly and proudly. Some of her earliest memories involve summers spent with her grandfather, Clifford, at his Caribbean restaurant in Florida, “learning how to do everything” and developing “a love for the culinary field.”
It’s the family business, in a way. Lawrence, who’s also worked in bakeries and has pastry plans on her entrepreneurial back burner, was particularly influenced by a cousin in Toronto, who was bottling her own brand of authentic sorrel beverages exclusively for her clientele.
Her cousin shared the recipe and soon Lawrence was tinkering with her own sorrel samples. Friends and family were impressed, and the chef – who already had “the culinary thing in my blood” and was wrapping up her Culinary Institute studies –recognized a niche ripe for the carving.
“What I learned (at the Culinary Academy) is there are many avenues you can take in the culinary field,” Lawrence told Innovate LI. “You can do food, you can do pastries, you can do beverages – there are many ways to get your name out there and get people familiar with you.
“But you’ll be happier if you make what you want.”
Lawrence unofficially launched her self-described “Clovesz Empire” in 2015 (completing the LLC process is a 2017 to-do). The founder and CEO first filled empty wine bottles with her signature sorrel, then invested early profits in a flashy bottle design.
While her calling card does announce the “creator of the first drinkable lightbulb,” the winking solopreneur admits the standout Clovesz look was a happy accident.
“I wanted this on a shelf and I needed to stand out,” she said. “I didn’t want to be like a regular bottle with a colored top. I wanted to be different.
“I designed something on a piece of paper and sent it to a manufacturer overseas,” Lawrence added. “It came back as a lightbulb.”
The prototype bottle even screwed into actual light sockets – “a perfect fit,” according to the entrepreneur, who knew immediately that she had a winner.
“It looked like a lightbulb on paper, but I wasn’t, like, ‘I have to create a lightbulb bottle,’” Lawrence noted. “But when I saw it, I was, like, ‘This is it.’”
Now filling about 500 lightbulb bottles per week at Stony Brook University’s food-friendly Business Incubator at Calverton, Lawrence has evolved the Clovesz brand to include three all-natural, preservative-free flavors: mango, pineapple and the true-to-the-old-country, better-like-ginger original. The chef prepares the flavors herself, boiling mango and pineapple juices with ginger root and extra sorrel before adding them to the base beverage.
The sorrel-based beverages do provide certain physiological benefits, according to Lawrence. She’s careful not to label her beverages “health drinks” or “energy drinks” or claim any specific medicinal value, but the innovator does note the potential for lower blood pressure, improved eyesight and increased energy.
“I have a lot of cancer patients who say it gives them energy after their treatments,” Lawrence said.
Those 500-or-so bulbs brighten shelves at 15 retail points of purchase around Greater New York, including four on Long Island. The solopreneur, who personally delivers her wares, is in the process of developing an online ordering system.
And while she’ll continue bottling at the Calverton incubator for the foreseeable future, Lawrence is also preparing to open her first-ever corporate headquarters, a small Bayshore storage/office space. It’s a big forward step for a startup with deep family roots – Lawrence specifically thanked her mother Charmine, her “first investor” – and a niche product unlike anything else found in these parts.
Lawrence plans to continue her grassroots growth strategy, which includes engaging people on the street, handing out free samples and soaking up free press when she can (Clovesz has been featured by community news organizations and even appeared in the hands of VH1 hosts). With her corporate legs steadying, she’s anticipating summer’s significant expansion opportunities; specifically, the CEO thirsts for both geographic growth (aka: Manhattan) and new verticals markets (including “the keg industry”).
She also plans to float her beverages to high-end restaurants as potential mixers.
“It makes a really good cocktail, mixed with Jamaican rum and port wine,” she noted. “A healthy cocktail.”
And the beverage line may just be the beginning for the ambitious chef, whose “future plans definitely involve pastries.” Lawrence also has many hibiscus-related ideas and would ultimately like to continue Grandpa Clifford’s legacy, right here on Long Island.
“I would love to open my own Caribbean restaurant,” she noted. “There are no good Caribbean restaurants on Long Island. My mom is from Jamaica, and she just can’t find good Caribbean food on the Island.”
For now, the chef is working up two new sorrel-beverage flavors – she’s “still perfecting” but should roll them out this summer – and testing new hibiscus teas she hopes to debut next winter. And she still marvels daily at the path created by her family and culinary histories.
“I love business,” Lawrence said. “Being able to do what you love and be out there every day, talking to people, and being able to make an income off of it.
“It really hasn’t hit me yet, but it’s really something special when you walk into a place knowing you made that product on the shelf.”
What’s It? Authentic Jamaican sorrel beverages
Brought To You By: Attentive granddaughter, appreciative cousin and entrepreneurial chef Alaila-Lee Lawrence
All In: About $10,000, self-invested (thanks, Mom) for experimentation and basic startup costs
Status: Quenching the region’s thirst for ginger, one bulb at a time