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Before breaking into the spirits space, Pia Carusone had an extensive and impressive political career, working for a range of notable politicians, including former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords. After the tragic 2011 shooting the lives of Giffords and her team were changed forever. Sometimes, out of tragedy comes transformation. Giffords’ survival story played an important part in Pia’s decision to follow her passion for the American food and beverage arena, and start her own distillery, Republic Restoratives.
Pia harnessed her passions and showcased her inspiration when developing Republic Restoratives with her co-founder Rachel Gardner. Her political career in D.C. yields a familiarity and love for the city. She wanted her distillery to fit the needs and tastes of the neighborhoods and communities that make D.C. special.
As a woman breaking into a predominantly male industry, she drew inspiration from feminist political figures and D.C. cultural motifs when building her company’s brand. As an LGBTQ+ business owner, Pia made community outreach and inclusivity a cornerstone of her business model, collaborating with other LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs, and partnering with organizations like Whitman Walker and Trans Law.
In celebration of Pride Month, we asked Pia a few questions about her business and her perspective as an LGBTQ+ small business owner in a year of unprecedented challenges and uncertainty.
The following interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
Question: How did you get into spirits?
Answer: It was connected to my interest in food, farming, and agriculture. As consumers, we're more and more interested in where our food comes from. Chefs are taking that into account when designing restaurants and building menus. And of course – wine. The growth in the ‘70s and ‘80s of Napa Valley, for example, really showcased that American wine producers can grow great grapes and make great wine. And that really is just starting with spirits. For the most part, the vast majority of spirits in the United States are still owned and operated by large companies, many of them based in other countries. My interest started there, as a consumer. Then of course, when learning more about the business, I became interested.
Q: What are some of the unique challenges and opportunities that have been presented to you as an LGBTQ+ business owner?
A: Look, we must be honest. The challenges have been more related to being women. People in distilleries don't often look like us, don't have our backgrounds. The distilling world is still very much a man's industry. Being different has been, at the beginning, more challenging as we're trying to convince lenders to help finance us. Of course, it's changing, and I'm so glad to see more women, more people of color, being showcased in the industry. Especially when you get into the craft space, you see more diversity. And we're based in Washington D.C., which has been a very supportive and welcoming community to open in.
And as we grow, we don't feel like we have different problems. Especially with COVID-19, we all have similar problems. That said, I suppose that white male entrepreneur teams, that have the right connections, are going to be more supported during difficult times. I think that this is a time when more underrepresented entrepreneurs are going to struggle. That's something that I think we need to be looking at in our country – helping more diverse businesses succeed.
Q: Shifting gears, do you typically do anything special to celebrate Pride month? I know this year is, unusual to say the least, but how are you celebrating?
A: In years past, we have chosen a local organization to be the beneficiary of a month-long pride campaign, where we have essentially partnered with some of the top bars and restaurants in the D.C. area, to run a donation program to an LGBTQ+ inclusive organization. Last year it was an organization called Trans Law that works on helping trans people in the area with any legal problems they have. We do that all month long, and then we culminate with a big party at the distillery.
Obviously, all those things aren't happening this year. We are working now with Whitman Walker, which is a major health and wellness center in D.C. for LGBTQ+ people. They do direct services, so, obviously during COVID-19, the work they are doing is even more important.
We are also now doing a home delivery, and we're calling it "Pride at home." We've collaborated with nine other local businesses, and consumers can buy, for home delivery or pickup, a private home kit that has a bottle of vodka, a hat from a local clothing manufacturer, beer from nearby breweries, a jar of pickles from Gordy's pickles, a nice tote bag, and more. For every $100-kit sold; we're donating $20 to Whitman Walker. With everything we do, we try to take a more philanthropic view. We try to always find out how can we help a cause and use whatever voice we have; in whatever platform we have – even if it's small –to try to help make the world a better place.
Q: Your business is clearly very community oriented. How do you feel D.C. does in terms of helping promote a community feel for small businesses?
A: D.C. is a great place, obviously an internationally known city, but it's small enough that you can get to know people quickly. D.C. has been going through a major renaissance over the last 15 years. The world used to think of D.C. as a place where the federal government was, and not much else. Of course, that was never the case. There's always been a very strong community and economy here.
But I think that there's more interest now from people outside of D.C. You see that with investments in sports teams and restaurants. Michelin decided D.C. is a place to watch now. So certainly, for the food and beverage businesses like ours, it's been a great place to be. It's a bit more accessible than New York or L.A.
Q: Did you always want to be a community-oriented business, or did you have plans to expand further?
A: The goal is not to just be a D.C. business; we're working on expansion right now. We've got distribution into Colorado and soon Massachusetts. We'll be looking to take on as many strategic distribution partnerships as we can. We had big plans for 2020, but those are being scaled back a bit. Distilleries must have large distribution. It costs us way more to make product than it does a larger business. Therefore, we need to do more sales volume to start to make up for it. So, that's something we're working on.
Q: As a small business owner, where do you see the future of small business and American entrepreneurship coming out this period of crisis?
A: I guess I've got a bit of a pessimistic view right now. I don't have a pessimistic view on the entrepreneurial spirit of America, but I have a pessimistic view on the survivability of small businesses. It was already hard with global competition, and restaurants were already such a small profit margin business. When you factor in things like "only 50% capacity" and "additional cleaning required,” it goes from slim at best, to nearly impossible.
Q: What does business and American entrepreneurship mean to you?
A: Business for us is an attitude. It's about being outspoken and disruptive. It's conviction for us that we can do things better, and that we can be both successful and inclusive. We can be profitable and responsible, and that's what motivates us. We wouldn't want to be profitable without being responsible, or successful without being inclusive. For us, those must go hand in hand. The industry we're in, we think, needs a lot of disruption. That's why we do what we do, and that’s what keeps us motivated during dark days.