But beverage creator extraordinaire Dave Dafoe ’91 MBA discovered his rare talent for tasting quite by accident. In 1985 he was a 23-year-old looking for a job—any job—after graduating with an undergraduate degree in zoology and then deciding that medical school was not for him. He submitted his résumé for everything that sounded remotely possible and landed an interview at a flavor company.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “I just showed up.” Before he even filled out any paperwork, a man placed five small cups in front of him filled with what appeared to be water. He asked Mr. Dafoe to taste them one by one and identify the flavor in each. “It’s hard to taste things if there is no visual cue,” Mr. Dafoe said, “but I tasted the first one and said it was orange. He said, ‘OK, good. Taste the second one.’ So I tasted the second one. And it tasted like a pork chop.
“I remember sitting there trying to think of something else to say because that sounded so ridiculous. He snapped his fingers and said, ‘What is the first thing you think of? Tell me, just say it.’ So I said, ‘Well, it tastes like a pork chop.’ And he said, ‘Good—it’s a pork flavor.’”
Mr. Dafoe correctly identified all five flavors and was hired on the spot to train with a flavor chemist. “I was tasting these flavor chemicals one at a time. You’d try to memorize what does that smell like, feel like. Once you get a feel for them you start putting the things together, just like a cook. ‘I’ll take this ethyl 2-methyl butyrate and add it with benzaldehyde, and I’ll make a punch flavor,’” he said.
“People call me a ‘supertaster.’ That sounds rather lofty to me, but I’m really good at tasting things and figuring out what the chemicals are in there that make up those flavors and being able to take them apart and put them back together.”
He is also really good at spotting a need and figuring out how to put together a business to fill it. His Flavorman custom beverage production company in downtown Louisville, which he started in 1992 with one customer and no employees, now employs 34 people and has worked with such brands as Ocean Spray, the Kellogg Company, Sunsweet Growers and Jones Soda. Meanwhile, the Distilled Spirits Epicenter that he opened in 2012 has become the go-to education center for new and aspiring craft distillers.
In recognition of his achievements, the Small Business Administration of Kentucky named Mr. Dafoe the Small Business Person of the Year for 2016, and he was third runner-up for National Small Business Person of the Year. In honoring him, SBA Kentucky cited his “vision, tenacity and leadership.”
From Coolers to hot water
Perhaps fittingly, the product of two other entrepreneurs represented the first step in Mr. Dafoe’s journey to successful self-employment. In the 3 ½ years that he worked for the Cincinnati flavor company, his most notable client was California Coolers, which was founded in 1976 by two high school buddies in a garage in Lodi, Calif., and kicked off the flavored-wine-cooler phenomenon. In 1985, the pair sold the company to Louisville-based Brown-Forman.
With no product development specialist on their staff, Brown-Forman began recruiting Mr. Dafoe. The money was good, and the company offered to buy his house in Ohio, but “I didn’t want to move to Louisville at all,” he said. “I mean, I was kicking and screaming.” So he put up another roadblock: He had been working toward a master’s of business administration degree at the University of Cincinnati for about two years. “I said, ‘Listen, I’ll lose all these credits if I move somewhere else.’
“The next day I got a call from Bellarmine. They congratulated me on my acceptance and said that all of my credits would transfer.”
During his five years at Brown-Forman, Mr. Dafoe developed the Jack Daniel’s line of Country Cocktails, such as Lynchburg Lemonade, and helped the company save money through the use of all-natural flavors. But once he finished the MBA, he got bored. A New Albany, Ind., company asked for his help in developing some coffee-flavored beverages, and Brown-Forman officials agreed that he could do freelance consulting for non-alcoholic products. “I was doing that for a while, and then got the bug like, ‘I think I could do this full-time.’ I had saved some money up, and I resigned from Brown-Forman.”
In a condo off Westport Road, Mr. Dafoe started a company he called Pro-Liquitech International with one client, Chiquita Brands, for whom he was consulting on fruit juices. He soon hired a technician from Brown-Forman, and the two-bedroom condo became a two-office condo with a lab in the living room. “We were there during the day, when everyone was else was working, and then we’d leave as they came home,” he said. “We were probably the best neighbors, and definitely illegal.
“All was well until four or five months into it, when Chiquita wanted to come and see my ‘facility.’”
‘Dave had the vision’
Mr. Dafoe quickly hired a real-estate agent who found a 4,000-square-foot space in the Bluegrass Industrial Park. Coincidentally, it was owned by another Bellarmine graduate, Jesse Flynn ’71 of the Flynn Group. Meeting Mr. Flynn at the property was somewhat intimidating, he recalled. “Jesse Flynn is tall and imposing,” said Mr. Dafoe, who is neither. But after quizzing him on his plans, Mr. Flynn shook his hand on a lease—even absorbing the gas and electric costs and waiving the common-area maintenance fee.
“He turned out to be just the most wonderful guy ever, I think because he liked what we were doing,” Mr. Dafoe said. “He became a bit of a mentor to me. It really helped me to build this business.”
When asked what he saw in the 20-something, Mr. Flynn likened Mr. Dafoe to another of his successful former tenants: Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos. Their pitches intrigued him, he said, because he didn’t understand them. “I’m sitting there saying, ‘What is it you’re doing?’ Tony said, ‘I’m going to sell shoes on the Internet.’ He wanted 50,000 feet to build some racking. He had no money, so I took his condo in San Francisco as collateral and we built the racking. Eight years later, he sells the company to Amazon [for millions]. It was the same type of thing with Dave. He said, ‘Well, I put flavors in drinks.’ I said, ‘Really??’”
In a broad sense, Mr. Flynn said, all businesses are the same. “Whether you sell shoes or you sell flavors, it’s a product. You have to market it. You have to collect payments. You have to pay the bills. But it starts with a vision. If you don’t have a vision, you don’t get started. Tony had the vision, Dave had the vision. And I said, ‘I can help you with the business.’”
Over the next few years, Mr. Dafoe’s business grew, eventually moving to an 8,000-square-foot space in the industrial park. Then, in 2004, he was invited to go on an African safari. Soon after he returned, he got sick. Doctors thought maybe he’d had a reaction to anti-malaria medication. But by New Year’s Eve, he had double vision and a neurologist admitted him to Jewish Hospital. He would remain there until Feb. 10. He lost his vision, he couldn’t walk and he was unconscious for several weeks.
A pathogen from Africa seemed the likely cause, but after extensive testing, doctors discovered he had multiple sclerosis. He was one of the first patients in Louisville to receive a newly approved MS medication, and after four to five months of 24-hour care, his vision had returned and he was well enough to go back to work. “When you come out of those things you think, ‘I’ve gotta do something,’” he said. “I felt like I had to do something to make myself believe I was back. I wanted our own building.”
New location, new name
In late 2005, Mr. Dafoe bought and rehabbed a building at 809 S. Eighth St. in downtown Louisville, which helped to kick-start a revitalization of the area. “It wasn’t the cookie-cutter thing to do,” Mr. Flynn said. “People were not going downtown. But he was also ahead of the curve on that.”
In the new location, the company began making its own flavors and drinks in addition to consulting with other companies. “You could call us and say, ‘I want my own flavored water’ and we’d do everything, including the bottles, labels and caps, and deliver it to you,” Mr. Dafoe said.
Then as now, customers fell into three groups. The first know they want a certain product—say, an energy drink—but they don’t have a particular flavor, color or sweetness level in mind. “They’ll say, ‘What’s hot? What’s trendy?’ We are giving them a ton of advice,” he said. “On the very other end of the spectrum, we have people come in who say, ‘I want a flavored water, I want it to be clear, I want it to be all-natural, I want it to be no more than 2 percent sugar, with less than 25 calories’—they are telling us exactly what they want, and we just deliver that. But most people fall right in the middle. They come in with half of that [information], and we help them fill in as the process goes forward.”
When a second building on the block, an old automotive garage, went up for sale in 2008, he bought it, too—on the same day that the stock market crashed. “The phone stopped ringing. It was dramatic,” he said. During a meeting on how to get the business back on track, a consultant shared research showing that 82 percent of the people who Googled “Pro-Liquitech” to get to their site spelled it wrong. Who knew how many spelled it so wrong that they never found it? And so, in 2009, the company name became “Flavorman.”
Also in 2009, Mr. Dafoe attended a conference of the American Distilling Institute, a trade group for craft distillers. “I started thinking, there is nowhere to go in the U.S. to learn how to open your own distillery,” he said. “The people who were doing it then, at this conference, they were just Googling their way in, asking people, reading books … I mean, they were putting the things together, but they were making all kinds of mistakes. I came back with this idea that we could put together an education center here.”
He liked the idea because it built on what Flavorman was already doing. “I had always said that we could develop foods, but I felt like we could be the best beverage development company. When you start tacking on stuff, you become The Best Beverage Development Company and We Do a Few Other Things. I don’t want to do that. I want to focus. This felt like it was in our zone.”
In 2012, he founded the Distilled Spirits Epicenter, which is made up of three parts: Moonshine University, Grease Monkey Distillery (a nod to the building’s former use) and Challenge Bottling, a line that can run from 50 to 4,000 cases. He leased the distillery equipment from Vendome Copper & Brass Works, a Louisville company that custom manufactures most of the stills used in the U.S. but which has no showroom of its own. The Epicenter became its demonstration site. Moonshine Distillery now holds three to five 5-Day Distiller courses per year, as well as a host of shorter, more specialized classes.
“We have been pretty successful in getting people started,” he said.
For example, what color should a drink be? If it’s geared toward children, pick something bright: blue, green, pink, purple—anything but brown. People over 18 or so, meanwhile, tend to be leery of colorful drinks, and more accepting of dark tones. “But I try to tell everybody, don’t do a cola—because I’m never going to be able to convince your customers that [your drink] tastes like Coke,” he said. “Even if I took Coke and put it in your bottle and capped it, I couldn’t convince anybody that it tastes just like Coca-Cola. They would argue with me until the end of time.”
Packaging is critical, too. “If we’re going to do an energy drink for you, it’s going to be in a slim can like energy drinks, because I can’t convince you that your energy drink tastes like an energy drink if I put it in a vitamin water bottle. If I gave you an energy drink in a can, and the same formulation in a plastic bottle, I guarantee you’re going to pick that can as the best one.”
Taste is highly susceptible to influence, as well. “I’ve stopped tasting with clients until after they taste, because as soon as I say something, I wreck the whole thing,” he said. “They will look at me and think, ‘He knows what he’s doing,’ and sometimes I influence people. I try to stay out of it.”
But he’s not opposed to having fun with people, in the right setting. Occasionally an elementary school teacher will ask to visit with students, for example. “We put four jugs out on a table. Green, yellow, red and blue. You think the green will be apple or something, the red will be strawberry or cherry—except we mix the flavors all up. We’ll put strawberry in the blue one, lemon in the green one, and then we’ll pour them out and say, ‘What does this taste like?’ We trick those kids every time. But I can do that with adults too, easy.”
You can’t fool the Flavorman. But he can fool you.
Carla Carlton | email@example.com
Photos by Jessica Ebelhar