Cassie Hodges  | April 11, 2018

How Good Spirits Helped D.C.’s First Women-Owned Distillery Risk it All

Chaos abounded the streets of Casas Adobes, Arizona, in January 2011, a suburban neighborhood near Tucson, Arizona. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had been shot in the head, six were dead.

“It was a terrifying moment for my boss, my team, and the community,” former Giffords’ Chief of Staff, Pia Carusone, stated.

Although not killed, Giffords went through months of recovery and today stands as an icon to many as a figure of strength and tenacity.

Seeing her boss go through this traumatic event, Pia was inspired and attributes that time as one of the defining moments where she started to reassess her future goals and life career, “The assassination attempt of my boss and the aftermath of that day changed the course of my life and really helped me assess my inevitable ‘last day’ – and I thought – what should I really be doing with my life?”

So this congressional vet said goodbye to Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., and said cheers to the distilling business.

“It was terrifying to take that leap into entrepreneurship,” shared Pia, “but it was something that my best friend and I knew we wanted to try. So we quit our jobs and got to it.”

Free Enterprise had a chance to catch up with Pia, now the co-founder of Republic Restoratives, Washington, D.C.’s first women-owned distillery, to see how business has been going:

How did you manage to take the leap into entrepreneurship?

Pia: Our story started back to when my co-founder, Rachel, and I were babies. I’ve known Rachel my whole life really, and we always dreamed of opening a craft distillery together. We were naively attracted to an idea we didn’t really know much about.

We were realistic in the fact that we were new to this idea of how to start a business, especially a very technical one, so we kept putting off our dream.

But after the assassination attempt on my boss, Congresswomen Giffords, I had a wakeup call and thought ‘there is no better time to start your dream than the present.’

 

Rachel did more of the research around distilling and the technical aspects of starting a business, but besides that, we really just took a plunge. Looking back, starting our distillery was more about being comfortable with the unknown rather than waiting for the perfect time to launch this business endeavor.

There was certainly this aspect of risk when we quit our jobs, I mean, when you work for someone else, there is a limited amount of personal risk that you are exposed to but when we started Republic Restoratives, it’s all personal risk.

How did you come up with the name for the distillery, Republic Restoratives?

Pia: We knew we wanted a house of brands. We wanted our company name to be the overarching “home” where the rest of our future name brands could live. So with those goals, we got to brainstorming.

I have worked on Capitol Hill for different members of Congress, and so my career in politics and the city Washington, D.C., itself was something that I wanted to tip our hats to in the name of our distillery, hence the Republic piece. And Restoratives is a pre-prohibition term used to describe alcohol so we thought it was a perfect match while still letting the brand be translated beyond D.C. and to the rest of the nation as well.

How many people does Republic Restoratives employ, and what was it like to go from business creator to job creator?

Pia: We have nearly six full-time staff members and about 20 part-time members, and I am so proud of that. We are all about building relationships here. Republic Restoratives is a relationship business. I want to promote a strong culture of inclusiveness and it’s very exciting. We have low turnover at Republic Restoratives, which is rare in our industry, and I attribute that to the fact that we invest in our people.

 

We look for people that are passionate about what we are doing. You can train and teach skills, but you cannot train or teach passion. We aren’t just creating and providing jobs, we are fostering passions.

What is the most ridiculous thing you have learned about the business?

Pia: Oh gosh, the regulations. The entire collection of regulations around the distilling industry would blow your mind. They are out of date, written around the prohibition age! I think the reason craft spirits are really taking off now is because many entrepreneurs were turned off by the amount of regulations. So Rachel and I just jumped in head first and thought we could figure it out as we went. Honestly, there should be a review of the alcohol rules and laws in America – it was created forever ago.

Tell us more about the role of your distillery in the local community and how you are a “force for good”?

Pia: Washington, D.C., and in particular, Ivy City, D.C., is a perfect location for our current audience. Originally, Ivy City was outside the original L’Enfant structural plan for D.C., so it’s an up-and-coming neighborhood – and it’s changing super-fast.
We are one of the remaining independent businesses in the area, and pride ourselves as a community-oriented business. We believe that with our company, we are helping build up this neighborhood and are truly shining a light on what it means to be a small, local business that is creating jobs.

Through Republic Restoratives, we are connecting with the city. I cannot tell you how helpful the D.C. Mayor and local government has been to help us succeed, and together we are improving the area while bringing local, craft spirits to our visitors.

We are also the first women-owned distillery in the area. People, especially vendors, are always surprised and walk in the distillery when they want to do business and are looking for a man to speak with. Rachel and I have to be like “This is it, we are the owners, you’re looking at them!”

We want to have the feel of a hometown company but we also want to harness the potential growth nationally and internationally. A good amount of investors or owners in this business are retirees, and clearly we aren’t! In fact, we couldn’t be more different. We set up shop because we wanted to make this our living and want to keep growing. It’s our goal to have more people experience our brand.

What is a piece of advice you leave with budding entrepreneurs?

Pia: My biggest advice is to take that leap. Leave stability, leave what you know. Although freighting, you have to embrace the unknown and be comfortable with not seeing what is around the corner. Events in life can open your eyes to taking risks and encourage you to do what you have been dreaming. And I am living that dream on a daily basis through Republic Restoratives.