Patrick M. Steptoe grew up enjoying the icy, sweet and refreshing lemonade made by his grandmother, Sue Brown, at family reunions and barbecues.
After Steptoe sampled a tart glass of lemonade at an Atlanta restaurant, the idea hit him to sell his grandmother’s lemonade. He called Brown to ask for the recipe. She would tell him, but not over the phone, as “someone might be listening,” he recalls her saying.
“Two weeks later she died,” Steptoe says. “I knew then I had to do something after she had given me the recipe.”
The 31-year-old St. Louis native researched everything from market strategies to trademarking at his local library. He was discouraged by family members, who didn’t know if his idea would fly or flop. However, in 1995, Steptoe was able to borrow $120,000 from family and friends to launch Luther Dryers Gourmet Lemonade (named for Brown’s great-grandfather, Luther Anderson, who created the recipe, and his niece’s mispronunciation of the name of the ice cream brand “Breyers”).
He applied for many bank loans but was denied. However, he later received a $90,000 loan from the Small Business Administration for production costs. He pounded the pavement in Atlanta trying to convince restaurants and even barber shops to sell his product. At that time, recycled soda bottles served as containers.
After relocating to Arkansas with a girlfriend, he found a dairy willing to produce his product. That relationship helped him land distribution contracts, including one with Kroger supermarkets.
Steptoe encountered difficulty selling a “gourmet” lemonade, especially one sold in cartons. He made the switch to bottles, which could be resold and displayed without refrigeration. Soon after, he picked up four additional distributors and added tea to his line.
Last year, his company’s revenues were about $250,000. Steptoe heads up marketing, design and sales, and has a staff of two. He contracts out for bottling, distributors and brokers.
Steptoe says his success is due to the high quality of his tea and lemonade, which contain concentrated fruit juices. The beverages are sold in Schnuck’s, one of the largest grocery store chains in the Midwest, and by supermarkets and restaurants in Arkansas and Mississippi. He recently landed a contract with Wal-Mart and also has plans to enter the Houston market.
“My advice to others is to believe in your inner strength and have faith,” Steptoe says.
He has also begun helping others bring their ideas to fruition through START (Success Training and Research Tools). By creating this network, he wants African Americans to realize the importance of economic independence.
“I tell them that our strategic framework for action is our ability to determine our own destiny,” Steptoe says.
Luther Dryers Gourmet Lemonade Inc., P.O. Box 2901, Little Rock, AR 72203; 501-960-8043