VENTEUR spoke with Robert Pallone about his entrepreneurial journey. Pallone began his hospitality career at some of Miami's most notable restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs, including the Setai and The Forge, before co-founding Chinola, a liqueur made from fresh passion fruit from the Dominican Republic. Pallone and his long-time friend and founding partner discovered passion fruit during a business trip in 2013, and during this time, they developed the recipe for Chinola. Before starting Chinola, Pallone owned a consulting agency. His clients included Under Armour, Carlsberg Beer, and Diageo.
The entrepreneurial journey is one of self-discovery. What have you learned about yourself while building your business?
Being a founder and entrepreneur takes determination, focus, and tenacity. You have to have vision and patience, and it's only for some. It took us almost eight years to finalize the production of Chinola. We wanted everything to be perfect, from the flavor to the packaging, and we kept working on it until it exceeded our standards. We also didn't make things easy by growing the passion fruit and juicing ourselves, but we wanted to avoid cutting corners and adding natural flavors. Before introducing naturally added flavors, we tried to recreate the old-world style of fruit liqueurs made with fresh fruit.
A few times, I wanted to throw in the towel and quit, but I'm so passionate (no pun intended) about what we are doing. I have never worked this hard before, but I have also never felt so fulfilled.
The entrepreneurial journey is often lonely. Have you experienced loneliness as an entrepreneur?
I'm fortunate to work in a social industry that requires travel and many visits to bars and restaurants to support existing customers and introduce the brand to new ones. I also went into this endeavor with close friends, and that's been a silver lining to build this brand with some of my closest peers, whom I respect so much.
When we first launched Chinola, I would visit our farm and help pollinate the passion fruit by hand. I found this to be highly calming; being out in nature and doing this tremendous task helped my mental health and helped me reset. We use honeybees to help pollinate the passion fruit and only have 48 hours to pollinate the flower, so it's crucial to pollinate as many flowers as possible during this window to have a successful harvest. It also helped me appreciate the role that everyone plays in producing Chinola from vine to bottle. We harvest only a fraction of the fruit needed for production. We hire local farms to grow our passion fruit strain, pay them fair wages and support the local community, which heavily relies on agriculture. Knowing that we are positively impacting this community by creating more jobs makes the hustle and hard work worth it.
What role has intuition played in your success as an entrepreneur, and why do you think this is the case?
It may be intuition or all the past experiences that led to Chinola's success. So many people are starting their spirits brands right now that think it's trendy or have disposable money to invest, from celebrities to business people with no prior knowledge of the spirits and hospitality industry. That is not the case with us. Chinola was created and built by hospitality experts, spirit industry professionals, and a multi-generational master blender, so we have a wide breadth of knowledge and experience. I worked my way up from busser to brand owner and applied all the knowledge I gathered throughout the years to building Chinola into what it is today. I understand what the sales reps need for their market visits, what the beverage director considers before carrying a new brand, and what resonates with drink enthusiasts and bartenders when doing tastings.
The Psychological Warfare
Entrepreneurs generally sleep less, work more, and let their health slip. This combination, combined with loneliness, often results in insecurity, self-esteem issues, and low self-worth. Have you experienced any of these issues as an entrepreneur?
Finding a balance has been the key to working on my well-being and mental health. The key to life is balance, and it's not something you can teach, but rather something you learn, or at least that was the case for me. It took me a while to find balance because when we first launched Chinola, I needed to visit every account, stay until the last call, and try every drink featuring our liqueur. However, I have learned over the years that growing a successful brand and making impactful relationships within the industry is okay. That has helped me get the proper rest and care for my health.
What is the most unrelatable part of being an entrepreneur, how does this impact your mental health, and why?
Starting your own company often begins as a passion project, and you are still juggling a full-time job to pay the bills. When it becomes your full-time job, it can take a toll on you because you want to succeed so badly that you give all of yourself to the business. Especially in the alcohol industry where there are late nights and early mornings. As I mentioned, the late nights are spent introducing new bartenders and beverage directors to Chinola and supporting those who carry it or are featuring Chinola on the cocktail menu. The early morning meetings are for discussing the marketing strategy and developing our growth plan. This can take a toll on your physical and mental well-being.
The most unrelatable part of being a spirits industry entrepreneur is that many of my friends think I have the best job in the world; they think I get paid to go out to bars and restaurants and try great food and drinks. Yes, this is part of the job, but when you are a brand owner, you feel the pressure to succeed and grow your business daily. Chinola is made in a remote area in the Dominican Republic, so we can't check in daily with our general manager in person or drop in to see how things are going. Recently the Dominican Republic was hit by Hurricane Fiona. It was stressful to think about our farm and facility and the community in El Valle de Samaná, which are not as well-equipped to weather storms of that magnitude, but thankfully everyone was okay.
What are three mistakes you made early on as an entrepreneur, what did you learn from them, and how can others avoid them?
It has been anything but a smooth ride; the saying stands true nothing in life comes easy.
It took us almost eight years to get things going with production. Finally, we met a botanist, created our passion fruit hybrid, and started juicing. We shared our initial recipe with some of the most talented bartenders in the country, Gabe Orta and Gui Jaroschy, and they provided feedback that helped us tweak our recipe to what we have in the bottle today.
We have faced several challenges and only sometimes got it right the first time, but some of these missteps were blessings in disguise. There were a lot of learnings, from production to tweaking our recipe to what people love today. We first purchased two containers for juicing the fruit and then quickly outgrew it. We wanted to maintain quality, but we could not find a partner to help with juicing, so we took this on ourselves, which was a huge undertaking.
It's tempting to scale quickly, but gradual growth and allowing for testing when you make any changes are consistently significant. As I mentioned, we tried a few Chinola recipes before we landed on the final one you can enjoy today. During this time, we should have scaled production to test, monitor, and ensure we were on the right track. Instead, we were so excited to have the final recipe that we increased production and went from manually cutting the fruit to using machines to cut. We knew that the quality and taste of the juice had not been compromised, so we went straight into increased blending and bottling. The one thing we didn't anticipate was that the machine cutting would release too much pectin in our juice and alter the color and appearance of Chinola.
What are three things you see that are often overlooked by entrepreneurs you encounter, and how can other entrepreneurs be aware of these things from the beginning?
1. Surround yourself and hire people more intelligent than you who master different skill sets to succeed.
2. Learn to let go and delegate and empower your team. As a founder, you can't oversee and approve everything; this has been my hardest lesson. My co-founders and I have put everything into building Chinola. I'm hesitant not to be part of every approval process because it's hard to imagine anyone as invested in the company as I am.
3. Set short-term goals and have a long-term vision.
What are some seemingly insurmountable obstacles you've faced as an entrepreneur, and how have you overcome them?
During the lockdown, we focused on increasing our sales in the liquor stores, as did most alcoholic beverages. We also went from being sold in a handful of states to national distribution and expanding into some international markets. The pandemic pushed us to double down and grow.
Overcoming and Rebuilding After Natural Disasters
Recently, Hurricane Fiona hit our farms in DR hard, and while thankfully no one was injured, a lot of cleaning needed to be done. Our local partner spent the week helping the farming community move debris and fallen trees.
What advice would have made your entrepreneurial journey more manageable?
1. Don't reinvent the wheel.
2. Less is more.
3. Stay focused on your business goals–both short-term and long-term.