There have been plenty of milestone moments of late for Señor Sangria, the Maplewood-based brand that has built a reputation for quality over more than a decade:
- There’s a new flavor: Apple Raspberry (with a touch of brandy);
- There’s a new market: It is now selling in seven states (and nearly 1,000 stores) in the Midwest;
- There’s soon to be a new container: It is aiming to introduce a canned version this summer.
Any small business would gladly take any of the three achievements — but also know they come with a touch of anxiety, the likes of which only an entrepreneur can fully appreciate.
Rick Martinez, who was pitching Señor Sangria to individual liquor stores more than a dozen years ago, is confident of the future, but knows he can leave nothing to chance. He and his wife, Maria Camelo, remain the only full-time employees. They have to be precise in their planning.
“A lot of people know our brand, but they don’t realize we’re not this big, huge company,” he said. “We’re an authentic small business.”
And, while that info scores points with customers when they learn the truth, it does provide challenges when you’re looking to grow.
“We have no investors,” Martinez said. “We’re still doing this on our own dime. So, we have to be very careful when we introduce new products or expand into new states.
“The name of the game for us is building deep roots in whatever we do.”
The three milestone moments spell that out.
Here’s a look at their milestone moments — and the challenges and opportunities that come with them.
The new flavor
Martinez is quick to say the unique flavor of the new Apple Raspberry Spiked Sangria is outstanding.
One key reason: It comes spiked with brandy.
“It’s a Chilean Merlot blended with raspberries and apples from Washington state, with just a little touch of cinnamon,” he said. “The brandy gives it a nice little kick. It’s delicious.”
It can be served cold or even hot.
“It will make your house smell great,” he said.
The product was launched at the start of the month in Central Jersey. It’s just beginning to appear in stores in North Jersey. And it will slowly make its way into stores throughout the mid-Atlantic and Midwest by summer.
The launch is years in the making.
The flavor originally appeared pre-pandemic in a tetra pack container (more on this later), but it didn’t move quickly, so it was shelved.
After slightly tweaking the recipe through numerous testing — and then getting all the ingredients to the company’s brewing partner in New York state — it was ready for a second rollout.
At $14.99, the price for a 750-milliliter bottle (the standard package) is a few bucks higher than the company’s red and white wine blends (due to the additional alcohol), but early returns say the price point is not slowing sales.
The new market
Martinez will regale you with stories of how, back in the day, he went from one liquor store to another in New Jersey to get Señor Sangria on the shelves. That’s how it works in New Jersey.
It’s not how it works elsewhere.
Outside of the Northeast, approximately 80% of wine-based items are sold in grocery stores. That’s certainly the case in the Midwest. Breaking in is the biggest challenge for a small business.
After being turned away more times than he can count, Martinez finally got a meeting with Meijer, a Midwest chain that sells groceries and more (think Target). It agreed to carry the product.
At the start of 2022, Meijer put Señor Sangria in 247 stores in six states (Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin).
After years of being held back by the chain-store challenge, the company quickly benefited from it. Other chains followed. By the end of 2023, Señor Sangria was in approximately 1,000 stores in the Midwest (including Minnesota).
Martinez was thrilled. It’s the type of expansion he’s always wanted. But, he notes, Señor Sangria can’t move too quickly. Texas, California and the Southwest may appear to be logical places for expansion, but there are concerns.
For starters, expanding there may first require a second bottler.
“Part of the challenge for us being a small brand is that we have be strategic when we expand, we can’t activate too many states at one time,” he said. “We’re excited that we’re starting in the Midwest with these new stores, but, before we go too crazy and add more states, we have to make sure we are set up for success.”
The new package
Señor Sangria is proud of the fact it is the seventh-largest distributor of sangria in the country. It’s an incredible stat considering it is a small business that operates in a small number of states.
That’s the good news.
Here’s the more challenging news: Señor Sangria’s biggest competition does not appear to be from other brands of sangria. Flavored alcoholic drinks (think White Claw or any of the variety of seltzer-based products) are dipping into this vertical.
Martinez is confident Señor Sangria can compete on taste — it’s the packaging that’s hurting him. Consumers appear to prefer single-serve cans rather than bottles.
Adding a new package is not as easy as one would think.
Here’s the catch: It’s the flavor that makes it hard. Because Señor Sangria uses natural products, it’s harder to find a canner who will do the work.
“A lot of those cocktails are just some sort of alcohol with a flavor added,” he said. “We’re using high-quality wine with real fruit juices — we don’t use anything that’s artificial. Our product has pulp and sediment, which can be a pain for some packers.”
Martinez said the company is close to reaching an agreement with a facility in Virginia and hopes to have a canned version of Señor Sangria on the market in time for summer.
The multitude of milestones may make Señor Sangria appear to be an overnight sensation.
Martinez laughs at the notion.
The concept was created In 2006, when Martinez got the idea to turn his special sangria recipe that was loved by family and friends into a commercial product. It took a few years of planning, but in 2010, Señor Sangria was born.
It’s been a slow and steady climb ever since.
Martinez and Camelo are thrilled with how far they have taken the Señor Sangria brand — and excited that they are making all of the adjustments needed to grow.
That’s why they are eager to take another big step this year.
“One thing we’ve realized is that we’ve been really good at building our brand, but not so good at promoting it,” Martinez said.
Señor Sangria aims to launch its first marketing campaign this year.
“We’re proud that we’re New Jersey success story,” he said. “We want everyone to know that we’re not some huge company, but a certified minority-owned small business.
“We’re eager to tell our story.”
Reach Señor Sangria at: senorsangria.com.