When life gave Scott Dillon lemons, he started making shrubs.
Downsizing is many a corporate employee’s worst fear, but for Dillon -- the founder of the Twisted Shrub -- the day his sales position was eliminated at General Mills was the opportunity of a lifetime in disguise.
Shrubs date back to the 1700s, when Colonial folks realized that they could preserve fruit through the winter by mixing it with sugar and vinegar. With the advent of refrigeration, people no longer had to preserve their fruit, and the concoctions became less common. Over the last decade, however, shrubs experienced a new boom in popularity along with craft cocktails and health drinks. They can be used to imbue tequila, vodka, gin, bourbon, or whiskey cocktails with fruity complexity and tartness. They can also make non-alcoholic sodas healthier, or stand in for standard summer sips like iced tea.
But in late 2014, the suddenly unemployed Dillon didn’t know a thing about shrubs. He didn’t know what he wanted to do, period. All he knew was that after almost 20 years at General Mills, he didn’t want to work for a big company again. His wife, whom he met at General Mills and who still works there, provided the stable salary that allowed Dillon to explore his options. “It was the perfect opportunity to have a harmless midlife crisis,” he says.
Rather than wait for an entrepreneurial idea to come to him, Dillon engaged his interests: He ushered for the Twins, took magic lessons from a local magician, pursued Sommelier education, and ran half-marathons. He took a cocktail class at Parlour Bar because he was tired of paying upward of $14 for a mixed drink. “I love the world of alcohol and drinks, and I figured, why wouldn’t I make a better cocktail at home?” he says. That’s where he was introduced to shrubs.
“It was one of those epiphany moments,” he says. “The first drink we tried, I was just completely blown away. I’d never tasted anything like it.”
Right there on the spot, he decided to start a hand-crafted shrubs company. He already had the experience working with food sales at General Mills. There was nothing to lose but time. The next day, he set up a slew of Mason jars and began experimenting with recipes.
To gauge the quality of his creations, Dillon hosted parties where adults and kids alike acted as taste-testers. Over the ensuing weeks, he created a flavor portfolio using just three ingredients -- apple cider vinegar, cane sugar, and fresh fruit -- to develop mainstream flavors like strawberry lime and more boundary-pushing combos like pineapple habanero.
Just over 100 days after that life-altering cocktail class, the Twisted Shrub debuted at the Linden Hills farmers market. The response was encouraging. “It wasn’t just family and friends buying them, it was strangers,” Dillon says. “It told us that people were ready for shrubs.”
Were they ever. In 2016, the Twisted Shrub made the move to retail; the brand is now sold in 50 stores locally as well as on Amazon, the company’s biggest customer.
Dillon recently signed a lease for an 800-square-foot production facility run by Midwest Pantry on California Street in northeast Minneapolis. Over the next six to 12 months, he plans to expand “aggressively.”
Not bad for a man who left corporate America with a pink slip and no plan. Three cheers for reinvention.