Time to ditch the vodka soda in favor of the vodka Social.
During a wave of girl about town-ing, I met Leah Caplanis. She’s the founder of Social Enjoyments, a sparkling sake-based drink that launched in Chicago this summer. One sip of this hibiscus cucumber concoction and my eyes were bugging with the “ohmygosh…but this is delicious, tell me everything” face. With a cool assurance, Leah simply said, “There wasn’t anything I liked to drink, so I had to make my own.” I loved that cheeky response — which truly was delivered so genuinely — and had an inkling that anyone who can boil down their business that way in conversation had so much more to say.
How Social became Chicago’s buzziest startup actually began with Leah giving up alcohol for three years.
At age 26, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Doctors suggested she remove her thyroid and take the medication that one who has their thyroid removed be required to take daily for the rest of their lives. Chances were good; this was the best course of treatment, they said. But Leah decided against surgery and opted to fight her cancer holistically. “I couldn’t plan for anything. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
She went vegan, ditched alcohol and immersed herself in this lifestyle —leading her to experiment with light therapy and even an ancient Native American herbal treatment that shrinks tumors.
The strength and courage in Leah’s voice is humbling and inspiring. I was sitting with this brave woman recounting what I can only imagine to be one of the most frightening times of her life with a cheerful smile on her face.
And, she used that experience to shape her business, nailing some major truths. “There’s so much alcohol in standard drinks — women get drunk and disempowered by regretting decisions they make.” Leah also wanted something she could drink that wasn’t so sugary and hard on the body. Social is made for women, though nothing about this drink is “girly.” Sake is brewed not distilled – your liver thanks you for the break – and mixes well with just about everything. Even wheat beer, which I tried after Leah recommended.
After working for Nestle for 8 years, Leah found herself at the University of Chicago pursuing her Master’s degree in marketing. “I knew about selling products to grocery. I knew about supply chain and how a business was run but had never worked with alcohol.” She found a team, worked with a friend from grad school and pulled Social together – from concept to market – in less than two years.
There are some people who make starting a business look easy. Leah is one of those women. But, she keeps it real with her advice to others. “Don’t quit. It seems like it comes together but we had really rough times. It took six months to get a producer so I was selling without knowing if I could produce. You can’t always have these things done until people accept you even though those people need you to have them done before you’re in.”
Social is all around Chicago — Target, Plum Market, Mariano’s, Whole Foods — and you can even order it up at the Bedford, Untitled and Nellcote. With a product called Social, you can count on running in to Leah in the city. Her brand is all about the freedom to enjoy life. “You don’t name your brand Social and sit at home behind a computer all day,” she jokes.
Oh, and this bold babe has big plans. Social just launched in LA and Leah has her sights on more cities soon. Cheers to that!