Warrenton native Townsend “Towny” Lunsford has made his career as a private jet broker, but he began thinking about creating a distilled spirits brand about a decade ago.
The logo resulted from global, online collaboration.
A print ad for the young brand.
The history of Townsend Lunsford is a good story . . . a guy with history and deep roots, who put together a team (of investors) in Warrenton, Virginia, and said, ‘I’m gonna take my time and do it right.’
The young Warrenton company’s product faces intense competition, with 633 other choices in Virginia alone.
“It’s cutthroat,” Townsend “Towny” Lunsford says of the crowded vodka market, with a continuous stream of new brands and flavors.
Belle Vodka, Mr. Lunsford’s creation, made its debut at the Virginia Gold Cup races last year. The state Alcohol Beverage Control department first listed Belle as a special order item in February 2015.
By August, ABC “fully listed” Belle as an item any of its 335 store mangers can stock.
“We started with 45 stores in October,” Mr. Lunsford, 46, says during a recent interview at his Old Town Warrenton office. “Now, we’re closing in on 100.”
In Warrenton’s liquor store, Belle has moved up two rows to the third of five shelves in a huge vodka department. Belle has shelf space six bottles wide.
In the grand scheme, Belle remains a tiny startup that sold about 1,000 cases (12 bottles each) in its first year. By comparison, Smirnoff sells 26 million cases annually.
With a college football fullback’s determination, a VMI Keydet’s discipline and the business skills of a private jet broker — all part of his resume, Mr. Lunsford plans to make Belle a player in the lucrative distilled spirits market.
The 1987 Fauquier High School graduate spent a year at Fork Union Military Academy before enrolling at VMI, where he lettered on the football team in 1989 and ’90. After injuries ended his football career, he graduated in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in history.
Back home in Warrenton, Mr. Lunsford prepared to leave for a job interview on Wall Street when a help-wanted ad in The Fauquier Democrat caught his eye. A private jet brokerage in Middleburg sought a sales representative to handle corporate accounts. A couple of decades later, he keeps his hand in the jet business while working to grow Belle.
“I’ve been cold-calling on billionaires for decades,” he says of the jet brokerage.
But, about a decade ago, Mr. Lunsford began thinking about a distilled spirits venture. He started with the idea of creating a bourbon brand. But, the barriers to entry, including years required for aging, seemed too steep.
He and local friends spent hours in his office — with worn brown leather club chairs, Civil War prints and low lighting — sampling bourbons, smoking cigars and brainstorming.
Eventually, that group formed the core of his advisors and investors for Old Dominion Spirits LLC, founded in 2012, with the distinctive Warrenton address of 7 Wall St.
A Southern gentleman to the core, whose Fauquier roots date to the early 1700s, Mr. Lunsford came up with the Belle name.
“Everybody thought I was crazy” at first, he recalls. “In French, it means ‘beautiful’.”
Settled on the name, he needed a logo. Some suggested the creative process could cost upwards of $20,000. Mr. Lunsford turned to the internet and found 99designs.com, which turns such projects into competitions among artists around the globe.
“They offer three different levels; we went with the middle option,” he explains. “That label (which resulted) was the farthest thing from my mind . . . .
“One guy who worked on it was from Montenegro and one was from Ukraine . . . . When I saw that logo, it was, ‘Bam!’
“Instead of paying $17,000, I paid $900 and got something that really works well. But, it took hours and hours of work.”
That describes virtually every element of the launch — from state and federal regulations to trademark registration and designing the curvaceous, frosted bottle to blind taste tests to select the right formula for his vodka. Mr. Lunsford settled on MGP in Iowa to produce custom batches, distilled four times for smoothness.
It took “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to go from an idea to a finished product, Mr. Lunsford says. “And, it will take hundreds of thousands more” to build a successful regional brand.
Ninety percent of the seed capital has come from his local friends, says Mr. Lunsford, who has started another round of fundraising. He wants Belle to grow, but the entrepreneur must make sure Old Dominion Spirits has the financial clout to keep up with demand if the business grows quickly.
That could happen.
Mr. Lunsford recently reached an agreement with the Breakthru Beverage Group, one of the nation’s largest distributors, to represent Belle in 16 states, “which is huge for us. It gives us validation, and propels us from two people selling the brand to 24 people (in Virginia).”
The deal will make Belle available in Florida and New York — two of the nation’s top four states for distilled spirits sales — along with New Jersey and the Mid-Atlantic region.
Jiffy Lube Live near Gainesville will offer Belle cocktails during this summer’s concerts, projected to attract 1.5 million patrons. Glory Days Grills, Hooters and other restaurants in this region also pour Belle.
“I sell it as a story,” says Billy Reilly of Fairfax, who joined Old Dominion as vice president of sales and marketing in February. “The history of Townsend Lunsford is a good story . . . a guy with history and deep roots, who’s related to everyone from Attila the Hun to A.P. Hill, who put together a team (of investors) in Warrenton, Virginia, and said, ‘I’m gonna take my time and do it right.’
Mark Dycio, a Fairfax attorney who specializes in Virginia ABC regulations, connected Belle vodka’s creator with Mr. Reilly. Bringing the marketer on board ranks as one of Belle’s most important milestones, so far, Mr. Lunsford says.
“We call it the grind,” Mr. Reilly says of his work. “It’s day-to-day. I hit 10 or 14 establishments a day. I do lots of entertaining, lots of blind tasting.”
The tastings match Belle against Ketel One and Belvedere, considered two of the world’s best vodkas.
“In 40 tests so far, we’ve lost four times,” Mr. Reilly claims.
Restaurant owners “love the bottle,” he adds. “Then, they ask, ‘What’s your price point?’ When I say, 23 dollars, they can’t believe it.”
Mr. Lunsford has positioned Belle as a high-quality, American-made vodka at a moderate price, $22.99 a liter in Virginia ABC stores. The same size Belvedere bottle costs $17 more.
Over the next 2-1/2 years, Mr. Lunsford wants to build Belle into a profitable, regional brand and to hire a chief operating officer. He has begun testing a couple of potential flavors and has focused part of his marketing on horse racing, polo and boxing.
He avoids sharing a prediction for sales in Belle’s second year.
But, Mr. Lunsford has a target.
“My goal this year is to be the fastest-growing vodka in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”