When Steven and Brittany Yeng came up with the idea of Skrewball, many of the people they talked with scoffed at the idea of a peanut butter whiskey. Fast forward to today and Skrewball has become of the fastest growing liquor brands in history. I sat down with the husband-and-wife co-founders to talk about their unique journey, what motivated them to launch the brand, and why they celebrate screwballs and misfits.
Dave Knox: What is the story behind Skrewball?
Steven Yeng: Skrewball is the world’s first peanut butter whiskey. Most people wonder, why peanut butter and whiskey? When people hear of it, their first reaction is either “you’re messing with my whiskey” or “you’re messing with my peanut butter.” Our story actually started in Cambodia where I was born. My parents survived the genocide in that country and lost many in their family including my grandparents and my aunt and uncle. When I was around 1 year old, I caught polio, which affected my right leg and literally paralyzed me overnight. My parents decided to leave everything and sneak into Thailand. After 6 years in less-than-ideal conditions, our prayers were answered when a couple in San Diego sponsored us into America. When they first saw us, we were skin and bones so they gave us a basket of food that was bread, peanut butter and fruits. And there was my first love of peanut butter.
Brittany and I met when we were in elementary school and then I opened up my first bar when I was around 22. She was going to school for her master’s in chemistry and went on to also become a lawyer. Meanwhile over at my restaurant, I would start putting peanut butter in everything because I fell in love with it. I added it to fried rice, wings, spring rolls, and even Sake. Eventually I tried peanut butter whiskey in the bar and Skrewball was born.
Knox: As a bar and a restaurant owner, you saw new brands pitching you every single day. What gave you the confidence that peanut butter whiskey could be the next big thing if you launched it?
Brittany Yeng: That was the hardest part of convincing Steve to see the potential of this idea. Every day he saw so many good brands with millions of dollars behind them. How would we break through? But what we saw was that this combination really broke through barriers. Young and old, male and female, all different types of people just loved the product. People that hate whiskey would come and say, oh my gosh, I love it. And so we saw this opportunity. I think maybe a little bit, my being naive in the industry was enough to push us through. And I know the moment he started to become more excited about it, was when I actually gave it a name, gave it a personality, and had this identity to move forward, rather than it just being some nebulous idea. And it was one of those things where it was just, now or never.
Steven Yeng: Every single day at our restaurants I was pitched new brands. It is just the toughest industry. But one of the main driving forces for us launching Skrewball was that my wife and I had been wanting to have a child forever. And finally, we were given that blessing just as we started working on this idea. At the time, I was getting home around 5:00 am after closing the bars and she would wake up around 5:00 am to go to work with a lot of East Coast partners. We were just seeing each other in passing. And I think that we chose family and that helped us start a brand where we were working together.
Knox: While you had experience with the on-premise side of the liquor industry, neither of you had background launching a liquor brand. Where did you start?
Brittany Yeng: It was really just a lot of trial and error. You are going to get no’s, and nobody’s going to want to help you. You are going into this and nobody is telling you all the pitfalls in front of you, but I think that’s a blessing. If you know everything that you are going to have to do, I think it would be harder to start it. I always tell people that thinking about it is the hard part. The doing it is where you start. You get in and you start doing. And plenty of people won’t believe and that is ok. We talked to a consulting firm early on and they said that we were a beautiful couple and that we seemed really nice and we should save our money because we just have a bottle of a dream and that’s not going to get us very far. We sought out all the typical resources and we kind of got the door shut on us. And so, we put a lot of it in our own hands, really doing it ourselves, and not relying on somebody else to put those things together for us.
Steven Yeng: It took us quite a while to get our product. And in fact, we looked everywhere for a R&D team to bring this idea to life. No one could help us. So we started with Brittany’s background in chemistry and her working on this while on maternity leave. We made so many mistakes but it got us to where we are today. We went bar to bar and it just grew from there.
Knox: What was that moment when you realized this thing was really taking off, and it wasn’t just a bottle and a dream, but something more?
Brittany Yeng: The moment was actually a funny one. Somebody had written a negative article about us but it led to somebody at the Today Show finding out about Skrewball. So there’s no such thing as bad press, right? So the Today Show called and said they wanted to put us on the show. That was just a very surreal moment for us.
Steven Yeng: At the time, we thought it was a prank call. But when we realized it was real, it was in our hands to do something about it. The call came around 5 PM and they wanted to put us on the next day but we lived in San Diego. So, I jumped on a redeye flight just trying to get product into their hands before filming would start the next day. Unfortunately, there was breaking news that morning and our segment was pushed but they saw all the great lengths we went through to be there. So afterwards, they tried the product, loved it and ended up putting us on another episode. That was our “ah-ha” moment. We had so many calls and emails from people that wanted the product and liquor stores started going through pallets of it each week. That is when we really knew this thing had legs.
Knox: One of your inspirations for launching Skrewball was your new family. How did you balance raising your new family and launching the brand?
Brittany Yeng: Well, we haven’t probably been balanced people. We’re workaholics to begin with. I joke that our pediatrician, when we brought our daughter for the first visit, she was like, “You guys look refreshed.” And I told her it was the greatest thing ever and a luxury that I was getting 4 hours of sleep and a nap in the middle of the day. And thing is that with Steve’s job at the restaurant and my job as a lawyer, there wasn’t the flexibility in being able to incorporate our children into the day-to-day. But with Skrewball, I can have my daughter and take a call. She was on the road with us as we traveled, and she’s been to 40 different states as we pitched the brand. It is not perfect and its not always balanced but for us, it gave us that sort of flexibility that we never had.
Knox: On the brand side, Skrewball, it’s made for misfits, screwballs, and black sheep. Why did you gravitate towards that image?
Brittany Yeng: It really started with the restaurant where the entire thing was born. With alcohol and all those brands that Steve was pitched, it comes down to needing a story. So that was where we started and needing to be more than just a peanut butter whiskey.
Steven Yeng: Everybody has an inner screwball in them. This brand is for everyone – young, old, male, female, as long as they are of drinking age of course. People love peanut butter. Reese’s is one of the best-selling candy since the forties. And on average, American kids will consume 1,500 peanut butter sandwiches before they are 18. And for me, it has a little deeper meaning in the Skrewball label where our logo is the black sheep with a chocolate peanut butter swirl. Behind it, we see a white sheep standing front and center. For me, the genocide my family experienced wanted to wipe out a whole society of screwballs. Anyone that stood up for what they believed in and was willing to speak up was murdered. There is that deeper meaning and for us, it is important to be a screwball and we need to express our voice and express our opinion.
Knox: On that deeper meaning behind the brand, Skrewball puts a lot of energy in giving back and doing good. Why is that such a focus for the brand?
Steven Yeng: Brittany and I came from a very humble beginning. When I got to the US, we lived in a car and then in a garage after that. And we even lived in our donut shop at one point. And for Brittany, her dad was in the Navy. And so, both of us came from humble beginnings. At the restaurants and now with Skrewball, we focus on random acts of kindness and giving back. It is part of our brand. We sell fun but we sell fun with responsibility. With the liquor industry, there are a lot of suits and ties, a very buttoned-up industry. I think that we should have fun and being lighthearted. And being part of Skrewball is you have to be able to laugh at yourself also. So in our charity campaigns, we do things like Skrew Hunger. Or for men’s health, it is Skrew Ball Cancer.
Brittany Yeng: We know when we had the restaurants, the community was what built us. We were a place for the community. And so, when we built Skrewball, at the heart of it, we wanted to do that at a much larger scale. When COVID started, we knew the service industry would be in trouble so we made a large donation there. And in the early days, we also shifted our production to start making hand sanitizer and giving it out to police and fire departments, as well as local hospitals. It just made sense that when that community was hurt, we would come and do what we could. It wasn’t going to save anything, but it was to show that solidarity. We like to bring smiles to people’s faces. And we like to remember that we can be lighthearted in some of this to get us through tough times
Knox: Skrewball is entirely self-funded. What led you down that path?
Steven Yeng: Well, you know that saying that the bank would only lend you money when you don’t need it? Well, we tried to get funding and we just couldn’t get it. And that led to hard and difficult times where we couldn’t pay our electricity bill or we had to pay something using the points on our credit card.
Brittany Yeng: For us, it was a birth of necessity. But we are believers in seeing what you can do on your own. There is freedom in it being your own company, not having to worry about it. Would we have been able to do the charitable things that we want to do? Would we be able to do some of these things where we might be losing money in the short term for the greater good of the brand, if we had somebody over our shoulder? And so, I think in this world where venture capital and funding are celebrated, it is important for you to think about what you can do on your own and be more creative about how you can finance the company. And there’s a drive in failure literally not being an option. If you are going to lose your house and lose everything your worked for, it changes things. There is a driving force that will make you find some semblance of success out of that.
Knox: What advice do you give to other entrepreneurs that have a hope and a dream, and want to take that next step?
Brittany Yeng: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Failure is where you will remember most, because it hurts and it’s the highest intensity learning experience you can have. And so, really not being afraid of failure in the short term, but not letting failure in the long-term being an option either. And so, a lot of it is just taking that first step. That first step is the hardest, but with my chemistry background I think of it like that activation energy. You have to move to where it’s harder to go back to where you were, and you have to keep moving forward. And so it’s getting that, taking enough steps that you can’t go back.