At the Southern Champion headquarters, Merrilee Kick stands at the window of a conference room, looking down at the BuzzBallz production line below. The energetic conference room is decked out with a stage, a long table, lounge area and a corner bar laden with XIII Kings Vodka, Andrew John’s Gin, Crooked Fox Bourbon and, of course, baseball-sized brightly colored cocktails-in-cans called BuzzBallz. Below on the warehouse floor, 2,000 cases of Closet Freak wine sit on pallets, ready to be shipped to California. Beyond that, 15 flavors of BuzzBallz are being mechanically canned and packaged under the watchful eyes of the staff members.
“They’re selling so fast we can’t keep up with production,” Merrilee says. “The distributors are selling it faster than we can make it. We’re going as fast as we can.”
Downstairs, near the kitchen where employees get free lunch every day, she shows me a laboratory where every batch of spirits or BuzzBallz is tested, some are tasted and then they’re kept sealed on a shelf for quality assurance. Every batch from the past two years is logged and kept on that shelf.
The lab isn’t far from the shoebox R&D room, which is peppered with little barrels, an eclectic assortment of jugs and beer ads on the walls. Flavor extracts line the shelves and all around the room new creations are being blended, tweaked and blended again. The team comes down frequently with new ideas—a mint chocolate chip cocktail, for example—and in this little room, someone makes it a reality. Sometimes companies, beverage distributors or grocery store chains, request an exclusive product. Here, they can whip up a small batch for them to taste and approve.
Inside the Southern Champion headquarters, a warehouse in Carrollton, the air smells boozy and the walls are vibrantly colored, just like BuzzBallz popular ready-to-drink cocktails: Strawberry Rum Job, Choc Tease and Tequila Rita. “A lot of people don’t get our humor,” Merrilee says. “People my age don’t always get the names. It’s a millennial play. It’s light and young.” Vivid, sly and punny, BuzzBallz are the foundation of Merrilee’s entire business. If it hadn’t been for BuzzBallz, Southern Champion, one of the only women-owned distilleries in the country, wouldn’t exist.
“I used to be a high school teacher at Plano West,” Merrilee says. Before that, she was a jack of all trades. She came to Dallas to work for Ross Perot at EDS. She was a computer programmer working 110 hours every week and there she met her husband. After a few years, they moved to Africa. There, Merrilee got into film and TV, working as a screenwriter and an actress on shows like Barney & Friends and Walker, Texas Ranger. She continued doing commercials and voice overs in Sweden, and then, back in America five years later, she worked for seven years at CBS Radio, anchoring news at The Ballpark in Arlington.
“The hours in film and TV are hard,” she explains. “You’re working every holiday and being the newest person on the team, I got to do all the grunt work. I did that for seven years and then got my teaching certificate so I could have summers and holidays off with my kids.”
Merrilee was certified to teach in marketing, business and computer science and she loved it. But at the same time, she took advantage of Plano ISD’s teacher enrichment program, which paid for her to get her MBA.
“BuzzBallz was my Master’s thesis project,” Merrilee says with a smile. “I was grading papers by the pool, wondering about my final project. I was having a cocktail and next to me there was this round votive candle that I had bought when I lived in Sweden.” The two came together in her mind. “I thought wouldn’t it be fun to have a round party ball for a cocktail?”
After she got her MBA in 2009, she decided to take the project live. “I didn’t have any money. I’d go to investment places, incubators, banks—places that said they helped women. Well, no. They don’t do any of that. Everyone turned me down, ‘You’re just a teacher.’ ‘Alcohol is a guy’s world.’ ‘You don’t know anything about it.’”
However, six months after she’d first pitched to them, Opportunity Bank called her back. “They got me a loan and I took out a home equity line of credit on my house and it was just enough to get it started.”
The way she thinks about it, every new business has ten chances to fail and one chance to win. At first, BuzzBallz came out with only six flavors; today there are 15. Merrilee is the first to admit she had a lot to learn.