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A Ginger Beer Grows in Harlem

Photo: Clay Williams.
Photo: Clay Williams.

New York restaurateur and mixologist Karl Franz Williams is honoring his family’s legacy and carving his own path in the beverage business with Uncle Waithley’s Vincy Brew. The only Black-owned Caribbean ginger beer with Scotch Bonnet pepper in the U.S. market today, the brand is named after Franz William’s grandfather who hailed from the island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. In honoring his grandfather and his Caribbean roots, the Yale graduate and successful engineer-turned-restaurateur is shaking things up in the world of cocktails. We spoke with Franz Williams about his path as an entrepreneur, his island roots, and what sets his ginger beer apart.

Uncle Waithley was your grandfather. Why was it important to name the brand after him? 

Yes, Uncle Waithley was my grandfather and he holds a very special place in my heart and in the history of our family. He was not only my grandfather but also a revered figure in our community back in St. Vincent and The Grenadines. Growing up, I experienced countless examples of his unwavering dedication to the land farm, his community and his family. He truly embodied the values of hard work, compassion and service. Naming our brand after Uncle Waithley was a deeply personal decision for me. His legacy of resilience, community-building and commitment to healthy living perfectly aligns with the ethos of our brand. By honoring him in this way, I wanted to pay homage to his remarkable life and the values he instilled in us. Uncle Waithley’s belief in the transformative power of grassroots efforts and his passion for uplifting others serve as a constant source of inspiration for me

I read that he lived to be 100!

Yes, he lived to the remarkable age of 100—which is a testament to the importance of living a purposeful life. His commitment to natural living and the richness of the land in St. Vincent has been passed down through generations, including to my father who continues to honor his legacy and also works in natural beverages. I’m keeping this legacy alive for my children and for the next 100 years of our family’s history.

You certainly know the process, having been at Pepsi and now being a mixologist in your own right. Why did you want to create this Vincy Brew Ginger Beer?

My journey from studying electrical engineering at Yale to working in innovation and brand management at PepsiCo was certainly a unique one. [It] provided invaluable insights into the beverage industry. But I always harbored the entrepreneurial spirit within me. Leaving PepsiCo allowed me to pursue my passion. I opened  67 Orange, Harlem’s first Speakeasy craft cocktail bar. 67 Orange really propelled my career in the cocktail and mixology world and has become a staple in the industry and our beautiful community in Harlem. We’ve been named one of NYC and America’s best bars by notable media outlets.

Where did Vincy Brew come from?

My second bar, Solomon & Kuff’s Rum Hall, now closed, gave me the idea, born out of a necessity to find an authentic Caribbean ginger beer that complemented the cocktails we served. Experimenting with ingredients like scotch bonnet pepper, turmeric, and fresh lime juice resulted in a unique ginger beer that resonated with our guests. The concept was solidified during the pandemic when I worked on optimizing the recipe for commercialization. Our ginger beer formula went above and beyond to create our own mineral water that mimics the naturally occurring springs of St. Vincent, adding a distinctive touch. Uncle Waithley’s Ginger Beer is not just a beverage; it’s a culmination of my experiences and a celebration of my family’s legacy.

What does the term “Vincy” mean, by the way? Please enlighten us newcomers to the word.

Indeed, ‘Vincy’ is a common term used to affectionately describe St. Vincent & The Grenadines. It’s not just a geographical identifier but also a nod to the vibrant culture and spirited people of the islands. For instance, ‘Vincy Mas’ is our beloved Carnival celebration, showcasing the rich cultural heritage and lively festivities that define our community.

You’re a restaurateur with several establishments under your belt. What is the difference between launching a restaurant and launching a beverage company?

Creatively there are some similarities. You build a beautiful culinary product and then you put an experience around it. In a restaurant that comes down to hospitality, lighting and ambiance. In the product world it’s about packaging and communication. However, beyond this the overall business strategies begin to diverge. Restaurants are cash flow businesses and your job is all about optimizing profitability through efficient operations and purchasing. You are heavily focused on management of people to create consistency. In the beverage world, you build your product with unit economics in mind and you are always looking to optimize to improve margin. However, growth is the name of the game and you are investing to scale.

What are the greatest challenges to running your own business?

I think the greatest challenges are access to capital when you need it and fighting for recognition and awareness. These challenges are amplified for BIPOC entrepreneurs who have less access to cash and opportunities to create excitement and awareness. You have to learn to be really innovative and creative, to look for solutions others miss, and to become super efficient with capital.

And what about the rewards?

I think the greatest reward is the freedom to fully express your vision and ideas. When you are working for a corporation you are limited by the goals and objectives of that organization. But when you are an entrepreneur you really get to explore and create and iterate until you build something truly inspiring.

What sets Uncle Waithley’s apart from other ginger beers out there?

As a small-batch company, we meticulously hand-select our produce and prioritize the use of only the freshest ingredients. Following my father’s advice, we allow our ginger beer to rest and mature for a minimum of three days, allowing the flavors to develop. And we are the only beverage product on the market today using Scotch Bonnet Pepper, a pepper prized throughout the Caribbean for its heat and flavor. It gives our ginger beer a lasting crisp finish and distinctly Caribbean taste. Our commitment to innovation shines through in our use of popular Caribbean spices and herbs. For example, our recent launch, ginger beer with sorrel, made from the hibiscus flower, nutmeg, and cinnamon, showcases our dedication to marrying traditional flavors with modern techniques. Sorrel holds a special place in Caribbean culture, and by incorporating it into our Vincy Brew, we’re revolutionizing the ginger beer industry while honoring our roots.

How often do you go back to visit your grandfather’s home of St. Vincent and the Grenadines?

Not often enough! I was last there in 2015. I had a trip planned in 2020, but the pandemic didn’t agree with me. I’m really hoping to get back later this year. My father is back and forth a lot, spending about 50% of the year there, the rest here in New York. So I do feel like I’m very connected with the Island, even though I haven’t been in a while.

Can you share your most favorite drink recipe made with Uncle Waithley’s? 

For the person looking to do something easy but amazing, try the Coco Meets Ginger. It’s not on our website, but it’s super simple: just Yave Coconut Tequila, Uncle Waithley’s Ginger Beer with Caribbean Sorrel, and fresh lime juice. It is super refreshing and delicious.

Are there plans in the future to expand the business?

Yes, we’re actively exploring opportunities for national distribution, with our sights set on expanding internationally in the future. Our partnership with Whole Foods Market in the Northeast has been incredibly fruitful, providing us with a strong foundation. We are also heavily focused on growing our on-premise business at discerning bars and restaurants. We have or are close to distribution deals in NY, NJ, South Florida, North Carolina, Connecticut, and Washington, DC. We’re taking a deliberate approach in selecting distributors, making sure that we align with partners who prioritize our brand and vision as we continue to expand into new markets.


Elizabeth Hazard

Elizabeth Hazard is a writer, producer and photography editor. Her work has appeared in various publications and she writes frequently about art, culture, fashion and history.



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