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Auburn graduate mixing up a unique enterprise in New Orleans with El Guapo

At first, the pandemic wasn’t too kind to Christa Cotton and her fledgling cocktail company. And then, it was.

A recent check-in – right before Mardi Gras – with the 2010 Auburn University graduate and CEO of New Orleans-based El Guapo found Cotton feverishly working with her team to get shipments of her popular bottled bitters, a key ingredient for many a creative cocktail, out the door before Fat Tuesday festivities shut down the streets to commerce.

Cotton was also in the midst of hiring more staff, preparing remarks for the upcoming Auburn Alumni Association Women’s Summit and negotiating with the city on the remaining permits she needs to finish building her “new” New Orleans facility – actually a historic structure she is refurbishing that once housed a hospital for malaria sufferers.

Oh, and she’s also a young mother, chasing a feisty 3-year-old daughter, Flora.

And just for good measure, Cotton is a student in the newest class of the prestigious James Beard Foundation Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership program, in partnership with Cornell University.

A Georgia native who adores the Crescent City, Cotton also holds a soft spot for Alabama and the many Alabama friends and connections she’s made through her alma mater and other fruitful encounters.

For example, her best friend from college is Neill Crook, owner of the popular agave bar Mayawell in Birmingham’s bustling Lakeview district. The two had lost touch but reconnected in 2020 after Cotton was featured in Auburn University magazine.

“It was like old times, like we hadn’t missed a beat,” said Crook, who uses El Guapo bitters in some of his signature cocktails.

“She is kind, just a great person – one of those friends you can call at midnight,” Crook added.

Another good friend is Neillie Butler, owner of Mariee Ami, a successful wedding planning and design studio in Mountain Brook. The two met in July 2020 and became fast friends while navigating the effects of the pandemic on their businesses as Tory Burch Foundation fellows selected to join the same cohort of women entrepreneurs.

“We probably connected more than anyone in our class, from a personality standpoint,” said Butler, who had to completely shutter her business for a time as COVID descended across the country.

“I picked up immediately on her drive, her ambition,” Butler said. “She is so driven, so eager, so willing to open any door for her business. Enough is never enough for her and her business, and that’s exactly how I am.”

Born for business

Cotton’s love for business is clearly in her genes. Her father, Alton Darby, is co-founder of Columbus, Georgia-based Victory Real Estate Investments, which owns retail properties throughout the Southeast and as far north as Ohio. While attending Auburn’s business school, Cotton helped her parents launch Thirteenth Colony Distilleries, Georgia’s first legal distillery since Prohibition.

After college Cotton headed to the Big Easy for a position in advertising and branding, but it didn’t take long for the entrepreneurial bug to bite again. In 2017, after working with restaurants, hotels and chefs in New Orleans’ expansive hospitality industry, she founded New Orleans Beverage Group, acquiring the El Guapo trademark and plunging back into the craft spirits business.

Cotton’s revisions to the brand and its offerings have taken El Guapo in a different direction from traditional bitters producers. Although bitters are typically made with alcohol, El Guapo is alcohol-free, with a focus on fresh flavors constructed using carefully sourced ingredients.

“We straddle the line between alcoholic beverages and non-alcoholic with our fresh ingredients: nuts, seeds, fruits – the highest-quality we can find. I think it really comes through in our flavors.”

And those flavors – chicory pecan to Polynesian kiss, cucumber lavender to crawfish boil, gumbo to summer berries – are drawing kudos from posh magazines like Garden & Gun to some very discriminating clients, including Neiman-Marcus and Whole Foods. Today, El Guapo caters to customers in 49 states, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, while serving upscale restaurants and taverns across the country, including Alabama hotspots Helen in Birmingham and Acre in Auburn.

A COVID course correction

But things weren’t always so sweet. El Guapo was blindsided by COVID-19, which forced the temporary closure – and in some cases the permanent demise – of the restaurants and bars so important to Cotton’s business.

Cotton had just secured a 24-store deal with Costco when the pandemic hit. The chain canceled the order, saying it needed the shelf space for toilet paper.

Cotton was seriously contemplating bankruptcy, until she observed how her website traffic was suddenly taking off, fueled by people stuck in their homes and eager to take the edge off COVID isolation by concocting mixed drinks.

She and her team shifted swiftly, improving the website to better handle direct sales. In a matter of weeks, El Guapo transformed from an enterprise deriving 70% of its business in the wholesale market to one doing 90% of its sales direct-to-consumer on its website and through the online behemoth Amazon.

Clever marketing and creative thinking also helped, such as offering custom mixer gift packages. Cotton devised one for Auburn University when, during the height of the pandemic, it hosted a virtual meeting of all the Southeastern Conference schools. The orange-and-blue mixer gift boxes were delivered directly to the attendants, and were so well-received that a certain rival school in Tuscaloosa ordered its own custom packages – dubbed “The Yellowhammer.” They were delivered to University of Alabama alumni chapter leaders across the country.

In the end, COVID turned out to be an unexpected blessing for the company. “We’ve more than quadrupled our revenue in a two-year period,” Cotton said, sounding slightly breathless and maybe a bit amazed herself. Now, with the company’s direct-consumer sales solid, and the restaurant and hotel industry roaring back as COVID (we all hope) wanes, Cotton is scaling up.

She lovingly describes her new/old facility in New Orleans’ Mid-City neighborhood, a building that was home to the phone company for nearly a century after the malaria patients moved on. The property even sheltered horses and carriages in its early days.

El Guapo’s move and buildout is being financed in part through more than $1 million in seed money from the NO/LA Angel Network, the New Orleans Startup Fund and other investors. Cotton hopes the state-of-the-art manufacturing facility will continue to burnish El Guapo’s reputation and distinction as the nation’s only non-alcoholic bitters brewery.

“No two days are the same, and my eyeballs are always on fire,” Cotton said. “Every day is a struggle to produce more bottles.”

But there’s no doubt – for Cotton, bottles beat bankruptcy any day.

Cotton is among the presenters at the in-person Auburn Alumni Association’s 2022 Women’s Summit, scheduled for March 18. Learn more about the event here. Learn more about Christa Cotton and El Guapo here.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)