Kamila Sitwell, Kolibri Drinks

Kamila Sitwell, Kolibri Drinks

James Sandrini 11th June 2018

What’s it really like to start a business in hospitality? We started an interview series to find out.

This week, we talked with Kamila Sitwell, Founder of Kolibri Drinks about the role of personalisation in the drinks trade, the legacy of Brexit on food & drink and her new alcohol-free product, Kolibri.


You’ve been predicting trends in food & drink for years now. What’s surprised you? And what's coming next?

I spent a decade working in the hospitality industry in the late 90’s and early ’00s and occasionally, we would get a few vegetarian guests. It was so rare the staff would panic and yell to the kitchen staff: “vegetarians on table 12!” which sounded more like “aliens are here!” Carrots and tofu dishes were all we had to offer.

Over the years I could see how the growth of the veganism movement and the reasons behind it were clear, but the fact it’s now such a mainstream, widespread cuisine is still a bit of a surprise. Do you know that 3.5 million Brits identify as vegan? It’s a 350% rise in the last ten years! Virtually every food that comes from animals now has a plant-based equivalent. Vegan eggnog, ice cream, milk, yoghurt, cheese or vegan meat … Yes, such rapid growth of veganism surprised me.

What’s the next big trend? I think you can guess my answer. I believe the future is bespoke with customisable food and drinks options to fit individuals, not the masses. How certain am I? I’m putting my money on it!


How does that fit into your new product, Kolibri?

After working in the industry I began rigorously studying the market through analytics, research and data for numerous leading beverage brands. My work turned into a passion, and a few years ago, I took to writing blogs and articles which I now regularly share and discuss with thousands of followers, most of whom are also hospitality professionals.

I got to know the market intimately and one day it dawned on me that customisation – the biggest global trend impacting all industries – could also be the saviour to troubled soft drinks which are perceived as boring, mainstream, lacking excitement and now also demonised for their sugar content.

This summer I’m launching Kolibri, the world’s first bottled drinks with sweetness and flavour tailored to taste. Alcohol-free, the range offers distinctive botanical notes and sweetness adjusted to taste via a separate cap filled with Kolibri Drops, which can be added drop by drop to increase the flavour complexity. Kolibri is designed to appeal to the discerning customers in fine dining establishments, where taste preferences are respected and catered to.

Today, people want to be treated as individuals with unique needs. Standardised, mainstream drinks aiming to appeal to the homogeneous crowds make little sense because one-size-fits-no-one. Sometimes we indulge and sometimes we abstain, but it should always be on our terms.

"Those four lemonades made my head spin as it gave me new insight into the world of possibilities"

Where did the idea come from?

I witnessed a situation in a bar three years ago, which made such profound and lasting impression on me; I had to do something about it.

An afternoon in a bar with my girlfriends turned into a bit of an embarrassment when the barman served his beautifully crafted, home-made lemonades which, unfortunately, none of my friends liked the taste of. Too sweet or too sour, too many lemons, not enough ice…really, it was a bit of a drama, but at such premium prices, we expected better.

The barman patiently listened to each of the girls’ demands, captured their individual preferences and quickly re-created the drinks but this time, each lemonade was tailored to taste. This incident would have been meaningless for most, but I was the industry insight expert, overflowing with information on consumer trends and category dynamics. Those four lemonades made my head spin as it gave me new insight into the world of possibilities.

It dawned on me that customisation could add a lot of excitement to the otherwise boring world of softs and could be a powerful solution to the war on sugar. Fun, co-creation, bespoke and adventurous drinks with a new ritual of serving. Skinny or indulgent, always to your taste. It made sense!

It took three years to create a range of delicious drinks matched by the artistry of the elegant bottle and cap design, but we are in the market now and getting a lot of traction in London’s best bars and restaurants.


Alcohol-free & personalised …it’s very much a drink for 2018. Is this a product that could have – or would have – worked 5 years ago?

When launching a business, timing is everything. Enter the market too late or too early and you will fail miserably, however sound your business concept is.

Five years ago, we might have struggled but today, the market is ripe and ready. In fact, there is a perfect storm out there. The great British public is eating out habitually, all day long. We are also increasingly abstaining from alcohol and sugar thanks to the anti-sugar campaigns and the newly introduced sugar tax. The need for healthier, better, innovative alcohol-free drinks is growing.

Premiumisation has redefined industries: Craft beer, premium spirits, bespoke cocktails, artisan coffee and tea… Softs seem to be tweaking their recipes hoping that more adventurous flavours blended with stevia will turn the market from “meh” to “yeah!"

But it’s still true that soft drinks are the industry laggards, childish and boring. Abstaining guests are drinking water in prestige restaurants, increasingly tap water, because there is nothing exciting on menus.
Customisation, personalisation, bespoke –  whatever we call it –  is a growing part of 21st-century life and something we all expect, demand even.

Tailored holidays, bespoke Netflix or Amazon recommendations, customised cars, customised coffee, personalised fashion…. it’s all out there and tailored to your taste, lifestyle and needs. Bespoke is the future.

"What’s the next big trend? I think you can guess my answer. I believe the future is bespoke with customisable food and drinks options to fit individuals, not the masses"

Changing lanes for a minute; sexual harassment scandals have swept the industry over in the states. Why do you think that hasn’t been the case here?

Scandals have been exposed in several industries, from Hollywood, music, tech and politics, to academia and hospitality. The US press seems to be taking a more thorough approach, backing up their claims with stats and research, whereas we in the UK have more of a reporting style on incidents, such as with the President’s Club scandal.

As many as 90% of women and 70% of men reportedly experience some form of sexual harassment in the hospitality industry. There are several reasons why the stats are so high but the one which immediately comes to mind is “the customer is always right” culture which prevents vulnerable staff from confronting the misbehaving guests or even reporting the incidents to management. Staff dependence on tips will be another reason why inappropriate behaviours are accepted, or even normalised. However, there are just as many reported sexual harassment incidents inflicted by co-workers and management as by customers.

I don’t know the US stats, but in UK hospitality only 15% of women are in senior management positions. Men make up the majority of leadership roles while the typical frontline restaurant employee is young and female.

Where there are so many men in power, with young, pretty and vulnerable females put in subservient positions then, well, there will be trouble, whatever the industry. I’m delighted to see that so many leading hospitality brands are now putting strategies in place to get that balance right.


How can we shift the balance towards an equal distribution of women in senior management – and in kitchens for that matter?

The hospitality industry needs to increase its retention of female staff in particular, by offering more ‘family-friendly’ policies such as part-time positions, job sharing and flexible working, return to work schemes, mentoring and career progression planning.

It is important to stress the family part here – this is not discriminating against men. It’s ensuring that flexible working should become normalised so that both men and women benefit. Right now the hospitality industry lags behind other workplaces. Upping its game should result in more females staying and rising through the ranks to the levels that they aim for.


Early days, but what do you think the lasting legacy of Brexit will be on the industry?

The rising costs and challenges around staff have been discussed extensively so I won’t go further into that. But there is something else that fills me with great sadness.

Over the years, British hospitality embraced authenticity as a key brand differentiation, transforming restaurants into vibrant, authentic multi-sensory establishments.

In return, guests fall in love with the unique immersive experiences this has offered. Popping to your local tapas bar and experiencing quality Catalonian dishes, cooked by a chef from Tarragona who recreated the authentic recipes his mother taught him, and then served by people who understand the Catalonian food tradition and frankly, can pronounce perfectly the names of the dishes, is a priceless experience.

A bit of an escapism, two special hours of being transported from the busy Camden High Street to Costa Brava, north-eastern Spain. Remarkable.

Could John Smith from Cambridge or Arjun from India do as good of a job as people from Catalonia? Absolutely! But that magical atmosphere in that Spanish bar, created by perfectly orchestrated, seamless and naturally authentic experiences, is gone.

My immediate thought, should these authentic experiences face, is that it would enable chains to scoop up the trade, and yet that’s the antithesis of what we’re currently seeing. If we can’t venture into these wonderful, Catalonian escapes, who benefits?

Looking into the future, ‘authentic’ may not be as we see it now. I imagine more of a fusion of different cuisines and influences as the creativity this industry is renowned for comes to the fore.  For better or worse, authenticity, as we know it today, will be diminished, re-defined and will look different.

Thanks to Kamila Sitwell.

Find out more about Kolibri drinks here, connect with Kamila directly on LinkedIn or head over to Kamila’s blog – Divine Eating Out.