How Jacques Evans Is Saving Cleveland One Drink at a Time
The Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland is a modernist burst of geometric glass seemingly cut from the earth itself. The MOCA is one of Cleveland’s leading arts and cultural institutions and—like most museums—it’s typically filled with art from its collection and visiting exhibits. But if you’d visited on a chilly day last February, you might easily have mistaken the MOCA for the hottest club in Cleveland. And in a way you would have been right.
For the first time ever, all of the art had been moved out of MOCA for a private event, says Floh Vodka founder and president Jacques Evans. “I could have started anywhere in the world,” Evans says, “but I felt like my city deserved it and my family deserved it. At the end of the day, when we grow this brand, I like the fact that Cleveland will be attached to it.”
Evans and Floh collaborated with artists to put on “HeArt of the Cocktail,” a massive art installation turned cocktail party. “We cleared out all four floors,” says Evans, and “we remodeled everything. We put a car inside a ‘caviar’ ball pit on the fourth floor because our motto is the caviar of vodka.”
The “caviar” Evans refers to is his premium vodka brand, Floh, which he launched in 2014. Invitations to the event took the form of rings—modeled after pro sports championship rings—with Floh Vodka branding—blazoned on them. (The use of championship rings is apt after the Cleveland Cavalier’s four-year run in the NBA finals.) Evans takes seriously the need to differentiate Floh as a high-end vodka with a real heritage developed in Cleveland, rather than merely a short-term marketing gimmick. “I don’t use naked women or any of the typical ways a lot of these brands try to promote their products,” he says.
The success of a new brand such as Floh and an emerging entrepreneurial force like Evans speaks to a renaissance taking place throughout Cleveland. The city was hit hard by the Great Recession and the overall decades-long decline in the American manufacturing sector. However, the city is entering a new era as its sports teams thrive, its progressive mayor Frank Jackson pushes for new development, and a new hotel and dining scene is taking root. The city’s $5.6 billion biomedical sector helps, of course, as do the more than a dozen craft breweries and several coworking spaces in the Ohio City startup district.
And the difficulties go beyond merely differentiating a brand. The success of an alcohol brand depends just as much—or more—on distributors’ willingness to carry it as it does on the quality of the product and marketing. In the case of Ohio, where Floh launched, the state has regulatory control over alcohol distribution, which meant that Evans had to pitch his product directly to the Division of Liquor Control. “Typically new brands don’t launch into ‘controlled’ states because they don’t have the data to support the product,” says Evans. “Me being from Cleveland, I wanted to launch in my home state.”
This almost willful disregard for challenges is probably the single biggest reason that Evans and Floh have been successful. “I had to learn to swim as I was drowning,” Evans recalls. “Nowadays I can still taste the water.” Evans started his career as a party and club promoter and was soon putting on events around the country, including for the NBA All-Star Game and the Super Bowl. A key part of these sorts of events is working with partner brands such as cars, spirits or fashion lines, and Evans and his team became adept at integrating these brands into events in such a way as to both promote them and elevate the event itself.
“I would throw parties and see how people would gravitate toward liquor brands that I was behind, but I had no stake in these brands,” says Evans. By 2014, he had decided he was ready to go from simply promoting other brands to creating and owning his own. “I decided that I wanted something that was upscale, that was sexy and that was in the vodka category,” he explains. He chose vodka because “anywhere around the world, everyone has had vodka. Not everyone has had tequila or bourbon.” Plus, Evans sees vodka as prestigious. Just look at James Bond’s preferred drink: vodka martini, shaken not stirred, served with a twist.
Yet the world of vodka is incredibly competitive. Consumption of the clear alcohol is surging in the U.S., rising from around 44 million 9-liter cases in 2004 to more than 72 million cases in 2018, according to data from Statista. Most of that volume is made up of a few massive brands. Breaking into that market, especially with a new, small brand, is incredibly difficult. Differentiating a product from the myriad of other vodkas available is even more challenging.
“I spelled it ‘Floh’ because I wanted to create a word and definition that was different from ‘flow,’” Evans says. He says Floh means “the plan or desire to go toward a good time,” and he wants to get “floh” into the dictionary. Which brings us back to Cleveland, where Jacques and the idea for Floh were born. He had a name, a design, a bottle and premium vodka. Now Evans had to make people want it.
The two-day cocktail party at the Cleveland MOCA was a success. Evans even created a comic book called The Fearless Adventures of Steady Floh. He stars in it as Steady Floh himself and “saves the world one drink at a time.” The jacket he wore in the comic book was for sale in the museum shop. “The car that I’m driving in the comic book was the car that we put in the museum,” he says. His character “zaps” people in the comic book, using the same ring that was used for the invitations.
Evans has grown Floh from being available just in Ohio to 12 states with more to come. Now he is using the brand’s commercial success to give back to Cleveland. He has a foundation called GO (it stands for Golden Opportunity Foundation) that supports young entrepreneurs and cancer patients in Cleveland. “For me as a person, everything I was taught morally and business-wise, everything happened here in Cleveland,” Evans says. “My foundation is Cleveland,” both literally and figuratively.
Through GO, Evans supports several initiatives in Cleveland. Evans talks about backing a Shark Tank–style competition where children in Cleveland can present ideas for summer businesses. The winner is staked by Evans, and his team mentors them on entrepreneurship skills ranging from product development to understanding taxes and credit.
Evans has also connected his social ideas to the Floh brand. As a side project, Evans created special desks from old arcade game booths for children with learning disabilities. Instead of a game inside the booth, however, the children are presented with learning tools. He uses the same desk in his comic book and also had them on display in the museum.
Now Evans and GO are sponsoring an essay competition for the Gathering Place, which provides support services to families dealing with cancer in Cleveland. Children will tour the Gathering Place and then write essays about their experiences. Winners will receive cash prizes valued between $5,000 and $10,000.
“It’s an amazing place,” Evans says. “I was thinking about ways that I could help them get exposure, and I think the best way to get kids engaged is funding.” Ultimately, it’s all part of Evan’s goal of saving the world—starting in Cleveland—one drink at a time.