An interest in flavors brought Sook Goh to Starbucks. She left five years later with an understanding of how to put that knowledge to work in her own business.
Goh grew up in Malaysia and went to college at the University of Wisconsin, where she studied food science and business. She came to Starbucks in 2007, working initially with Tazo tea in Portland, Oregon, before relocating to Seattle and becoming a senior product developer for the company.
“I learned a lot from Starbucks,” said Goh. “One thing I learned is that you can make something easy to use and delicious, and if you make it consistent, people will want to use it all the time.”
Goh applied that lesson when she and Roslynn Tellvik conceived what’s become RAFT Botanical Cocktail & Soda Syrups, which they founded in Portland in 2013 with an eye on the Northwest’s craft distillery boom.
“I’d see all these small-batch liquors, but I didn’t see anything that could go with them,” Goh said. “Most people really don’t know how to make a drink at home.”
The granddaughter of a Chinese medical doctor who incorporated botanicals into his treatments, Goh began to muse on how infrequently botanicals and herbs are integrated into the American diet when compared with what she grew up with. She reasoned that the locally produced gins, vodkas and ryes she was seeing around Portland would benefit from flavorful, organic complements.
“I saw an opportunity and a gap, because I’d been doing a lot of syrups and flavorings for Starbucks in my previous career,” Goh said. “My strength is really in beverage ingredients, so I wanted to do something like that.”
Today RAFT sells three syrups for cocktails and sodas – Smoked Tea Vanilla, Hibiscus Lavender and Lemon Ginger – at some 90 locations across America. The latter two earned honors in the spirit category at the 2015 Good Food Awards in San Francisco.
Their startup well established, Goh and Tellvik are ready for new challenges. They sold RAFT earlier this year to Improper Goods, a Portland company that developed the Bitter Housewife line of small-batch aromatic bitters.
“The brand is doing really well and it’s going to the next phase of growth,” Goh said. “I think that we have done what we wanted to do going into the business. A lot of people like to run companies. We like to start companies.”
This feature is part of a series featuring Starbucks alumni who’ve applied lessons they learned with the company to new ventures. For those interested in working at Starbucks, visit the Career Center.