Flavorman founder David Dafoe recently was a runner up for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Person of the Year award. Superstar investor Mark Cuban presented the award to him in Washington, D.C. The two have a connection, as Cuban is an investor in Beat Box wines (literally boxed wine shaped like a beat box), which is developed right here at Dafoe’s Flavorman laboratory.
“You don’t win by yourself,” Dafoe tells Insider Louisville. And to make sure his staff of 34 knows he means that, the award has sat on a different employee’s desk each day since he returned from D.C. earlier this month.
Like the rap mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs, Dafoe links his success to his grandma. Both grandmothers told their grandsons “you can do anything.” And they both took that very much to heart.
For more than 20 years, Flavorman has been a leader in the beverage product development industry. The company’s headquarters on South Eight Street house one of the largest full-service beverage development facilities in the United States, including a lab, warehouse and bottling area.
But Dafoe didn’t start off in the flavor business — he actually majored in zoology at Miami University in Ohio. Out of college he landed a job in a flavor lab and discovered, unbeknownst to him, he had an exceptionally refined sense of taste and smell. It was the lab that developed California Coolers.
Quickly, Dafoe made a name for himself and was hired by Brown-Forman, where he helped develop the Jack Daniels Cocktails line. When he broke off and started Flavorman, his first two clients were Chiquita and Jones Soda.
Flavorman keeps a low profile, and the company doesn’t have many local clients. “We’re just busy being busy,” says Dafoe.
In addition to Flavorman, the company also owns the Distilled Spirits Epicenter, a building that is home to Moonshine University, a spirits and distilling education program, and Grease Monkey Distillery (the building used to be an auto garage), a small batch distillery. Flavorman leases six full-time employees to the epicenter.
When he started Moonshine University, Dafoe says he “was just looking to break even, but cash flowed from day one.” There has been a waiting list for every program offered except one. The university offers three five-day distilling classes and one five-day rum class, as well as 36 smaller classes a year.
In the last class, there were seven people from outside the United States from countries including Mozambique and the Netherlands. Each day of the program, the organizers fly the flag of one of the visiting countries as a way of making them feel welcome.
Moonshine University classes are pricey, but Dafoe says they could probably charge more for them. “These are not bunny courses.” Other courses include a two-day, $2,000 “route to market” class taught by experts on taking a beverage concept from idea to sales.
Grease Monkey Distillery is used by private craft distillers (while you can home brew beer, that’s not the case for bourbon) as well as our local bourbon industry as a place to experiment.
Dafoe attributes much of the company’s success to “hiring people smarter than you to help you run your company.” At this point, he says, he could “walk out the back door and basically never come back and nothing would change.”
He may have been joking, but he does love walking out and leaving the business to the team. Dafoe is a passionate world traveller. After a trip to Africa in the early 2000s, Dafoe fell seriously ill; he was unconscious for three weeks and briefly lost his sight.
After the illness, he became obsessed with scuba diving. He learned to dive at the YMCA, and then took scuba trips to many exotic locations. The thing was, he never really liked it — he was just sticking to the plot and seeking adventure because he felt like he should; now he’s “officially retired” from the pastime.
Originally from Canton, N.Y., Dafoe “had a terrible mental image of Louisville” when Brown-Forman moved him here in 1989. Think of all the typical stereotypes thrust on Kentucky — toothless, barefoot, cousin-loving — and that was what was on his mind.
“Now you couldn’t pry me away from this place,” he says.
He currently lives in New Albany on 40 acres with a beautiful view of the city, including the Flavorman building. But he’s selling that house and moving to a riverfront property in Prospect.
When asked what’s next for Flavorman, Dafoe is predictably cryptic. “We’ll be exploring what’s next in the beverage industry.” He also mentions a “revenue stream no one else is working on.”
Personally, he’s off to the island nation of Maldives this fall (he’s actually on another tropical island at the time of this post), and then hopefully a gorilla exploration in Uganda (remember, zoology was his first love).
Dafoe also would love to host an overnight camping event at the Flavorman campus — fence in the parking lots, set up fire pits and stages, bring in food trucks, and host tastings and educational events all night long. He’s passionate about this idea but not getting much traction from the team. He says if I mentioned it in this article, it might help them get on board.
Get on board, people.