With Judge Lina Hidalgo’s recent implementation of the Harris County COVID-19 Threat Level System and subsequent ordering that people should minimize all public contact, many Houstonians are no doubt continuing their stay-home routines. But alienation from communal gatherings doesn’t inherently mean alienation from enjoying local, independent food and beverage favorites anymore. 

Kickin’ Kombucha—a decade-old, six-employee stalwart whose products are found at area coffee shops, grocery stores, and at its own Lawndale taproom—launched Kickin’ Distribution at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dissatisfied with previous distributors and responding to increased fan demand, the company decided a do-it-yourself model would go much further in preserving the city’s unique small businesses. They’ve already made hundreds of deliveries of several local products, including their own, since March.

“It’s not really anything new in a lot of ways,” Kickin’ Kombucha founder Robert Lopez says. “We’re not looking to get into [distribution], but it came up in the back of our minds that we have the experience, we know how to do it, and honestly we just want to see Houston maintain its personality through its individual food manufacturers, producers, and makers, and not have them end up shuttering.”

Plus, he says, avoiding large nationwide distributors is “why you see so much variety in the local coffee shops,” and Kickin’ Distribution’s exclusively Houston focus ensures mainstays like Sinfull Bakery, Sweet Cup Gelato, Greenway Coffee Co., Amaya Roasters, Black Hole Coffee, Fusion Beans, and Malk Organics continue to reach consumers even as they remain homebound. 

Kickin’ Distribution collects orders via its easy-to-navigate online portal. In addition to a broad range of products from the aforementioned independent businesses, supporters may also order fresh produce and sanitary wipes, when available, as well as Kickin’ Kombucha shirts sporting a colorful retro aesthetic. 

Kickin’ delivers—for orders of at least $35—on Wednesdays to “pretty much from Clear Lake to The Woodlands,” says Lopez. Delivery man Ryan practices proper contactless protocol, texting a 10-minute warning before arriving, and reminding consumers to refrigerate their kombucha and nut milk or freeze their gelato upon receipt.

Some orders even come with special treats as add-ons, including Sinfull Bakery’s popular Everything Bar and individual servings of Sweet Cup Gelato.

“We can do a lot in so many ways,” says Lopez. “We can at least share with people the ability to get some stuff that could give them maybe a little bit of happiness. A little glimmer in a day, maybe, and give these business’ products some legs.”

Black Hole Coffee was the first account he reached out to when developing Kickin’ Distribution. The Montrose-area shop was already talking to Lopez about carrying its fizzy tea beverages, while the brewer helped guide Black Hole—and its sister storefront Antidote in the Heights—through the bottling process. 

From there, Kickin’ Distribution added even more woman-fronted businesses to their offerings. Some of these, such as Sweet Cup Gelato and Sinfull Bakery, were already familiar faces from events at Whole Foods. But its biggest criteria was simply “any business [they] want to see make it through this,” lest Houston’s unique, internationally lauded food landscape grow dull, “dominated by chains and Starbucks.”

“There are not a lot of food manufacturers in Houston at this time. It’s a small community,” Lopez says. He adds that the loss of “all of our accounts” at “restaurants, cafés, and coffee shops” as well as bars and breweries reduced profits by 60 to 70 percent. Kickin’ Kombucha’s wares only flowed the first few weeks after lockdown due to grocery stores, but it wasn’t enough. 

“Being a small business, we understand how long we can operate without income, and it’s very limited," he says. "Most places and individuals usually can’t absorb massive expenses." 

To reduce expenditures for the involved businesses, Kickin’ Distribution only purchases wholesale, earning a small amount from each sale. It never charges partners additional fees for its services, either.

Sweet Cup Gelato has enmeshed itself in the consciousness of Montrose since 2012 and remains a favorite for its innovative flavors celebrating Houston’s rich culinary heritage: tres leches, Kashmir rose, and curry coconut, among others. Since partnering with Kickin’ Distribution, the venerable institution has sold more than 500 pints, spread out over a steady stream week by week.

Owner Jasmine Chida credits the partnership, alongside her takeout and curbside offerings, with keeping her two storefronts, kitchen, and staff afloat. With COVID, sales at Sweet Cup have fallen about 70 to 80 percent, according to Chida, but she’s been able to stay open.

With distribution assistance, she’s able to not only provide financial support to her employees, but there’s also structure, community, and peace of mind—all integral to maintaining mental health during a period of grave stress.

“Of course it’s helped us having little orders every week. It adds up, but also it sustains my staff to have hours. We can pay our bills and keep our staff,” she says. “(This) gave them hope. … It just felt normal at a time when things weren’t so normal.”

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