By Cheryl Hall
The Dallas Morning News
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Kathy Doyle Thomas is using her side hustle to create a solid business selling her popular ready to go margarita mix which is much adored by friends and family.
Kathy Doyle Thomas sits at her kitchen breakfast bar, sorting receipts.
The pile to the left is for her travel expenses to a Los Angeles trade show incurred as executive vice president of Half Price Books. To the right are those for “Ready Ritas”, her margarita mix that comes in team colors and in a freezable, pourable bag, perfect for tailgating.
“This is how I compartmentalize my life,” she says, adding paper receipts for 2,500 sampling cups from Sam’s and a case of Trader Joe’s chardonnay to the Ready Ritas stack.
The second-in-command at Half Price, Thomas is among a mounting legion of Americans with a side hustle, a way to haul in extra cash aside from their main source of income or add a little spice to their lives.
In her case, Thomas, known for decades for serving up mean frozen margaritas from Ziploc bags at parties, wanted to have fun, get hands-on with a small business and spend more time with family.
Sharon Anderson Wright, owner of Half Price Books, thinks the idea is brilliant and isn’t the least bit surprised that her longtime friend and colleague is starting a business without missing a beat at her day job.
“Kathy seems to be able to tap an endless source of energy,” says Anderson Wright. “She’s like me in that we never like to be idle and always want to be doing something. We don’t ever get the recommended hours of sleep because there aren’t enough hours in the day.”
Don’t ask Thomas how much money she has sunk into the project. She doesn’t really want to know. Sales certainly aren’t covering expenses.
“My youngest just graduated, so I kinda think of it as another kid in college,” she says. “Everyone says, ‘You need to go on Shark Tank.’ Why would I want an investor? I want to take my mix and run with it.”
She and her three children, Clayton, 29, Colin, 26, and Kristen, 22, are Texas Christian University grads and enthusiastic Horned Frogs. So Kathy started making purple margaritas for TCU tailgate parties.
Thomas is excited that TCU is having a good year. “We’re getting a lot more orders out of Fort Worth.”
Her husband, Greg Thomas, is a Texas alum, so burnt orange was next.
Now her lineup also includes Texas A&M maroon, and Southern Methodist red and blue. The blue also serves the Dallas Cowboys nation. University of Oklahoma crimson is the most recent addition, which caused a bit of a rift with Longhorn Greg.
There’s also a traditional lime green for those who just want easy-to-pour margaritas or who worry about a tinted Kool-Aid-esque smiley face.
Getting the colors right was an artistic and a scientific feat.
The specific red food dye typically used to make purple disappears when citric acid is added, reverting the liquid to deep blue. She had to work with a food chemist to find a red dye that would hold its properties.
Maroon was a toughy, too. Make it too dark and it looks like mud or worse. Too burgundy, and it looks like wine.
She had ardent fans act as arbiters of tint. “I didn’t want to offend anyone,” she says.
A spray bottle of Clorox became her hands’ best friend and worst enemy.
Converting the recipe to make a gallon made her very popular with neighbors invited over for testings.
So here’s how it works:
You add a bottle of wine or 14 ounces of tequila with 7 ounces of triple sec to the 64-ounce mixture, stick the bag in the freezer for 12 hours, and it’s ready when you are. The alcohol keeps the mixture slushy.
“You just put it on a table, and people pour it out,” Thomas says, mashing a bag out of the freezer and pouring out a tequila-laced sample in my SMU alma mater’s red.
“And if you put it in the pool, it floats,” Thomas says merrily. “If you put red wine and some fruit in it, hey, you’ve got a sangria.”
A bag, which makes 14 6-ounce margaritas, costs $12.99 on her website, ReadyRitas.com, and several retail locations.
On a recent Sunday, Thomas and her clan, including her 86-year-old mom, RoRo Doyle, from San Antonio, siblings, nieces, nephews and friends from around the state, handed out several hundred virgin samples in the Go Texan Pavilion at the State Fair of Texas.
Her younger son, Colin, is the company’s only paid employee. The rest work for pizza, munchies and mix.
Thomas, Half Price’s chief strategy officer, has spent nearly half of her life working in tandem with Anderson Wright, expanding the chain from 29 stores when Thomas got there 28 years ago to 124 stores with $260 million in sales last year.
“I’ve been in retail forever,” says Thomas. “But I’ve never been in food manufacturing, and it’s a whole new challenge for me.”
Thomas couldn’t have gotten this far even five years ago.
GoDaddy hosts her website, and Shopify powers it. “There are so many canned programs out there that a small business person can use. It’s amazing,” she says.
She’s found all sorts of answers online and at all hours, starting with a gallon bag with a handle and a two-inch pouring spout. It’s one used by Sonic for its to-go iced tea.
She located a vendor in China that would sell her 10,000 bags instead of the 50,000 that four other suppliers required.
“Even that was a big commitment, because it was a little bit more than a dollar apiece, and I had no idea if it would work,” she says. “I’ve since found out that’s the cheapest part of this. You slowly start going in and down this rabbit hole.”
She contacted 25 co-packers to find one in San Antonio that could make and fill the bag.
“I know how to make a margarita. I don’t know how to put preservatives in the mix so it’ll have a shelf life of more than a few days,” she says.
The bags leaked, so she had to add an induction sealer.
She ordered too much product and had to give it away to friends and family as the expiration date approached.
She’s already had a trademark skirmish over the name, successful but still costly.
“When someone tries to fight Half Price Books’ trademark, I just forward the email to the company attorney,” Thomas says. “But when I forward an email to my trademark attorney with a concern, it costs me money. It’s a little different for me as a small business owner than it is working for a company, ya know?
“You have to be really, really involved. That’s the challenging part, but the fun part, too,” she says. “I’m learning this whole new business side.”
About side hustles
An estimated 44 million U.S. adults, about one in five, have side hustles to pad cash to their main sources of income.
Millennials are leading this phenomenon, using side gigs to help pay bills that might be outpacing their early-career salaries. But popularity is growing among the more established set, who may not need the money but want personal fulfillment.