Opening up with Melanie Masarin of Ghia.
With an interesting background and an idea that wouldn’t go away, Melanie started on an endeavor to craft a complex aperitif that not only rivals your go-to cocktail, but can be enjoyed any way you please (with or without alcohol).
&Open: Let’s set the scene. You grew up in France, and spent a decent amount of time along the Mediterranean during the summer. Can you talk about some of your more fond memories from those times?
Melanie: So my grandparents lived in the south of France, and I usually would spend most of the summer with them. My grandmother was an incredible cook and she was really good at making the extraordinary out of the mundane. Every one of her meals made people around her table feel very special, and I actually learned to cook and host from her, constantly taking note of all of her little tips and tricks. So some of my most fond memories of my entire childhood were made cooking alongside her — whether it was during the summer, around the holidays, or preparing for large crowds in the winter.
&Open: It seems like family and multi-generational relationships played a big role growing up. Is there any connection to be made between how you grew up and wanting to start something like Ghia?
Melanie: I feel like meals were very important in my family. Part of it was cultural because I was growing up in Lyon, which was a very food-centric city. But another part of it was that I was one of three kids, which meant that in the midst of all the running around and general busyness, meals served as no-chaos zones. We had dinner, all together as a family, every night. There was no eating in front of the TV or anything like that. Whenever my parents would go out or away, it disrupted that family order a bit, and my siblings and I would make giant stacks of crepes that were covered in Nutella. It was almost like we had a “free meal” or something. And it was those memories that inspired the idea for Ghianduja, which is our better, cleaner Nutella alternative. It goes back to this idea of childlike wonder.
Melanie Masarin of Ghia
&Open: What was it like moving to the US to attend school at Brown and then continuing to stay in the States after? What were the main differences you noticed in how people ate and drank?
Melanie: I didn't realize until I made that move how important cooking and hosting were to my culture. Even though I was here for school, living in New York City with a very small kitchen, I still cooked all the time at home. I maybe have two or three memories of going out to eat at a restaurant as a kid, which is less than what most people would do in a week in the city. Obviously my parents had three children, so it was more expensive, but I also think it was just not part of our normal routine. Cooking and hosting felt comfortable.
Another difference I noticed was around drinking. I think there's something very celebratory about the way people drink alcohol in Europe versus in America. In the US, alongside celebrations, there’s this idea of washing away your sorrows with alcohol. People will have wine at lunch in Europe because they're celebrating someone or something; there's always an excuse to celebrate. Whereas the concept of “sad” drinking is much less prevalent where I’m from.
&Open: That’s really interesting. So after school, you went on to have a pretty complex background. First Goldman Sachs, then Dig Inn, American Eagle and Glossier… Do you feel like understanding both financial and branding worlds gave you the confidence to go forth and start your own business? Did you ever see yourself ultimately entering into the entrepreneur space?
Melanie: First of all, I'm very happy that I started my career at Goldman. That job surprises a lot of people because I'm definitely someone who now identifies more as a creative. However, that experience gave me super solid foundations that are not just financial, but also detail- and client-oriented.
In terms of starting a business, I think I threw myself into it because I had no idea how hard it would be, not because I felt ready or was someone that wanted to create a company at all costs. I just got very enthusiastic about the idea. It was all I was thinking about; I knew exactly how I wanted it to taste and how I wanted it to look. And it felt more right than anything I’d ever done before. I will say, I don't think I quite understood the reality of the beverage business beforehand, and COVID brought its own challenges as well… So it’s been quite the journey.
&Open: 100%. You never know what something’s really going to be like until you’re truly in it, every day. Going off of that, what did the R&D process look like when you actually got down to creating Ghia?
Melanie: I started with the tasting notes. First of all, we had to hire a food scientist and it was a really hard process to find the right person. So I asked all my friends that were even, like, tangentially working in food and got a wide range of referrals. I met with everyone, and there was one person in particular that seemed to really understand the world of MROs.
Back when I was drinking regularly, I loved the Campari soda. It was very much my drink of choice. I love the simplicity of it. It's not like a negroni, which for some reason seems so much more intimidating and is also a lot stronger. Instead, it’s versatile, light, and has just the right amount of bitterness.
Traditional mocktails are very sweet because they’re primarily made out of fruit juices, so that primary note is sugar. For me, the first sip before a meal has to be very appetite-opening. Which is why we set out to create something less sweet and more drying and bitter. And we did so with gentian root, which gave us the base of our product. It’s a root from the Alps and is what most amaros are typically made of.
Then it took us over a year to get it right. We wanted a lot of feedback from our community along the way because our goal was to create a formula that was very stable, with the right extracts and the right balance… All of which is hard to do when you don't have alcohol to preserve it.
Melanie Masarin of Ghia
&Open: Let’s talk a little bit about the branding because it’s incredible. I've personally loved it since launch. In a DTC-saturated world, what was it like making Ghia’s branding feel 1) true to the product while 2) ensuring your graphics, colors, typefaces and imagery stood out amongst similar direct-to-consumer brands (i.e. Recess, Kin Euphorics)?
Melanie: I really wanted to create a brand that was reminiscent of a traditional aperitif and otherworldly drinks. Something that felt more gender-neutral to masculine, with a typeface that feels like it was designed for the real world, not just the internet. At the same time, I wanted it to feel modern and joyful. If someone doesn't know what Ghia is and they see the bottle on a shelf, I’d love for them to think that it contains alcohol purely based off the look and feel of the branding. I never want people to think Ghia is a “lesser” version of an alcoholic drink. So when we set out, we drew inspiration from all the aperitif labels, from Herb Lubalin’s work in the ‘70s, avant-garde fonts, contrasting but modern colors... Those kinds of things.
Speaking of colors, we spent a lot of time thinking about our palette. In the end, burgundy, which is very amaro and wine-like, was chosen as our primary color. Then when picking secondary colors, I loved the idea of light blue to represent the sea, a straw-like shade for sand, and then forest green to add a grassy, botanical note in there.
In terms of the logo, we actually got it right on the first try, which is pretty amazing. We hired an agency. Brian, who is the graphic designer, spent one evening just drawing up a bunch of options. And I loved the first iteration he came up with. Everything else took way more time, but the logo came quite naturally.
&Open: You were talking about how you wanted Ghia to have the look and feel of an alcoholic brand — whether people are choosing to actually drink alcohol or not, Ghia should feel like an exciting equivalent. And it seems like you're personally passionate about living a life not just free of alcohol, but anything that isn't serving you.
Can you speak a little bit more about that perspective?
Melanie: Yeah, definitely. Look, it's not always possible to only do or consume the things that are good for you. I’m very much an everything-in-moderation kind of person, which I think comes from my French roots, but there are definitely things in my life that are hard to cut out even though I know they aren’t serving me. Me having dairy every day is one of those things because I realized that having yogurt every morning was just wrecking my system.
Same thing with emailing. It takes me away from other, more important tasks, like spending time with my team or growing the business. So I used to be very on top of my email, and now I’m not (but in a good way).
Melanie Masarin of Ghia
I try to not only not do the things that don't serve me, but also carve out time for the ones that do. I'm lucky to live in California where I can be outdoors, cook, surf and play tennis… Those are all activities that, for me personally, lead to a more balanced life.
My thinking is that everyone’s most limited resource isn’t money, but time. And everything with time is very zero-sum. There are only 24 hours in the day, and so I want to be the most productive version of myself and live my life to the fullest whenever humanly possible. That might mean cutting out alcohol, getting outside, and not answering 20 sales emails from strangers. Those kinds of things, for me, all contribute to a more enjoyable life. So I’ve tried to lean into that.
&Open: What makes Ghia a great gift?
Melanie: I think that it's a very well-intentioned gift because you want to leave the recipient feeling good. It’s also very thoughtful, and a gift that can be shared and enjoyed with others. I love edible gifts because 1) they feel less wasteful, and 2) they extend an invitation to celebrate.
&Open: Who is Ghia for? Is it just for people who don’t drink?
Melanie: Interestingly enough, about 85% of the people that drink Ghia are those who still drink alcohol and just want a night off. So I think it's for people who are curious and appreciate good design; people who want a grown-up drink, but also have very active lives and don't want to feel the after-effects of drinking every single night.
&Open: That's really interesting. Did that statistic surprise you after launching?
Melanie: Yeah, I think it's great. People in this non-alcoholic product category are often using messaging that is super sobriety specific. However, I believe sobriety is very much a spectrum, and so I wanted Ghia to allow those who are curious to be able to experiment with that. Like for me, I generally don't drink. But sometimes I will have a drink, and we're seeing that reverse a little bit. I like to joke that I have an annual martini — not that I can even really have a full martini anymore because my tolerance is so low. Laughs.
&Open: What's your favorite reason to give someone a gift?
Melanie: I think that my language of love is giving gifts. I'm not very good at receiving them, but I have detailed notes on my phone for giving others gifts. When I hear that someone likes something, I immediately write it down. I also love finding objects on the internet. Especially when I know that someone is looking for something specific and I find it.
But I really enjoy giving a gift because I think that someone will love it. I think that's when the recipient feels the most special.
&Open: What's the best gift that you've ever given?
Melanie: For his 35th birthday, I gave my boyfriend a new surfboard; a replica of the first surfboard he ever owned back in Long Island where he grew up. He still has his old one, but it’s all dinged up and full of water. He kept it, even though he couldn't use it to surf anymore. He always said it was the best board he ever had. So I got the same shop to make him the exact same one in a new color. And it's probably one of his favorite things now.