At this year’s OurFest (I’m still not used to the name), I met a lot of folks peddling their wares, but one of my favorites was the dynamic duo of Ashley Graham-Griffin and Bianca Rosa. The partners in business and life own The Town cocktails and were handing out samples throughout the day. I had a few sips of flavors like their pineapple, orange, cranberry mix. The two told me their goal was to create a premium vodka, hard seltzer drink made with sparkling water and real fruit juices, that was low calorie, vegan, and gluten free and still delicious. I can attest to that part. But the best part is the philanthropic model behind the company.
I’m going to go alphabetically and start with Ashley. Tell me a little about yourself?
Ashley Graham-Griffin: Trenton, New Jersey born and raised, still living there.
What is the motto for Trenton?
A: Trenton makes, the world takes.
So tell me a little bit about growing up in Trenton.
A: I grew up in North Trenton and when I was younger, we moved to West Trenton. My grandmother owned properties there and lived alone. One night, she got robbed so my mom and dad decided to move in with her. I lived with my mom and dad and my grandma for some years until my grandma passed. Now, I’m still living there with my parents, on and off.
What’s a warm memory of your grandmother?
A: She loved clowns. So we have a room dedicated to her that has all of her clowns in it and a collage of her pictures.
Was anybody in the family afraid of clowns?
A: [Laughing] Me, just a little bit. I’m usually scared of everything, but the clowns weren’t too bad.
Your grandma would have loved me because I was the co-host on the Bozo the Clown TV show for several years. I was the ringmaster on the show.
A: Oh, wow. That’s cool. That must have been fun.
It was fun! So what did the parents do?
A: My mom used to work in a factory where she created parts for refrigerators and computers. Then she worked with kids at St. Francis and St. Vincent group homes for children for over 20 years as a manager. And now she actually works with me as a residential counselor. My dad has worked for Princeton hospital for over 30 years. He was a supervisor in the laundry department. And then he developed some health issues so he demoted himself and now he does transportation for the rehab facility.
What were you into as a kid?
A: I was very shy, which I still am now, but I did play sports. I played basketball, softball, track and field, where I threw the javelin and discus. I was also involved in the Catholic Church. I was an altar server; hard working, honor roll student; I scored 1000 points in high school and middle school in girls’ basketball. So I was athletic but very reserved. I kept to myself.
That’s great. Tell me a little bit about how you got into being an entrepreneur with this business. I understand that you had another company called Avenues Beyond Control (ABC) that led to it.
A: Yes, ABC productions is where we started off. We were doing concert promotions, just trying to find a way to create funding to create programs for the schools and other groups. So we were doing promotions, then we jumped into television. [Laughing] We quickly figured out there was no money in either, so we contacted Kiki Vodka, who was a sponsor of our TV show. We wanted to create a drink and they offered us a private label contract. Before you knew it, we created something popular and now we’re here! We kind of stumbled into it accidentally. But the main thing is that we wanted to create a product that would bring in some type of revenue to build programs that we want in our city.
Beautiful. What got you involved in working with the schools?
A: I was a teacher at the school that Bianca’s nephew was going to. He’s my godson and he has ADHD. So I got really involved helping with his schooling. The schools weren’t handling his situation well, so I started doing some child advocacy. And I learned that schools in Trenton didn’t have many programs for kids like him. So we volunteered with the schools and tried to create some give-back programs, like school dances and whatever we could get involved with. We realized that a lot of the schools needed help. So that’s why we wanted to get involved with a product that could create revenue. And that’s our main goal with The Town.
Nice! So let me switch over to Bianca now. Are you also a native Trentonite?
Bianca Rosa: Yes, ma’am. I actually was born and raised here though in high school. My family ended up moving to Morrisville, Pennsylvania, which is right across the Trenton Makes Bridge.
Big family, small family?
B: I have a really small family. My father is from Puerto Rico and most of our family is still living there. I actually just lost my grandfather in the last hurricane, which sucks because I never got to meet him. My maternal grandmother raised me and my younger sister. She also passed away, so it’s just my mom, my sister and then my sister has two boys.
What, for you, is a favorite family memory?
B: Any time spent with my grandmother. She was a model, a seamstress and a teacher. So she made us pretty well-rounded young ladies, which is something missing these days. She was a very proper woman. [Laughing] She would hate to see the way I’m slouching right now! Her sisters were also pillars of the community. My aunt owned a barber shop for 40 years. And my other aunt was a teacher at Central High School for 40 years.
So you were that kid who everywhere you went, people were like, “Oh, you’re so and so’s daughter or granddaughter.”
B: Oh, man. Yes! One day I got off the subway in New York. I was walking and this guy stopped me and he’s like, “I don’t mean to bother you. But you’re Miss Brown’s niece right?” And my brain just exploded because I’m like, “How did you know that?” and he said I remember when you were a kid. So it happened all the time. But they taught me a lot. Growing up in that barber shop I learned how to do hair. I’ve been doing it since I was 18 years old. That’s just another trade that I picked up along the way. I could sew, I was in the band and the drama club, the debate club — you name it. I was a very busy kid.
What instrument did you play?
B: I played the trombone. I was a wind girl. A lot of hot air!
Cool. And what did you do after high school?
B: After high school, I went to cosmetology school. I actually got a job in a salon in downtown Trenton. I was able to use my permit to work and built a humongous clientele. That was the late ’90s, early 2000s. I learned how to do nails and I continued that from age 18 to about 26 and then I had an injury to my hand and I couldn’t do it. I’d learned a lot of customer service in hair school so I started working in retail. I was always good at selling things and I love clothing so it was easy for me to make conversation with people and help them create a look.
We don’t give enough credit for people coming out and getting right into trade work.
B: Yeah, I knew college wasn’t for me at the time, but now I wish I did go just for the experience. But for the most part growing up, I always knew I would end up with a trade. School bored me. As a kid, I used to grade my aunt’s papers. I have been reading newspapers since I was four and I learned algebra in third grade. I was exhausted by five! They prepared me for adulthood way too early!
B: Yes. When I was 33, I went back to school to study child psychology at community college and I’m still debating if I want to go back and finish to have at least an associate’s degree. But honestly, the whole time, I was like, “Ashley, can you do my homework?” I don’t know how her brain is still so sharp! Mine is like mush.
I hear you. Tell me your coming out story.
B: Well, my mother is gay. She’s been a lesbian since she was in high school in the ’60s but you know, back then, that was just not a thing you acknowledged. My grandma forced a lot of things on her, wearing dresses and heels and all that. Funny story: When I looked at her senior prom pictures, she had on a sequin jumpsuit. I’m like, “Your mother let you wear pants to the prom?” She was like, “Noooo. She put me in a dress. But I bought the jumpsuit on the side. When I got into the car of the boy that she forced me to go to the prom with, I changed my outfit.” She didn’t know that my mom had changed until the pictures came back! So I was always kind of like scared because I know how my mom’s homosexuality affected my grandmother. When my mom met my father, she knew she wanted to have kids. And she kind of broke his heart because she was basically like, “OK, I got two kids. I need to let you know, I’m gay. I’m sorry.”
Obviously, my grandmother didn’t approve of that, so I kind of hid it. I started dating guys. But when my grandmother was sick, before she passed, I decided to let her know. Like, “Hey, I’ve been holding on to something, but since you’re gonna be leaving us, this is what’s going on.” My mom already knew I was gay. My sister knew. Everybody but my grandmother knew I was gay. So it was important for me to let her know because I wanted to be truthful before she passed in 2010.
Ashley, same question for you.
A: My coming out? Um, I haven’t really come out to my family yet. I’ve always been tomboyish. I’ve always played sports. I always hung out with my boy cousins and stuff like that. So I think they’ve always kind of suspected but no one’s ever asked me. But they’re the type of parents that support whatever I do, so it wouldn’t matter.
They might know if they Google your name after this interview!
A: It’s fine. Like I said, they’ve always supported me. I never had a hard time with my parents or my grandparents. And when we did our LGBTQ show, I think that opened my dad [up] a lot. My dad’s an ex-marine, so sometimes he used to say things… but after we did our show, he stopped that. He’s very open and loved the LGBTQ shows we did.
What was the show called?
A: The Kiki Show. Kiki Vodka was our sponsor. It was a dance competition show, something like “Legendary” on HBO, but it was more of the Kiki scene, which the youth are more into than the mainstream stuff. We produced two seasons and the first is available on Amazon. The second season is on Vimeo and we have a Roku channel.
How did you two meet?
B: We met through my sister. She’s best friends with Ashley’s cousin, who’s actually also a partner in the company. I’d seen her around a few times, and was like, “Who the hell is this person?” She became the godmother to my nephew and we all started hanging out and became good friends.
A: [Laughing] And she trapped me!
B: Come on now! Well, things did happen the way they will happen. You know, we built a great bond and worked great as a team. Any endeavor either one of us went through we always supported each other. Then I showed some interest and eventually she was like, okay, I think I like you too, maybe, a little bit. No whirlwind romance. We became friends before anything.
What’s something romantic that one of you has done for the other?
B: My birthday was in September, and I’d never had a birthday party past the age of five. I’d see friends throwing surprise parties for their partners or pictures on Instagram and think, “Aww, I would love that.” And lo and behold, in September, she went behind my back and contacted my best friend who owns a restaurant whose wife is a party planner and a whole bunch of people I hang out with. They were all sneaky and got together to throw me a surprise birthday party! I love anything pink, so it was a Barbie-themed party and she bought me this pink Marc Jacobs bag that I’ve been dying to have. It was the sweetest thing because she’s so shy. I was like, “How did you even talk to all those people without triggering your anxiety!?!”
A: I can’t believe I did!
I’m sure you were the talk of “The Town.” How’s that for a transition to the company? I know you said you got in through Kiki Vodka. What’s the process? Do you get to pick the flavors?
B: Every flavor that we have is handcrafted by us. We design the labels. We design the website. We are hands on with everything. We had a couple of celebrities promo our cans but now we’ve decided to rebrand. We want to make all the can designs uniform with the same black Trenton Makes Bridge on it. Right now we have a few investors that are interested in the company so we’re just working on a business plan. We’re pushing for national distribution, whatever we can do to get some revenue going.
So if people want to get some of your product, how would they do that?
B: Through our websites, we’re only legally allowed to sell in Pennsylvania. But we just got New Jersey distribution, so we’re working on retail here. We are featured at the Trenton Thunder, which is our baseball stadium. And we’ve been all over NJ meeting with restaurants. So we’re working. We’re working.
A: We just hired two consultants so we can build a regional team and get us into PA, Connecticut, NY, all the surrounding areas.
That’s great, and you often give back when you do events?
A: Yes, like at the festival where we met you, we gave them $2 from every can that was sold. We ended up selling about 300 cans, so we gave them $600. We’re all about giving back to the community.
Nice, OK, let’s do some random questions. What song always gets you out on the dance floor?
A: [Laughs and starts to say something]
B: You better not!
A: She likes “Shake It Fast” from Mystikal!
If you could talk to one species of animal, what would it be?
B: [Laughing] I would want to talk to my 3-year-old pitbull and ask him what in the hell is his problem!
What is a favorite chore?
B: We both like to cook but I like to cook all the time and she likes to clean, which is why she’s pacing all around me right now picking up stuff while we’re talking!
Relax Ashley, the torture is almost over!
A: [Laughing] OK, OK!
What’s the first thing people notice about you?
A: My smile. I’m always smiling. When I’m happy, when I’m nervous, even when I’m sad, I try to find joy in life and I laugh a lot.
Who would make the best spy and why?
B: Definitely Ashley! She’s as nosey as hell!
A: I do my research! Any topic I’m given, I have to get a book or get on the computer and read about it. Someone can just relay a fact on a sitcom and I have to Google it to find out more. I’m a fact-checker.
Bianca, since you’re the fashionista, what was your worst clothing disaster?
B: You know how you have the Facebook Memories that pop up? Any of those! [Laughing] I look at them and I’m like, “Oh no! I thought I was so cute but what was I thinking? What was the last one I sent you?
A: You were wearing a zebra print!
B: That’s right. They were zebra print pants but with flowers on them! I thought I was so kiki! It was horrible.
Did either of you have a blanket or stuffed animal?
A: I still have them! I still have my original Cabbage Patch dolls and Barbies. I always had stuffed animals on my bed, but I have outgrown that! Bianca still has hers too, and she loves Hello Kitty and Barbie.
B: Yeah. If I had room, I would still have my stuffed animals on the bed.
A: I just bought her the Tina Turner Barbie! I paid $70 for it!
B: Yeah, my grandmother looked like Tina Turner, so I’ve always been a fan.
A: And she has a collection of Starbucks cups. It’s bad. It’s taken over our cabinets! We just bought a new one on Saturday! She’d rather store the cups than food. We went on eBay and paid $75 for one cup.
B: [Laughing] You’re telling all my business. This is not an exposé!
It is now! Thanks for sharing!