Carlee Pipitone is the founder and managing partner of Tenth Harvest. Based in Baltimore, Tenth Harvest is an importer and distributor that represents food and beverage producers from around the world. The company takes a sustainable, artisan-focused approach to its business, emphasizing personal relationships and high-quality products that embody the character of the land in which they were grown. Carlee founded Tenth Harvest after graduating from Dickinson College in 2013. In addition to English, she is fluent in Italian and Spanish.
EDWIN WARFIELD: Your family owns Pipco AC. How did early exposure to entrepreneurship influence you?
CARLEE PIPITONE: My grandparents started Pipco Air Conditioning & Heating. My grandfather, when he returned from serving in the Navy in World War II, started a refrigeration business, and his wife, my grandmother, ran the business. He did sales and installation and she did the bookkeeping and paid all the bills and kept the business running. It was just as much if not more her running that business, and it was just the two of them. Eventually my grandfather’s brother was the service department and then my father started as a teenager, and now my father and uncle run the business today.
They’ve been around for over 60 years, and to me seeing the way that my father worked, it was not just a job. PIPCO was a part of our family. I am the oldest of four kids, and PIPCO was like one of the children in our family. My father, I don’t think, will ever sell it because he is too emotionally involved. It is a part of our family and that’s what I always wanted. I saw that it wasn’t just work, it wasn’t just a job. It was something that meant something. It was a part of our family and I always wanted that.
Q. What made you decide to pursue wine distribution rather than join the family business?
A. For me, it was not about wine from the beginning. I have a family that comes from Italy, and I was in love with Italian culture. When I was 13, my father took me to see Life is Beautiful at the Rotunda Theater, the Roberto Benigni film. I fell in love. I had a great grandmother at that time—she was 102 years old. She lived to be 104. She was this amazing woman. I bought Italian for Dummies, went out and taught myself to speak Italian so that I could speak to my great grandmother and learn her stories. It was just a connection that I felt to Italy and to that part of my heritage and my family from the beginning.
I went on to study abroad in Italy. I taught English there. I traveled back and forth to Italy about every other year from the age of 15 on exchange trips and school trips, studying and working. Then, I worked for a travel company and then I came back and worked in restaurants here in Baltimore. So, it was food and wine and travel and culture. My friends will tell you I wanted to find a way to make a living eating food and drinking wine.
Q. Can you tell us about starting up? How has the business grown since 2013?
A. We had a lot to overcome from the beginning. I started the business with a partner and within three months I realized that it was not a fit, and we parted ways. She was the sales side, I was operations and administration. I didn’t know anything about sales and I’m not the wine professional. So, when we parted ways I had to figure out how to manage the sales team. We got through 2014 and did just about $800,000–$900,000 in revenue that first year.
We got to a million in revenue in 2015, which was a great accomplishment for me—that I could continue this business on my own, essentially, and here we are in 2016 approaching three years. We are growing in sales, growing in territory as well, so we go all the way to the Eastern shore. We have a great core business in Easton. We’ll go out to Cambridge and then we will go all the way up to State Line and Harford County, Anne Arundel County, out to Frederick, Hagerstown, and now into DC.
Q. What are your plans for the future?
We will be growing in the region. I think that we will be selling in Virginia and Delaware in addition to Maryland and DC. That’s the turning point where we are right now: deciding that we’re growing and in which direction we want to grow in.
What I want to do is connect people, consumers with the source. My background is in travel, so I would love to be able to take people to visit these wineries firsthand and maybe expand the travel arm of the business.
And then, on the import side, it would be finding distributors in other states across the country that share our values and our model and selling our imported products to them. That would be how we would grow as an importer.