To an outsider, JoAnn Elardo’s business empire—first selling shoes in Poland, now the founder and owner of Wicked Dolphin craft rum in Cape Coral—might sound as if it was inspired by the lyrics of a Jimmy Buffet song.
And come to think of it, Elardo does have a touch of the pirate to her. “I don’t know if it’s brave or stupid, but I love an adventure,” she says with a laugh.
That’s putting it mildly. In 1989, shortly after turning 26, she was watching television news reports of the fall of the Berlin Wall. She spoke no Polish, but decided to jump on a plane to Poland and start selling American-made athletic shoes. Her bold gamble paid off: When she sold her Warsaw-based company AmerSport in 2008, it was earning more than $30 million annual sales and distributing such famed brands as Nike and Converse. She had more than 200 employees.
Elardo then retired to Cape Coral to be closer to her parents. But it wasn’t long before her entrepreneurial gears started to spin again. Specifically, she wanted to know why the Sunshine State, with its long and storied relationship with sugar production, wasn’t a rum-making hotspot. And she knew her professional strengths.
“I love looking at businesses and seeing how they can run better,” she explains. “And I really love marketing. Building a brand is something I have done, and we all like being creative.”
That creativity especially extends to Wicked Dolphin’s community presence.
One of the most eye-grabbing promotions the company ever did was to buy billboard space on I-75 directly below another billboard advertising vasectomy surgeries. Wicked Dolphin’s billboard playfully read: “Ouch! Looks like you could use Wicked Dolphin Rum.” A photo of the billboard pairing posted on Facebook garnered 90,000 likes.
She’s also committed to finding nonprofits to partner with in a way that complements the Wicked Dolphin craft rum brand. In 2015, several Wicked Dolphin aging barrels were filled with distilled water and sunk in the USS Mohawk artificial reef off Lee County. The pressure released the alcohol trapped in the wooden barrels, and resulted in the limited edition Sunken Barrel USS Mohawk CGC Reserve rum. Proceeds from the sale of the $40 bottles of rum benefitted Lee Reefs and the Special Operations Bionic Warriors project.
“You’re looking for that ‘different,’” she says. “But it has to makes sense.”
Ultimately, though, the most successful promotion is having a top-notch product, she explains.
“Word-of-mouth and experience is our best marketing,” she says.
Elardo also recognizes that a business owner has to ride the current. When she tried to perfect Wicked Dolphin’s coconut rum, she found her efforts thwarted by the fat content of coconuts. Rather than use an artificial flavor—an approach that wasn’t true to her craft rum values—Elardo persisted. Ultimately, she found a natural solution, but it took her two years to bring the product to market.
“I always invest with a careful plan, but a lot of time, it changes direction. You have to be able to change direction,” she explains.
When Wicked Dolphin set sail in 2010, Elardo envisioned a company that would distill its craft rum and sell it directly to retailers, including local stores and restaurants. Then, a demand developed for distillery tours and tastings, so she began to investigate the licensing process; Wicked Dolphin now draws up to 65 people per tour—roughly eight per week— in season.
Wicked Dolphin also recently bought more land adjacent to its current property and is planning an expansion that will allow for event space. And in October, Elardo opened the gastropub Big Blue Brewing in downtown Cape Coral. Wicked Dolphin currently plows through some 80,000 pounds of sugar every couple of months, and its rums are in such big-name retailers as Publix, Winn-Dixie, Total Wine and ABC Liquors. The company also just introduced its new Wicked Dolphin vodka.
Now that Elardo has helped to pave the way for Florida distilleries, she welcomes more craft rum makers to join her journey. “I’m a firm believer in a rising tide raises all ships,” she says.
And remember, pirates never surrender.
“You can’t take ‘no’ if it’s something you feel strongly about, or if you’ve looked at it and know it’s the right thing,” she says. “And when I say ‘looked at it,’ I mean from all sides, I mean theirs and yours. Get the facts.”