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Harvey Williams wants to resurrect Helena, one sip at a time

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Harvey Williams wants to resurrect Helena, one sip at a time

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The Good Stuff

By Dwain Hebda — The first time Harvey Williams showed his family the downtown Helena storefront where his vision for the distillery Delta Dirt was to be realized, he got a couple of sideways glances. Even today, as the stylish tasting room and production facility gleams on one corner of Helena, the rest of the neighborhood has yet to make up ground.

Then, as now, Williams is undeterred in his quest to spark the return of the once-glorious neighborhood and the role his company will play in it.

“Helena’s Main Street, the Cherry Street Historic District, has such beauty, such potential that I can see Cherry Street being what Bourbon Street is to New Orleans or Beale Street is to Memphis,” said Williams who grew up on a farm outside of town. “I am very passionate about that.”

The people who may scoff at this bold vision are doing so quietly. After all, Williams’ idea of opening a distillery in this part of the world — to produce vodka made from sweet potatoes, no less — felt just as fanciful here as the thought of the mostly-vacant Cherry Street one day residing among the nation’s top tourist magnets. But he did it anyway, and in short order has expanded Delta Dirt into statewide distribution with hundreds of retail outlets carrying the brand.

Williams sees the same scenario playing out on the economic development side and what’s more, he’s putting his money where his mouth is. The family will soon open a restaurant next door and Williams has been both an advocate and activist for several would-be entrepreneurs.

“We have people who are interested in putting businesses down here and have talked to us about it,” he said. “We’ve helped them get in touch with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and some of the other financial institutions to help them with their business plan and marketing. We’ve said, if you’re really serious about it, here’s how you go about it.”

If ever there was a company that was forged in the fire of adversity, it’s Delta Dirt. Distilleries aren’t a well-known commodity in Arkansas, so every bank Williams approached for financing turned him down. Ultimately, the family sunk $900,000 of their own money into the building and equipment. Labor and expertise was another issue, solved by one son, Thomas, being enticed to put off a medical career to learn how to make spirits and another son, Donavan, recently recruited as general manager.

By the time the formula for Sweet Blend Vodka was perfected, COVID-19 had shut down the world, delaying the spirit’s debut until Christmas 2020. Once released, however, it was an immediate hit and the Williams family’s faith appeared to be vindicated.

And then, a funny thing happened last fall. At the last possible moment, organizers of Helena’s seminal King Biscuit Blues Festival decided to cancel for the second straight year over pandemic health concerns — this time, ironically, due to the Delta variant. The distillery, which had been running day and night to lay in enough inventory to slake the thirst of thousands of visitors, was suddenly awash in excess product.

“We were anticipating this influx of business and revenue that was going to take us into 2022,” Williams said. “When that didn’t happen, my wife Donna and I had to regroup and figure out, OK, so what’s our move now?”

Donna suggested fast-forwarding into distribution, something the original business plan didn’t call for until late 2022 or early 2023. With few other options, the family started interviewing distributors and ultimately selected Florida-based Southern Glazer’s. A marketing blitz followed and at last check, Delta Dirt’s product outlets in Arkansas alone are approaching 300 retail stores, bars and restaurants with plans to enter five additional states in the coming months.

“The reason we chose to go with Southern Glazer’s is because they are a national distributor,” Harvey said. “I intend for this brand to go beyond the state of Arkansas and these guys can access 40 other states.”

With the increased distribution has come an expanded product line. Delta Dirt just introduced its Tall Cotton Gin this spring and is currently aging its Delta Blues Bourbon for release sometime next year. Meanwhile, the distillery itself — the only Black-owned farm distillery in the country — has become a popular destination for passing-through tourists and spirits aficionados on a mission to try one of only a handful of vodkas in the U.S. made from sweet potatoes.

That last point is more a statement of family heritage than it is a marketing gimmick. Harvey’s family — sharecroppers, originally, until his grandfather bought the family acres with money earned from cotton and moonshine — have been farmers here for generations. In fact, all the corn and sweet potatoes used in the distillery today are grown on ancestral land.

And there’s something to be said for whatever’s in that dirt. The vodka recently won double gold at the 2022 San Francisco World Spirits competition, Thomas was invited to compete against other distillers on a TV reality show, and the business has been written up in media outlets from far and wide. But it’s the connection to the family’s past — stretching back four generations — that Williams enjoys most. And it is these deep roots that make him so committed to leading a Helena renaissance.

“I think the area is ripe for growth,” he said. “It’s ripe for people to show there’s more to the area than what they’ve seen as strictly just a farming community,” he said. “I think the banking and financial institutions have to figure out how to open up some capital for people to grow in the area. If they do, that will bring other developers that want to grow Helena.”

Leaving the distillery and taking a cruise around the neighborhood, the visitor looks for what Williams already sees in building after boarded-up building. And maybe this is the vodka talking, but here and there one does see the good bones of potential and the occasional sprig of color and life, like new forest poking through a layer of volcanic ash. Here you see ornate ironwork and envision a sidewalk cafe; over there, you see architectural flourishes that hearken images of a brewpub; and from somewhere, you hear music. Turns out, one man’s lunacy is indeed another man’s legacy.

“You drive through here today and it looks deprived of growth and development,” Willaims said in parting. “But I’m not doing this for where it is now. I’m doing this for the potential that it has and the potential that we’re going to bring to it.

“My son Thomas, the first time I took him down here, I told him what I was doing and why I’m doing it here. I said, ‘Don’t look at what it is now. Look at what it can be.’”

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