Mike Lutz started on a fairly standard path: Growing up on the shoreline, he earned a degree in economics from Bucknell in 2009, and worked in the insurance industry for six years with jobs in Hartford and New York City. Feeling uninspired, he took a career detour this past December, taking a management role with a mission as the operations manager for Branford-based Salute American Vodka.
“I always thought a job had to be something very formal and something you’re not supposed to enjoy very much, but after doing that [insurance] for seven years and not feeling it, I said ‘Is this what you want to do for rest of life?’” says Mike, a 2005 graduate of Daniel Hand High School. “It’s fun but it’s serious and takes a lot of organization and a lot of time to do everything right. I’m really glad I made the change. When I learned more about the mission and the good it was doing, there was an appeal.”
Mike has found even greater career fulfillment due to the company’s policy to “financially support American heroes through the sale of high-quality American-made craft spirits,” according to saluteamerican.com. The first dollar of every bottle sold supports organizations that help American veterans and other heroes.
Salute works closely with Work Vessels for Veterans, which is based in Mystic and helps veterans nationwide. The non-profit “matches donations of vessels, vehicles, equipment, tools, and electronics to veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan as they start a business or pursue career education,” as stated on workvesselsforveterans.org.
“It enables vets to be self-sufficient and start companies that will hire other veterans as well—it’s a great trickle down effect,” says Mike. “The original owner was looking for a way to raise funds for veterans’ charities, but with regularity. When he created Salute American Vodka, he had the first dollar of every bottle donation built into the business plan, so as long as the vodka was selling, there would be a constant flow of money.”
Since its founding in 2011, Salute has contributed more than $61,000 to various charities including Work Vessels for Vets, Birdies for the Brave, the VFW, Greater St. Louis Honor Flight, and the Farmer Vet Coalition.
As the operations manager, every day is different for Mike. He not only oversees sales in Connecticut, but in other markets as well, including St. Louis, Boston, and upstate New York. He visits local stores, bars, and restaurants introducing people to Salute and he has enjoyed being back on the Connecticut shoreline after living in New York City. He now splits his time between Madison and New York, where he lives with his girlfriend.
“Coming back to the suburbs where I grew up and spending time here and with my family and people I know and seeing places I grew up is nice change of pace,” says Mike, who also enjoys running, especially along the water. “Being able to do this job and with this mission is very fulfilling, especially this time of year along the shoreline.”
While Mike has been able to see many old friends and acquaintances, his new position is introducing him to many new people as well. In addition to meeting the owners and managers of local establishments, he has also had the opportunity to meet customers and veterans.
“Civilians like the liquor, they like the cause, they like to feel good about buying it, and the vodka tastes good, but the real awesome thing is when veterans see the product and what it’s doing and seeing the look on their face,” says Mike. “The best part of my job is actually meeting veterans and seeing how appreciative they are when they hear about what we’re doing.”
Mike is happy to be a part of a company that is giving back to veterans. Though he did not serve in the military, he says he’s always had a great deal of respect for those who have. He is the first of two full-time employees at Salute with the second being a veteran. Mike looks forward to expanding and giving more job opportunities to veterans.
“I was always in awe and amazed by those who did, especially in this era when all services are voluntary—it is unbelievably courageous to me,” says Mike. “I didn’t serve in that capacity, so this is an opportunity for me to help them out as a thank you and shine some more light on the issues that are affecting our veterans. Each bottle sold is an opportunity to help veterans in a small way, but if we go the way we’re going and do it right, it’ll be a huge movement.”
With so many big name vodkas on the market, Mike is quick to point out that establishing a new brand has not been easy, but he and the company have received great community support. He also noted that many consumers are moving away from big brand names with a movement toward more hand-crafted and local drinks.
“There are definitely huge brands that have their followings, but there is room if you have a unique story and we have a killer story with a great cause behind the brand that has made it possible, certainly not easy, to see the growth we have,” says Mike. “We’re able to highlight the benefits to customers and they like that local brand aspect, the charitable brand aspect, and it starts to take off. We hope to be as big as the big guys but not lose that local feel.”
Mike has high hopes for the growth of the brand and is excited to help build it. More so, though, he wants to see the contributions to veterans increase and expand donations to other groups like police officers, fire fighters, first responders, teachers, and more.
“The whole thing with Salute American is about heroes and the category of American heroes we want to serve is so broad and I’m looking forward to be able to serve those individuals as well,” says Mike. “Having the opportunity to work with successful people and get in on the early stage is very exciting and the charitable project is a huge upside. You feel like you could have best of both worlds as far as career fulfillment. I’m looking forward to sales taking off and the day we could make a huge donation and seeing the dollar amount on these donations go up and up and up.”
For information or a product locator, visit saluteamerican.com.