Harvey Williams Jr. Goes Against the Grain at Delta Dirt Distillery

Harvey Williams Jr. grew up in Phillips County as part of a farm family. After working 24 years out of state in the food processing industry, he returned to Arkansas in 2016 as plant manager for Shearer’s Foods in Newport. His management resume includes Cargill Meat Solutions, Hillshire Brands, Sara Lee Corp. and Tyson Foods.
Williams graduated in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in biological and agricultural engineering from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and in 2006 with an MBA from Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, Kentucky.
Williams and his family formed Delta Dirt Distillery in 2017 and made their first production run of craft spirits in December 2020.

What attracted you and your family to start Triple D?

[My wife] Donna and I have long shared two common goals: move back to Arkansas to be near family, and secondly, create something that could have a positive impact on our community. Quite honestly, we had no master plan that spelled out how or when such moves would occur. The distillery idea was something that my brother shared with me after attending a vegetable growers conference, and the concept became so intriguing because it presented us a rare opportunity to potentially accomplish both goals.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I’ve worked in the food industry for nearly 30 years, not counting those growing up on the farm. What I enjoy most about my job today is that I get to build a business from the ground up (dirt) and tap into skills I’ve learned from every job held in my career.

What are the best and worst surprises you encountered when starting the business?

Although the distillery is a new and different business in the Delta, by far the most rewarding surprise has been the widespread support shown by locals, former locals and so many who’ve heard of my family’s resilient farm story. It’s amazing to know that we’re farming on the same land my great-grandfather once sharecropped. I’d say the most surprising has been discovering how difficult the process of distilling vodka from sweet potatoes is. Stands to reason why only a few in the country are using the tubers. Who knew? But the results have turned out to be delicious!

What challenges has your company encountered during the pandemic?

The distillery business is full of challenges, and the pandemic made those worse and presented additional ones. Most issues centered on some sort of delay either in construction, equipment or regulatory matters. Our biggest delay came in the form of two questions, “When is it safe to open our doors to the public?” and “How do we do this responsibly?” On April 1, we held a carefully planned grand opening and followed recommended guidelines for mask wearing, hand sanitizer and social distancing. Those extended delays consequently hurt the business in terms of expected earnings, plus it pushed us beyond the timeline to be eligible for needed PPP support. Nonetheless, the launch was just in time for a community ripe to begin emerging from COVID-19 solitude.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

I’m often asked, “Why open a distillery and why Helena?” My answer remains the same in that I felt the need to be the change I wanted to see. Waiting on someone else to open a business in my community is passive leadership, which brings me to the best advice I ever received: “Run your race!” It has helped me when my decisions seem to go against the grain, and in those times, I’m reminded that my journey will not match anyone else’s on the planet, nor should it.