Surviving the devastating Haiti earthquake in 2010 put things in perspective for Dieuveny "DJ" Jean Louis. A live music event planner at the time, Louis had returned to his native Haiti from Miami to plan a benefit concert. He checked into the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince, dropped off his bags, and ventured out to grab some lunch. When the earthquake hit, the hotel collapsed, killing more than 50 people.
"I look at my life as a blessing," Louis says. "I'm here today because I was given a second chance."
Today, Louis is founder and CEO of Toast Distillers, which he launched in 2015. Toast's core products are premium and well liquors, but that's just one aspect of the business. The Miami-based company's philanthropic arm, Toast First Response, donates supplies to the frontlines in the wake of natural disasters. When the Covid-19 pandemic reached the U.S. in March, Toast quickly pivoted to begin producing hand sanitizers, shipping its first pallets by March 25.
After receiving a flurry of inbound interest, the company put the sanitizer operation into high gear. It sold to retailers and to the states of Florida and South Carolina and donated to the Army, Navy, University of Miami, and Boys & Girls Clubs in Miami-Dade County. In all, the company has produced and shipped more than 500,000 gallons of sanitizer, about 50,000 gallons of which was donated.
Louis's career as an entrepreneur can be traced back to his love of music, specifically the guitar. After he immigrated to Florida from Haiti at age 10, his musical talents drew him to the Miami nightlife scene, which led to his organizing a modestly sized concert meant to benefit Caribbean communities. Within a few years, it grew to become the Starfest Music Festival, a massive multi-day event highlighting hip-hop, jazz, and reggae. Louis was able to make the events free by attracting sponsors and used the leftover proceeds to rehabilitate hospitals, orphanages, and other facilities throughout the Caribbean.
In the weeks leading up to the earthquake, Starfest drew more than 500,000 attendees across multiple locations, capped by a headlining act of Rick Ross in Haiti.
After the disaster, in which more than 200,000 people died, Louis remained in Haiti for several weeks to help with recovery efforts. He says the experience made him think long and hard about his next steps. Having worked some of Miami's most exclusive clubs, he had always dreamed of launching a premium liquor brand. One day, he asked his lawyer to find out whether the name Toast was trademarked. To their surprise, it wasn't. "I always say, every day above ground is a good day to toast," Louis says. "So I knew I had to do it."
Just four years after Louis leveraged his connections to get the company's products into bars and restaurants in South Beach and beyond, Toast acquired the Miami Distilling Company, maker of Pitbull's Voli 305 vodka. When Covid hit earlier this year and hand sanitizer began disappearing from shelves across the country, Louis knew that being an alcohol manufacturer with its own facilities put his company in a position to help. He transitioned Toast's operations with help from a local business, Cosmetic Corporation of America, and partnered with a nearby bottling plant. The company quickly began manufacturing sanitizing gels, sprays, and lotions under the name EZ Hand Sanitizer, which it continues to make today.
Springing into action to help communities in crisis is nothing new for Toast. After Hurricane Irma struck Florida in 2017 and Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas last year, the company brought truckloads of food, water, diapers, and other essential supplies to the impacted areas.
"Everybody in our organization understands the roots of this company," Louis says. "So whenever we call on everyone, they jump on board to help with the social good side. It's part of our DNA. If we can donate and give back, we don't even think twice about it, we go all out. And when we're needed on the frontlines, that's what we do. We show up."