Charles Vaught plans to sell one million bamboo straws in the United States, and he’ll be sleeping in his car until the job is done. “Starting in March, I’m going to be driving all over Florida, slingin’ straws fulltime as the U.S. distributor for Bamboo Step,” he said with the passion of a true believer. “Bamboo straws are nature’s only sustainable straw – they’re much more durable than paper or corn or pasta straws and more practical than glass or metal. They’re already catching on in other parts of the world, and with states and municipalities here declaring war on plastic straws, it’s only a matter of time before Americans also understand that bamboo is the answer.”
Before dismissing Vaught’s goal as a wishful fantasy, know that he has never been one to shy away from a challenge. In 2012, still three months from his FGCU graduation, the resort and hospitality management major was offered a position as the general manager of Mekong Riverside Resort, a four-star property in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Convinced that the opportunity was too good to pass up, he petitioned FGCU Associate Professor Sherie Brezina – then the director of the School of Resort & Hospitality Management – to allow him to complete his remaining coursework and finals online.
Brezina agreed and that October, Vaught landed in Vietnam – and face-to-face with reality. “I was the only foreigner in a four-province area and one of only half-adozen English speakers at the resort. I was trying to finish my degree virtually while dealing with a 12-hour time difference and managing a resort for the first time ever. It was a total nightmare,” he said, “but I got through it and graduated that December.” Vaught spent the next five years managing eco-resorts in Vietnam – after Mekong Riverside, he joined Mango Bay Resort, followed by Bamboo Cottages, a family-owned, solar-powered, 22-room beach resort on Phu Quoc Island. He returned to the United States in July 2018.
“I needed to leave the island because I was losing perspective,” he said. “My plan was to come back to the States and give myself a week to reacclimate before making a decision on next steps.” Within days, however, Vaught was hearing news reports about America’s war on plastic straws and realized the time for bamboo straws in the U.S. had come.
Vaught is making the introduction with longtime friend Xavier Valmorin, the French founder of Bamboo Step, who perfected the company’s bamboo straw and tested the prototype at Bamboo Cottages.
“I don’t have any scientific evidence to back me up yet, but you can’t convince me that these straws are not amazing. Use them and you are literally helping the world!“
Finding buyers hasn’t been easy, Vaught concedes, but he’s making inroads. The Tampa Bay Zoo is a client, as are a handful of boutique retailers including Naples-based Food & Thought and Oakes Farm Market. “Every company that’s tried our bamboo straws has reordered within 45 days,” he said proudly.
Vaught knows he’ll continue to face challenges, but he isn’t discouraged. “One of my greatest successes at FGCU was failing my accounting class. Professor (Ron) Albeit made me retake the course and the second time around, I got a ‘C’. It was tough, but I learned how to tackle a challenge and not give up.”
He’s taking the same approach with bamboo straws. “I don’t have any scientific evidence to back me up yet, but you can’t convince me that these straws are not amazing. Use them and you are literally helping the world!”