“Lewis was in St Thomas on vacation and was sitting at a bar with his friend and they got chatting to a couple of ladies,” he told FoodNavigator-USA.
“One of them asked what he did and he made a joke about pushing a beverage cart around Central Park, and one of the ladies said you have to carry this drink Phocus.
“He had never heard of it and he jotted down the name. A week later we got an email that had been sent to the email address we list on our cans for consumers with questions or comments, and it was Big Geyser asking for products.
“We replied, and 15 minutes later they asked for a meeting. We met just before Thanksgiving in 2018 and now we’re getting ready for a major launch in May in five boroughs of New York.”
He added: “We definitely got really lucky here, but I also think it shows that if you create a great brand, people will talk about it.”
We’re about to go into 800 open coolers in CVS
The expansion into New York follows a steady expansion into Indiana, Ohio, Connecticut, Florida and Tennessee for the Louisville Kentucky-based brand, which launched in late 2017 in coffee chains, natural grocery chains, boutique fitness locations, cafes, delis before getting the attention of national grocery chains.
“We’re about to go into 800 open air coolers in CVS that have salads and wraps and healthy-for-you products and they have given us nine facings,” added O’Grady, who is rapidly expanding the sales team, but has not yet taken on any outside investment.
We wanted to keep things simple
But have O’Grady and cofounder John Mittel really stumbled upon a genuine patch of white space in the notoriously competitive functional beverages set with a sparkling caffeinated water?
There are overlaps with other brands, said O’Grady, but if Runa, Hiball, Yerbae, GURU and Sambazon are seeking to carve out a ‘clean energy’ sub-segment, Clear/Cut Phocus is targeting La Croix fans looking for an unsweetened sparkling water that also delivers a caffeine hit.
Most second-generation energy drinks and teas also contain guarana, vitamins and other functional ingredients, and are sweetened with sugar, erythritol and stevia, he said.
“We wanted to keep things simple. What we also found when we were coming up with the formulation was that many functional ingredients and vitamins don’t taste so good and you end up having to mask them with a bunch of other ingredients, and we didn’t want to do that.
“Our ideal spot on shelf is next to functional products such as Essentia, CORE, Runa and Bai. We don’t want to be in the energy drink set because our customers don’t shop that aisle.”
Clear/Cut Phocus was born out of frustration, claimed cofounder Tom O’Grady.
“[Cofounder] John [Mittel] was a medical student and he was drinking Rock Star, Monster and Mountain Dew to stay awake, and he said I don’t want to drink this stuff anymore. Meanwhile I was trying to get off my Coke Zero habit so I started drinking La Croix and then coffee. I wasn’t a huge coffee guy but I was drinking it to get the caffeine. John said why isn’t there a caffeinated sparkling water?
“There were some brands around in still water [Water Joe, Avitae, Hint kick etc] but we felt that no one had really done it well and that there was untapped growth in the enhanced sparkling waters space.
“I don’t have a background in CPG and I was speaking with one of my friends about the idea and he’d just come back from London where he had been talking to a premium alcoholic iced tea brand called Harry Brompton’s that was looking for investors.
“I got talking to the founder and I said if I invest, can I use your chief chemist and product developer as my developer for Phocus? We also ended up using the same branding firm, Cartils, so it was a great fit.”
The feel of the can is premium - it has a real texture to it
Clear/Cut Phocus (MSRP c. $1.99) contains 75mg caffeine from green tea coupled with natural flavors and the amino acid L-Theanine, which is claimed to offset caffeine-induced jitters for a smoother rise in energy, said O’Grady.
“Most people don’t realize that most cups of coffee don’t have less than 150 mgs of caffeine and we wanted people to be able to drink more than one can a day without any issues. Our core demographic is women, educated, label readers, aged 25-55, with disposable income, but men love our product as well.
“This is a premium product targeting health aware consumers looking for an alternative to soda, energy drinks or that second cup of coffee. The feel of the can is premium - it has a real texture to it – plus we have a refined bubble texture and sophisticated flavors.
“The challenge as we expand Phocus [which is co-packed by Krier Foods in Milwaukee] is to continue to find co-packers that will offer these textured sleeved cans. They want printed cans as they can do a lot more volume.”