By Ray Latif
Between the bean, the caffeine, and the flavor, it’s hard to imagine a plant that has been more commonly utilized in the beverage industry than the coffee plant. Yet a new set of brands is making the argument that the most valuable part of the plant has actually been ignored.
That part is the coffeefruit, alternatively known as the coffee berry. It’s that part of the coffee plant that, much like other fruit, surrounds, nourishes and protects the coffee bean. While the shape, look and size of the fruit are reminiscent of a cranberry, it has a flavor that is sweet and rather non-descript, perhaps one of the reasons that unlike most other fruit, it is most often discarded in favor of its seed.
Over the last two years though, coffeefruit has been the subject of a great deal of talk in natural food circles with claims of it providing far greater antioxidant benefits than other so-called “superfruits.” Many of the claims are based on a scoring method used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture known as Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) which measures the total antioxidant power of foods and beverages. Utilizing this method, coffeefruit is often found to provide 30-40 times the benefit of fruits like acai and pomegranate per gram.
One of the biggest challenges coffeefruit faces is the confusion that comes from its association with coffee itself. Consumers seem to be confused or unsure as to whether beverages that include coffeefruit contain any actual coffee or high levels of caffeine, both of which are generally shunned in the natural foods category.
Interestingly, two companies that produce uniquely crafted coffeefruit beverages, Bai and Kona Red, have, until this point, taken different approaches to marketing their wares and, by extension, educating people about coffeefruit.
Less than two years old, Bai – the Chinese word for “pure” – was founded by Ben Weiss, a 15-year veteran of the coffee industry. Weiss previously owned a wholesale coffee bean roasting business and worked as a consultant in marketing and consumer product development for Godiva and Pepperidge Farm.
“I felt that coffee was a mature market, and I saw an opportunity for new product innovation,” Weiss said. “I heard about the energy benefits and antioxidants in coffeefruit, and said, ‘This needs to be a new beverage. This needs to be in an RTD.’”
Weiss worked with a beverage chemist for 18 months developing trial batches and flavors before Bai was finally released in August 2009. The beverage was infused with coffeefruit sourced from Indonesia, sweetened with organic cane sugar and came in strawberry, mango and blueberry flavors. But perhaps most important in Bai’s development was not the taste or ingredients, but the design of its relatively simple label and packaging which Weiss noted was targeted to “speak to the “Apple” consumer.”
“Because of the impulsive nature of the business, we sort of ‘dumbed-down’ the messaging,” Weiss noted. “Bai has a sophisticated label, but we made it more about the illustration of fruit [than anything else]. People try us because of the fruit on our packaging, but they come back because of the taste and message [about coffeefruit and its antioxidant qualities]. This self-discovery has been very successful for word of mouth promotion.”
Beginning with the sale of four pallets of Bai to a New Jersey distributor, Weiss hit the road and began doing tasting demonstrations at various health food stores. But he quickly found that consumers wanted a low calorie/low sugar option and that he would need a new line to strengthen the brand. Within months, he developed a secondary product called Bai5. The new beverage was sweetened with organic stevia and as its names suggests, contained only 5 calories.
“Honestly, I didn’t have very high expectations [for Bai5], because I never thought we could make a low calorie product that would taste as good as what we currently had,” said Weiss. “Obviously, I didn’t want to launch a product that might have hurt the brand, but when we came up with a Dragonfruit flavor for Bai5, I couldn’t believe how great it tasted. That flavor has become our number one seller, and Bai5 changed our business.”
Bai now comes in eight flavors – 4 original and 4 low calorie – each tinged with names of exotic coffee growing regions like Panama Peach, Mango Kauai and Congo Pear. And while Bai’s initial marketing focused less on the benefits of coffeefruit and moreso on its look and taste, the company has very recently introduced point of sale marketing on Bai’s functionality declaring, “The secret is out.”
Still though, Weiss makes it clear that Bai is “not a brand business.”
“We’re a sales and distribution business,” Weiss said. “I feel like I did my brand building in the 18 months prior to launching. What we’re doing now is digging deep into market territory and creating a solid contact network that is based on sustainable distribution equity. “
As an indication of how important his relationships with distributors are, Weiss noted that in February 2011, 78 percent of Bai’s sales came from reorders.
Bai is currently sold in fourteen states and the company works with a range of distributors including several Northeast Independent Distributors Association (NIDA) affiliates in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut. It also recently signed a deal with the Honickman Group for the Mid-Atlantic reion.
The company has a stated goal of achieving national distribution in 2011 and perhaps the biggest sign that Bai may succeed at doing so has been its ability to attract big name investors and beverage industry insiders including Ken Sadowsky, the executive director of NIDA and former Glaceau board member; former U.S. Senator and Starbucks director, Bill Bradley; and Rohan Oza, the marketing chief at glaceau.
And as the coffeefruit beverage category continues to expand, Weiss stated that “We’re a scrappy company, and that is the way we’ve succeeded so far. We anticipate more competition and welcome it. We’ll just let the brand do the talking.”
Though a relative newcomer in the beverage world, Kona Red made a splash at the recent Natural Foods Expo West and has quickly established itself as a contender in the coffeefruit drink category.
Since its inception three years ago, Kona Red has had a focus of bringing premium Hawaiian coffeefruit – in a variety of forms – to several consumer product markets. In 2011, the company introduced Kona Red Antioxidant Juice, a coffeefruit-based beverage that includes pineapple, apple and raspberry juices and is lightly sweetened with stevia.
The beverage contains a proprietary coffeefruit extract that Kona Red claims “contains three main acids that synergistically provide higher levels of antioxidants than has ever been tested.” Yet while the message of antioxidant strength resonates well with most consumers, there is another aspect of coffeefruit that the company finds even more compelling.
“It doesn’t necessarily matter how high an ORAC score is, which, by the way, can easily be manipulated,” said Shaun Roberts, the founder and CEO of Kona Red. “The most important part of our product is bioavailability, which measures the absorption of antioxidants into the body. Our coffeefruit is 10 times more bioavailable than any other superfruit on the market.”
However, with taglines like “Paradise in a Bottle” and “Wellness You Can Feel”, as well as labeling that touts the beverage as a “Hawaiian Superfruit Antioxidant Juice”, it is clear that the company is looking to call out Kona Red’s functionality and taste, without using the word coffeefruit.
“In our focus groups and in all of our research, we [realized that] we confused consumers by saying ‘coffeefruit’, said Shaun Roberts, the founder and CEO of Kona Red. “And while our job is to educate consumers about coffeefruit, we believe that we are primarily a Hawaiian superfruit.”
Kona Red sources its coffeefruit from plantations throughout Hawaii which in the past had considered it a byproduct of such little use, that literally tons were dumped into the ocean.
“In Hawaii alone, 40-50 million pounds of coffeefruit were discarded every year,” noted Steve Peykoff, vice president of sales & marketing at Kona Red. “So we contracted with major coffee suppliers and farms to utilize what had been a byproduct, and [in doing so], we’ve created greater sustainability in Hawaii’s coffee farming business. “
Kona Red has distribution agreements with UNFI and Nature’s Best and currently sells its product through DSD networks in Hawaii, Texas and most of the western United States. The company hopes to be in the New York and Miami markets by this summer.
When asked if and when Kona Red would have national distribution, Peykoff said, “We’re prepared to go nationwide right now. And it’s a very good possibility that we will [have national distribution] in 2011.”
But in addressing growing competition amongst coffeefruit beverages and, specifically, category leader Bai, Peykoff stated that, “We’re not competing with Bai. From plant to bottle, we have an upscale production process and we’re positioning Kona Red as an upper end, high impact beverage with a high amount of our proprietary extract.”