Once considered the “next big thing” by excited coffee lovers and technology buffs alike, the Wolfgang Puck Self-Heating Latte is being withdrawn from shelves because of concerns that many of the innovative cans are defective, and possibly dangerous.
Last month, Wolfgang Puck Worldwide, Inc. sent a letter to its licensee, Newport Beach, Calif.-based BrandSource Inc., demanding it ask retailers to remove the 10-oz., artificially-sweetened coffee drinks from shelves so that product defects could be reviewed. The recall demand came after BrandSouce CEO Robert Groux informed Puck’s company of a growing number of complaints from retailers and consumers alike.
Launched to great fanfare in the spring of 2005, the lattes quickly made it to the shelves of thousands of stores, including large, end of aisle displays in Kroger and Albertson’s supermarkets and Sam’s Club warehouse stores.
But in less than a year, the team that produced the innovative product has fallen apart. The can’s design and manufacturing team is suing BrandSource, the company that licensed Puck’s name in order to bring the product to market, and BrandSource is facing the possible loss of its celebrity partner.
Groux, however, says the problem stems from the faulty construction of the cans themselves, designed by OnTech Delaware, LLC., which is based in San Diego.
Consumer complaints have ranged from the product’s failure to reach an appropriately hot temperature to it actually overheating, spurting product from the can, leaking out of the can, or the calcium oxide heating mechanism adulterating the coffee itself, according to Groux.
“We have reports of chunks of white product, which we believe to be calcium oxide, that was found in the product, which means the heating element most likely leaked,” Groux said. “We have complaints of can meltdowns, curdled product, sour product, leaking cans.”
Last month, a Las Vegas woman named Dee Harris claimed she had been badly burned by one of the drinks when she activated it in her hotel room. She claims it overheated and then blew up, sending her to the hospital.
“I went to pick it up, but it was too hot,” Harris said. “I pulled my hand off of it, it exploded. It was just sitting on the counter, no one had touched it. It just blew all over everything.”
When it works, the coffee heats when a seal at the bottom of the can is pushed in, releasing a small amount of water that, when mixed with the calcium oxide in a cone within the package, causes an exothermic reaction that heats the liquid to a toasty 140 degrees.
Groux blames his can suppliers for designing and manufacturing defective products, and his company is currently involved in litigation with OnTech, which trumpeted its design of the self-heating mechanism and subcontracted its manufacture on behalf of BrandSource.
“We’re just the marketers, and the name,” Groux said. “We don’t make the can, we don’t fill the can, we don’t make the heating elements or the components or anything.”
But OnTech CEO Jonathan Weisz made it clear he believes the problems with the cans are a smoke screen for Groux’s financial problems.
“They owed us a lot of money – over a million dollars – and this is purely a retaliatory move,” Weisz said.
Both the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Products Safety Commission are investigating problems with the product, according to Groux. Representatives of both agencies refused to confirm those investigations. Weisz confirmed having been contacted by the FDA.
The letter from Puck Worldwide requesting the recall indicated that the company had become aware of what it termed “government scrutiny” of the lattes, among other issues.
According to Puck spokesman Robbie Vorhaus, the consumer complaints have become a large enough issue for the company to consider withdrawing BrandSource’s license to use Puck’s name to market the product.
“The product is not at the place where we, as the licensor would like it to be,” Vorhaus said. “What we have told Bob is, and what we’ve made very clear, is that with the quality and the standard that we expect, that there is always extra scrutiny. We suggested to him that he look at this more carefully.”
Featuring the name and reputation of the famous, Spago-owning Puck, the lattes debuted in the spring of 2005 to praise from mainstream news outlets and food-and-gadget-centric web sites alike. But complaints began to trickle in to BrandSource in the early fall, Groux said. They eventually became a pile several inches high, he said, and they were soon accompanied by returns of damaged and unwanted products from beverage retailers and distributors.
Lewis Hershkowits, the COO of Big Geyser, a New York-based beverage distributor, said his company stopped carrying the Wolfgang Puck product after about two months.
“I don’t think it was the right item for us anyway, but there were a lot of complaints from our customers,” Hershkowits said. “Retailers were complaining – their customers were saying they didn’t work, that sometimes they were sour or they just didn’t work.”
“The girls in our office liked them, but every fifth can was bad,” he added.
OnTech reportedly spent $45 million over 11 years developing the self-heating technology. In December, the company launched a similar line of self-heating coffee drinks under the Hillside Coffee label. The company also manufactures self-heating soups, hot chocolates, and teas.
OnTech’s launch campaign for the self-heating product is “It Does What?”
“It takes time to educate the world to what [self-heating] is about,” Weisz said.
While the move to develop Hillside was not a response to problems with the Puck partnership, Weisz said, the relationship had nevertheless soured because BrandSource had not been willing to pay for the increase in production costs that have accompanied rising oil prices.
“We’re not willing to ship any more product to them,” he said. “Right now, the cost is a bit high. I had hoped that the Wolfgang Puck relationship would have survived, but we’re very excited about what we have going on right now.”
OnTech has filed suit against BrandSource in a California court, seeking payment for the products it made for the Puck partners.
BrandSource, and Groux himself, is planning a counter-suit against OnTech and the two companies that have been part of the manufacturing process, claiming it has lost millions of dollars because of the defective products.
“They cut me off when I stopped paying, because they refused to stop issuing us credits for returned product,” Groux said.
A beverage industry veteran, Groux says his credibility – and his bottom line — is in shambles as a result of the problems that have resulted from the problems with the cans.
“I wake up to a nightmare every day,” he said. “I have retailers calling me, suppliers calling me, I have to let half my people go, and I’ve been devastated all around.”