Janie Hoffman never wanted to be the star. She grew up in a small town in Illinois, where standing out from the crowd was, at times, deeply discouraged.
Yet by founding Mamma Chia, Hoffman was presented with a dilemma that revisited her quiet roots in the Midwest. Was she the real Mamma Chia or was she just selling the stuff? Loyalists seemed to believe that she was indeed Mamma Chia, in the flesh, but Hoffman wasn’t initially convinced. She told them that the Aztec chia goddess on the front of the bottle was the real Mamma Chia. It wasn’t her. She didn’t want to be the face of anything. She had to overcome her childhood programming.
“I really never wanted this to be the Janie Hoffman show,” she said.
But it sure was on Thursday, when she spoke on the second day of the BevNET Live conference in New York, one of more than a dozen entrepreneurs there to discuss strategies with their fellow beverage innovators. Hoffman had a few tips for the audience, which was rife with brand owners hoping to configure their own identity. The tips evoked laughter and hinted at truths learned from her own experiences.
Tip #1: find a good therapist. Tip #2: Botox won’t help. Tip #3: find a good therapist.
After years of molding her role with the brand, Hoffman said, she now identifies herself as the real Mamma Chia. But regardless of Hoffman’s personal affiliation with the title, her steadfast commitment to her product and its key ingredient has anchored the brand since its inception.
Entrepreneurs such as the effervescent Hoffman, the metaphor-dropping Kevin Klock, CEO of Sparkling ICE, the systematic Chris Campbell, the president and CEO of Chameleon Cold Brew, and Jennie Ripps and Maria Littlefield, the city-savvy founders of Owl’s Brew, shared their various personalities and plans with the crowd at the Metropolitan Pavilion, speakers on the second day of BevNET Live.
As they explained their products and their histories and their strategies, a theme prevailed amongst the brand ambassadors. There’s no blueprint way to run a brand, but the finest entrepreneurs, no matter their style, tend to embody their brand and own it like a second skin.
Kevin Klock continues to personify his brand, even though many entrepreneurs at his scale might opt to sell their stake and celebrate the good life. Instead, Klock, the CEO of Talking Rain, envisions room for more opportunity. He said as much on stage at BevNET Live — an uncommon sentiment from the CEO of a brand that has shot well past $300 million in sales.
Klock said that Sparkling ICE’s role in foodservice is all but untouched. They’re just beginning to tap into the convenience channel. They just recently established a DSD network in all 50 states.
When talking about such massive sales figures as only the beginning of the company’s rise, Klock mirrored the bravado of a young Jay-Z, recalling the line: “I’m not looking at you dudes, I’m looking past ya.”
Looking beyond the hordes of Sparkling ICE imitators and the competitors of varying categories, Klock had his own version of the progressive businessman’s mindset.
“While they’re trying to catch up, we’re busy focusing on our next move,” he said.
Klock continues to draw consumers migrating from the declining CSD category – one that he said isn’t falling apart so much as falling away from its most popular flavor profile, cola. Still, knowing his brand, which relies on fruit flavors, is gaining adherents, could the next move be a cola flavor for Sparkling ICE? He said that the company has attempted such a flavor, but hasn’t found a formula that maintains the consistent branding and identity of the brand.
It’s this restraint from moving too quickly, a kind of pragmatism and understanding of brand persona, that has helped elevate the company to the pinnacle of the beverage industry. Because of the brand’s consistent approach and easily comprehensible offerings, Sparkling ICE is able to launch a line of lemonades, for example, and become the top shelf-stable lemonade in the U.S. a mere six months after the product launch. When consumers buy a bottle of Sparkling ICE, they know what they’re getting. This business model has enabled Sparkling ICE to become 400 percent larger than its competitors combined, he said.
Chameleon Cold-Brew hasn’t reached the same foothold of Sparkling ICE because CEO Chris Campbell was still hand bottling two years ago. However, what it lacks in age, the Austin, Texas-based Chameleon compensates through direction. The brand serves as a category leader in the cold-brew RTD coffee space, which is drawing new brands from all over – the evening before, in fact, BevNET team members found celebrity chef Todd English discussing the possibility of fielding a play in the space as well.
From its founding in 2011 to its current stage, Campbell, a former consultant, has lived the brand and steadily managed the many forces that affect a fast-growing category. As it has heated up, he’s had to accelerate just about every part of the company’s plan.
From 2011 to 2014, Campbell told the audience, the company went from one convenience store to more than 800 stores across the country. He transitioned from self distribution to DSD distribution, no broker to national brokerage, zero paid employees to experienced industry hires, two SKUs of only-concentrate to more than 10 SKUs of RTD, self- and angel-funded to private equity, venture capital and super-angel investors, and natural retailers to a gradual push into conventional and mass.
Such acceleration leads to more than the just the struggle of keeping up. “You have external influences and you have internal constraints,” he said.
However, what kept Campbell’s business together was his unwavering dedication to the Chameleon brand, knowing its path and what would be best for the company in both the short and long term. Now, Campbell speaks about managing super-swift growth instead of wondering about the what-ifs.
At an even earlier stage but no less compelling, the founders of Owl’s Brew — Jennie Ripps and Maria Littlefield — symbolized the plucky nature of the New York City entrepreneur. While they’re still trying to prove their concept of tea crafted for upscale cocktails, they convinced some of the industry’s elite on Wednesday and Thursday by winning New Beverage Showdown, a “Shark Tank”-esque competition for startups. They faced strong competition in brands such as Rumble, a super-shake loaded with protein, fiber and omega-3’s, and switchel brand CideRoad.
Scott Uzzell, president and general manager of Coke’s Venturing and Emerging Brands, served as one of the judges for New Beverage Showdown. He presented an interesting take on Owl’s Brew — a take that indicates not just the unique nature of the product in the sleek, black jug, but the uphill challenge ahead.
“It actually takes the hero spot away from the alcohol and makes this more the hero,” he said.
Hoffman would be completely fine with her product serving as the hero, but that’s not entirely the case. Not when you’re the face of a brand that needs a definable Mamma.
While the brand thrives as the market leader of a trendy category, she continues to adjust to the demands of her role at the top.
When Random House approached her for a two-book deal, she turned them down. She told the book publisher that she didn’t have the time. Perhaps she really just wanted to avoid the spotlight.
A little while later, she changed her mind. She called Random House and made the deal. She’s already released one book — Chia Vitality — that tells only some of her background and more about the research behind the benefits of chia. She has a cook book coming out this fall. And even more significant than the book deals: Hoffman’s growing confidence.
On the book deal, she said: “I’m glad I did it now.”
And these days, when people approach Hoffman and say “hey Mamma Chia,” she says “hey” right back.