Talk about turning over a new leaf.
Chris Hunter is the co-creator of Four Loko, the infamous caffeinated flavored malt beverage brand celebrated by some and denounced by others as “Blackout in a Can” for college students. His current project couldn’t be more dissimilar.
But Hunter’s since graduated: In the six years since the launch of Four Loko, a stretch that included windfall wealth, lawsuits, and intense government scrutiny, he has become a wellness aficionado living in Southern California. He has an Ironman triathlon under his belt and an interest in yoga. He avoids gluten and his son is lactose intolerant leading him to seek out dairy alternatives.
Now, he’s taking his lifestyle of health and fitness to the market with Koia, a line of plant-based protein drinks.
“It was a question of how do I align what I was doing [personally] with my career and the companies I’m building and to be authentic to that,” Hunter said.
Made with a base of almond milk, Koia makes use of rice, pea and hemp proteins to deliver 16-19 g of protein per 12 oz. bottle, depending on variety. The drinks are vegan, made with non-GMO ingredients and sweetened with a combination of sugar and monk fruit extract. Hunter said that the use of monk fruit allows Koia to maintain a lower sugar count per bottle while dialing up the sweetness level as a way to offset the taste from the added protein. Koia undergoes pasteurization as a safety step.
Koia is the brainchild of Dustin Baker, a former medical supplies salesman. Baker’s old line of work brought him up close and personal to America’s obesity epidemic, motivating him to make changes to his own diet.
Within a protein drink category loaded with high calorie products, some laden with milk-based ingredients, Baker saw an opening in the market for a lactose-free, low-sugar option. So, in 2013, he along with friend (now marketing director) Maya French took his ideas to food labs at Purdue University and Ohio State University to create a test batch and get the formula right, ultimately resulting in a roughly 5-to-1 protein-sugar ratio.
“We had objectives,” Baker said. “We weren’t worried about the fat at all. I was worried about the sugar.”
Baker invested $50,000 of his own money into the venture. A Kickstarter campaign, fueled by friends and family, brought in a majority of the funds. During the fundraising campaign, Hunter’s name came up as a person to contact. As luck would have it, Hunter, a fellow Chicagoan at the time, had already tried Koia; the brand was being tested at a handful of area retailers.
Earlier this year, Hunter left his role as a managing partner at Four Loko maker Phusion Projects — which had also scored another big success as an early investor in alcoholic soda brand Not Your Father’s Root Beer — and signed on as a co-founder of Koia, where he set out to redevelop the brand to reach a broader audience.
The company later brought on Jim Tonkin, an experienced beverage investor and consultant, as an advisor. Tonkin helped Koia secure additional investment from Zico founder Mark Rampolla and Bill Weiland, the owner of natural foods broker Presence Marketing. The company later relocated to southern California.
Koia launched again, as a Whole Foods exclusive, in September and is currently available in more than 300 of the retailer’s stores nationwide. The line comes in three flavor varieties — cacao bean, vanilla bean and coconut almond — with a suggested retail price of $5.99.
“We were fortunate to be able to achieve approval by Whole Foods,” Hunter said. “We had to put the infrastructure to scale very quickly.”
Koia will continue to be sold exclusively at Whole Foods through the end of the year. According to Baker, early sales figures have been “fantastic” with each store selling about one six-unit case of each flavor per week. Hunter called the sales “better than expected” and said stores have been giving positive feedback.
“It’s a discovery brand,” Hunter said. “People see the grams of plant protein and then their second step is to turn the bottle around and see the sugar. People have been trained to look for large amounts of sugar to mask the taste of the protein.”
Baker said Koia is looking ahead to add 2-3 new flavor SKUs in the next year and the company is looking forward to continuing the early success.
Although Hunter made his name with Four Loko, he said he’s happy to be focusing his energy on a project that fits his current regimen. Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a harder drink now and then.
“There’s a time and a place for everything,” he said. “If people choose to enjoy a Four Loko or an alcoholic beverage that is great. If they want to eat vegan that is great. For me, it’s about having options and not needing to compromise.”