Dora’s Naturals Brings Brand-First Focus to Distribution

As the founder and CEO of Dora’s Naturals, Cyrus Schwartz oversees distribution, manufacturing, and processing. But despite playing various roles, his passion lies in helping build successful beverage businesses.

“At heart, I’m a brand guy,” he said.

Hailing from a family of dairy producers — his grandfather and great uncle founded Elmhurst Dairy in 1925 — Schwartz founded Dora’s in 1998 after selling off his own organic dairy company, Juniper Valley Farms. Naming the new company after his great grandmother, he began utilizing that company’s established DSD routes to focus on supporting the growing market for cold-chain, organic and natural food and beverage products. Today the company services more than 4,000 stores in the northeast — and has helped build dozens of beverage brands over its nearly 20 year history.

“We saw this category grow up underneath us — organic milk — and we felt that was going to happen in many different categories,” Schwartz said. “It was a very effective way to build a brand and [direct store delivery] DSD system. So the original model, and what we are today, is the DSD arm of a limited number of complementary brands.”

Schwartz sees Dora’s as a distributor but also as a brand incubator, sometimes working with companies before they have a product ready for the shelf. Typically maxing its portfolio at about 30 brands at a time, the company currently counts major natural product brands such as GT’s Kombucha, Harmless Harvest and BluePrint Juice among its partners. Each came on in early stages; GT’s had nearly no grocery placement at the time they partnered with Dora’s to build out its presence in the New York metro area, Schwartz said, while BluePrint was only on shelves in four stores.

The company can also serve in an advisory role, with Schwartz having helped young brands such as Remedy Organics and F’in Delicious refine their product lines. He also sits on the board of directors for two brands Dora’s distributes, Powerful Yogurt and Up Mountain Switchel. The company also makes occasional investments.

When searching for new brands to bring into the family, Schwartz said that first and foremost, the product needs to taste good. The brand must also be early to market or differentiated — a generic coconut water or cold-pressed juice is not going to cut it today. Too many young entrepreneurs, he said, make the mistake of not surveying the marketplace before they begin manufacturing.

“It’s amazing how many people don’t give enough thought to be able to answer that simple question, that they would launch a product without being able to answer why someone would want to buy their product,” he said. “What need are you meeting that is not already being met in the marketplace?”

But even if the product is great, there’s still another test. Schwartz has what he called a “Decency Policy” for determining who he wants to work with.

“The people who work here are my friends and extension of my family, and life is short, and I thank god I’m in a position where I don’t have to do business with anyone I don’t want to,” he said.

In addition to its numerous partnerships, Dora’s also counts Elmhurst Dairy, Mountainside Farms, and Steuben Foods among its sister companies as well as ownership of the ZenSoy, Evolve Kefir, and Sap on Tap brands.

ZenSoy, which began as a soy milk brand, plans to discontinue its soy products over “the next few months” and will relaunch with almondmilks and almondmilk-based puddings. Sap on Tap, a line of maple tree waters, also just relaunched with new labeling and new SKUs, including a natural energy drink made with yerba mate and a sports drink variation with electrolytes and antioxidants. The new Sap on Tap products are self-funded by Schwartz and in the process of rolling out.

In 2014, Dora’s added a high pressure processing (HPP) facility, a segment of the business Schwartz said is performing well. The company is in the midst of opening a new 55,000 sq ft HPP facility.

With natural and organic products becoming increasingly prevalent for emerging beverage companies, Dora’s has also begun distributing new brands including Forto coffee shots, Tickle Water, and Roar Organics.

The New York market has also given Dora’s and its associated brands a unique avenue for success. While retailers such as Whole Foods and Publix remain an important partner for the company, Schwartz said that those natural channel chains aren’t as vital for success in the metro area where tens of thousands of independent retailers and fresh food programs at mainstream retailers help to bolster natural products.

“I’d say the biggest mistake small brands make is growing too fast,” he said. “A brand that sells a million dollars a year has no business going national with CostCo. It takes too many resources and focus and generally, ultimately it doesn’t work. So we make sure a brand grows at the appropriate speed. That they go into accounts when they’re ready for accounts.”