Nat Noone always loved the idea of working for a small company, travelling door-to-door in his truck, building a brand one account at a time.
His first job out of college in 1998 as a sales manager at Fresh Samantha Juices gave him just that. Then Fresh Samantha was sold to Odwalla and he became a regional director without the same freewheeling travel schedule. Then Odwalla was sold to The Coca-Cola Company in 2001, and the business wasn’t so small anymore.
Getting back to his roots is one reason why Noone started Wave Soda, a California-based startup producing a low-calorie soda made of 85 percent sparkling water and 15 percent fruit juice. While sparkling water sales are rocketing upward as consumers abandon soda, Noone saw room for a product that split the difference between the categories. Inspired by his own desire to kick his aspartame-laden diet soda habit, Wave Soda, which launched last year, contains no artificial sweeteners and no added sugar.
The line, available in Apple, Blueberry, Cucumber, Grapefruit, Mango, and Tangerine flavors, retails between $1.39 to $1.79 per 12 oz. can. Except for Apple, all the flavors are caffeinated.
“For me to truly exit soda I had to have some bubbles, a little bit of flavor, and a little caffeine,” Noone said. “Amazing enough, as simple as the concept is, I couldn’t find it out there. LaCroix has the bubbles but doesn’t have real juice or caffeine, Izzy has the bubbles but it’s 70% juice so it’s got more than 100 calories. So I just started messing around.”
Wave’s retail presence is still small, with just over 300 stores in California, but Noone is no longer a kid in a truck, and his slow approach to growth is a conscious decision influenced by two decades in the beverage industry.
“I was 24 and managing 12 trucks in a world I knew nothing about two years earlier, and it was great,” Noone said. “When you’re at a small company you can learn a lot in a very short period and the hands-on stuff was what I loved the most. Being out in the field made me happy.”
Getting back in a van and travelling up and down the streets of Southern California, Noone has landed placements in c-stores (7-Eleven, Chevron), natural and specialty stores (Seaside Market, Jimbo’s), local quick serve restaurants, corporate cafeterias, and hospitals.
Noone said selling a more affordably-priced product like Wave is a stark contrast from his past experience selling a premium juice like Odwalla, as retailers have been more open to taking a chance on the brand. Within the first two months of launch Wave was in more than 50 accounts and selling equally well throughout different neighborhoods.
“I was used to this very limited opportunity product,” he said. “But what we found out fast is it wasn’t a big shelf product that works for the 1 percenters but that no one else is going to drink it. At Chevron, in a second-tier neighborhood, it is selling as well as at a beachfront 7-Eleven.”
Wave Soda is distributed through Seacoast Distributors, which Noone said has doubled the brand’s presence in San Diego and has given them the ability to expand into Orange County and Los Angeles. The brand is also launching in SoCal Whole Foods next week and has partnered with UNFI, tapping three of their warehouses. Later this month it will expand into Northern California with Nugget Markets and Bi-Right Markets.
For the rest of the second quarter, Noone said the company’s plan is to go deep in the California market and then grow outside of the state later this year.
Noone said he looks at the product as a “baby step” for a mass audience of consumers who are abandoning traditional soft drinks but also seeking more function and flavor than sparkling water has to offer.
“We’re not creating a new category,” Noone said. “There’s an exodus from soda and we’re just trying to create a happy place for them to land.”