LOUISVILLE – You’ve seen it before, that all-too-familiar 2 p.m. workday crash. So you turn to a quick-hit of caffeine in the form of a sugary energy drink to bolster you for the rest of the day.
The crash on your personal health that comes after, though, can be as swift and gut-punching as the one before. Harmful ingredients like high sugar content, acidic substances and more are the downfall most people face when they turn to a typical energy drink as a way to stave off the afternoon sleepies and amp up productivity.
But what if there was a caffeinated drink that would do the job without the guilt of unhealthy ingredients?
That’s exactly the question two Louisville entrepreneurs asked themselves — could they create a caffeine beverage that people could feel good about drinking again?
It’s there that the idea for a line of caffeinated sparkling water was born and with it, the birth of Phocus, the zero-calorie, zero-sugar beverage that packs as much punch as a cup of coffee.
“I already knew that soda trends were going the wrong way,” said Phocus co-founder Tom O’Grady. “Quarter to quarter, Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, Snapple were seeing soda sales decline, and sparkling [water] was on the rise. The trend was in our favor.”
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Now, almost two and a half years after the product launched in Louisville, that idea is taking the national beverage scene by storm. Phocus has grown from a Louisville-based brand to a national player on the beverage market, which is now available at national retailers including CVS and others across 40 states.
Phocus launched in late 2017 with a five-flavor lineup including Natural, Cucumber, Yuzu and Lime, Grapefruit, and Blood Orange. It added Peach to the Phocus family of flavors in summer 2019.
The caffeinated water checks all the boxes for a low-risk, high-reward energy beverage, the developers said. It holds all the great qualities one could ask for in a modern beverage — it’s vegan, gluten-free, non-GMO, and kosher. Not to mention it leaves out all of the downfalls of common energy drinks, no calories, sugar, sweeteners, or carbs.
The secret? The amino acid L-theanine, commonly found in tea leaves, powers the caffeinated beverages and promises to deliver “an even, smooth release of energy.”
O’Grady and co-founder John Mittel, a Louisville native, said starting the company in a smaller market like Louisville was tantamount to its success. It was large enough to get a good sample size but small enough to really understand the consumer.
The practices and strategies that got them started in local grocery stores and coffee shops around Louisville — including places like Heine Brothers’ Coffee and Kroger — are now being replicated and translated to huge markets and chains across the country.
“We were very fortunate that we got to start in Louisville,” Mittel said of the roughly 1 million people market. Starting in a city that size has allowed them to scale-up and “replicate what we did in Louisville on a much larger scale,” in places like New York City, where Mittel is currently based, overseeing development and growth in their new markets in the northeast.
Both Mittel and O’Grady credit the quality of the product for itswhirlwind success, which has inspired the duo to push forwardand continue to innovate.
“We were riding the coattails of the product’s success … and that really made us bullish as we grow into new areas and chains [in the industry],” Mittel said.
So what’s inside this guilt-free energy booster? All 75 mg of caffeine in each 11.5-ounce can is extracted from tea leaves and then infused with water purified by reverse osmosis. According to several studies published on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website, L-theanine has also been shown to help alleviate stress with its energy-boosting proponents in teas with a similar structure.
“Really, it’s the lack of ingredients and the simplicity of the product that allows us to claim those things,” Mittel said. “We wanted everything to be as simple and as healthy as possible but also taste good.”
Mittel worked odd jobs for O’Grady in the Louisville area before the idea for Phocus came about. He graduated with a B.S. in Industrial Engineering from the J.B. Speed School of Engineering at the University of Louisville before enrolling in its medical school.
After graduating from medical school in April 2018, he deferred his residency in ophthalmology to commit to Phocus full time. Mittel told The Courier Journal that he relied on both experiences heavily while developing Phocus but admits their nascence in the bevrage industry.
“The whole beverage industry was a foray into something we had never done before,” Mittel said.
O’Grady credits Mittel’s “unmatched work ethic” at such a young age as a huge factor in the success of Phocus.
“He has an amazing work ethic and business sense for a guy that came right out of school. He had the fortitude to see opportunity in what we were doing, and it was timely,” he said. “Typically, it takes a long time to achieve the savvy he has.”
Phocus continues to grow and recently took a huge step by entering into a partnership with a brokerage firm out of Charlotte, North Carolina to continue to expand into national markets — with a significant eye out for a deal with Whole Foods, O’Grady said.
Heavily data-driven and with astrong belief in their product, both founders are bracing for the next step as more and more consumers across all age groups start to gravitate toward their health-conscious drink.
The forefathers of Phocus are looking for an across-the-board consumer wake up call spanningdifferent generations, from millennials to boomers.
“They’re both looking for the same type of thing, which is pretty telling as to society is progressing right now. Now they’re looking for these types of products,” O’Grady said.
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