The campus-living demographic is a target audience that the founders of Sunniva are quite familiar with—eldest brother Jimmy graduated not long ago, middle brother Jake is a fresh graduate (and COO of the company), and youngest brother Jordan, dropped out of college to dedicate time to the business.
In fact, it was Jordan who came up with the business idea while still enrolled. It was the summer of 2015, Jordan was wrapping up his first year of college at Philadelphia University with a full-ride basketball scholarship. “He had 5 a.m. basketball practices, a full day of classes, and late nights at the library,” Jimmy said.
“He was tired, as you can imagine, he was out of energy and his school store offered the traditional bottled coffee and energy drinks,” he added. “Loaded with sugars, unhealthy ingredients—and it didn’t really give him the energy he was looking for.”
Experimenting with ‘Bulletproof Coffee’ in a dorm room
At the time, the recipe for ‘Bulletproof Coffee,’ a mixture of coffee, butter, and medium chain triglycerides (MCT) oil created by former Silicon Valley exec Dave Asprey and inspired by yak butter tea of the Himalayas, was causing a storm online.
Jordan wanted to make his own to boost his energy, but he wanted to experiment with the basic template. “He took out the butter from bulletproof and added milk protein isolate to make the coffee creamy, and he also got 10g of protein in his coffee,” Jim said.
“He used the MCT oil—the healthy fat from coconut—to sustain his energy,” he added. It worked well for Jordan, and he started selling the concoction to his teammates, coaches, “and before long he had a profitable business out of his dorm room.”
Getting to the target audience with foodservice distributors
The brothers capitalized on Jordan’s idea and established Sunniva in 2015. Their first year of business was in 2016, when they began selling in Whole Foods in the Mid-Atlantic region, several local chains and independent stores, as well as some college campuses such as Georgetown, Princeton, Rutgers, and George Washington University, amounting to a total of 150 points of sale.
“We sold over 200,000 bottles of coffee last year,” DeCicco said. “Once we saw how well it was received—we’re proving that people want this.”
Last summer, the company opened a seed round of funding, raising $750,000, allowing them to invest heavily in their goal to penetrate the college campus market. “We heard of Compass USA—which happens to be the world’s largest food service provider, and in order to get them we need to create demand at the account level,” he added.
Thus, the team concentrated on campus demos and social media marketing, and finally reached their goal last week. “After 12 months of hitting the streets, we’re thrilled,” he said. “They said, ‘not only do we want to give you guys a vendor number, we want to do an 18-month exclusive deal where we make Sunniva one of our flagship brands.’”
Hitting the mark in the healthy and natural segment
What the DeCicco brothers are striving to do is bring an alternative to the energy drinks and RTD coffee products abound in campus stores. “It’s not our job to sell organic coffee [and] healthy products,” he said. “It’s our job to make it cool to be healthy—we want to influence a lot of people and say ‘you don’t have to compromise to be healthy.’”
They kept the ingredients list simple, and for a sweetener, they opted for maple syrup by Crown Maple, a fellow Hudson Valley start-up that collects and sells maple syrup from its 800-acre estate. “When [Crown Maple] first opened, my brother was still in high school, and he used to go there with my grandmother,” Jim said. “It’s a beautiful estate, and when we were thinking about maple syrup suppliers, it was a no-brainer, [Jordan] said ‘I got our guy.’”
The invitation to collaborate was met with warmth by Crown Maple. According to CEO Mike Cobb, the company has seen increased demand from finished product manufacturers for pure maple syrup. “It’s because consumers are demanding, ‘hey, I want the real stuff,’” Cobb said.
“The [Super Coffee] product is really focused on the Millennial target audience,” Cobb added. “[The DeCicco brothers] believe in their product, and their consumers, and the struggle their consumers have. So working with them is fantastic.”