Rob Paladino, 53, is chief executive of CoolJuice Beverage Co., which aims to be one of the first national brands of all-juice fruit punches in chilled drink coolers free of high-fructose corn syrup and added sugars. Now available at 1,200 schools, including many in Florida, and a growing number of supermarket chains including Sweetbay Supermarket and Winn-Dixie, CoolJuice sales are projected to leap from $1 million last year to $8 million this year. Based in Dunedin, the six-person startup is run by two veteran beverage industry executives who co-founded the company. They steered contractors to create, package, produce and distribute their 100 percent fruit juice blends, which are sweetened only by juice. The two spent five years and $3 million creating a four-product line positioned as a healthier alternative to most fruit punches, which contain little juice and are sweetened with cheaper added sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.
How did this get started?
My co-founder, George Gamble, a longtime Tropicana marketing executive, is wired in to the black establishment in Atlanta, which is tackling childhood obesity. In 2007 they helped get the schools to drop cheap chilled juices in lunch lines that contain little juice and get their sweetness more from fattening sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. George has fought his own weight battle with type 2 diabetes, which brought an appreciation for the issue. We saw an opportunity to fill a void with an all-juice drink that both refreshes and is nutritive.
Why is your best pitch asking shoppers to turn the package over and compare ingredients.
Our slogan is "All the good stuff, none of the bad." All our ingredients are exotic juices fortified with calcium and vitamins. It's hard to get kids to eat the recommended five fruits and vegetables a day. Eight ounces of CoolJuice equals two servings of fruit. We use exotic flavors and blends. Tropical Rhythms is pineapple, passion fruit, guava, papaya and some sweet lime and essence of coconut. Our Fruit Punch is orange, pineapple, apple and a flavor base with notes of cherry and strawberry. It tastes as good as Hawaiian Punch, but it's all juice. Tropical Blue is blueberry, apple, pineapple, guava and sweet lime. Mango Groove, which is not sold in Florida yet, is orange, mango and some apple to make it less syrupy.
You compete directly with noncarbonated drinks like fruit punch and lemonades with blended juice concentrates. What's in yours and how does that make CoolJuice natural?
In the chilled juice cooler there is no Capri Sun or Juicy Juice. Orange juice is about it for all-natural, and it's not an all-day drink. Our competitors are 5 to 25 percent juice. We're 100 percent. Most people regard concentrate as natural juice. If you don't, you can only drink passion fruit juice a few months a year.
How about pricing?
Our 8-ounce bottle goes for 50 cents to $1 in schools, the 6-ounce carton, 25 to 50 cents. Our half gallon in supermarkets is $2.59 to $2.99, or $1.99 to $2.49 on promotion. We're priced between Tropicana Orange Juice but above fruit punch that is 5 to 25 percent juice with added sugar or high-fructose corn sweetener.
Guerilla marketing. We tried some local radio and tested some billboards. We hand out free samples at 5K and 10K runs and food festivals. We have a chef who does demonstrations cooking with our juices. We hired about 45 people as advocates who believe in the product. We pay them $15 a store to visit store managers, tell them they want the product and remind them a promotion is coming. We'll send them to let PTA groups know about the product as it is stocked in more schools.
How about social media?
We have a great Facebook page. One of our radio promotions was heard by a Largo coupon blogger who shared online how to get free sample coupons by registering an address on our Facebook page. We expected radio to move a few hundred coupons. We were stunned 139 coupon bloggers reposted the offer and 18,000 people "liked" our Facebook page. We sent out 12,000 coupons.
Your father was a food engineer in the packaged goods business at Quaker Oats. How did your childhood in Baltimore influence your career?
My first job after college was running a meat route for Oscar Mayer. My parents were second-generation Italian who did not forget the Depression. I was expected to work for spending money. I mowed lawns and did odd jobs, but caddying really helped me develop social skills. I'd hitch a ride to the golf club. At 12 I was strong enough to carry two bags of clubs. I did valet parking before I was old enough to drive. Club members included the big local sports figures. When I ran Southern California for PepsiCo years later, (Orioles great) Brooks Robinson appeared at a sports event we sponsored in Palm Springs. I thanked him for some great memories carrying his golf bag. I don't know if he was pulling my leg, but he remembered me. I played a pretty competitive golf game in my corporate days, but I play a whole lot less now as an entrepreneur than when I was expected to play with grocery executives.
After 15 years as a PepsiCo executive, you ran a construction supply business and a company that sold stored-value cards to convenience stores. What was it like running your own business at 39?
Intoxicating. I was no longer renting a job, I owned one. I had to temper my overconfidence and change the toner myself. But opening the mail was the best. It proved I knew my customers and delighted them because they sent checks and bought more of my stuff.
Where do you see CoolJuice in five years?
Owned by a multinational, multibrand company.
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.