In this episode, we’re joined by George Passantino, CEO, and Co-founder of Quokka Brew; a ready-to-drink, fully caffeinated generalist coffee. George talks about how inspiration hit while he and his Co-founder were cramming for finals at UC Berkeley.
When they looked at how much coffee they were consuming to try to stay sharp they quickly realized it wasn’t working.
In addition to this they were jittery, and had big rushes of energy followed by sudden crashes.
This got them thinking about developing a better coffee.
George also tells us about his college campus ambassador program and how he and his co-founder were able to do their initial research by tapping into their college campus connections.
After becoming a hit with some fellow students and professors they continued to promote the brand across campus after they launched.
And finally, George revealed how their go-to-market strategy changed when COVID hit and all the students left campus.
Listen on Apple Podcasts here or Spotify here.
Ken Ojuka: Welcome to the Physical Product Movement. The podcast by Fiddle, we share stories of the world’s most ambitious and exciting physical product brands to help you capitalize on the monumental change in how, why and where consumers buy. I’m your host, Ken Ojuka.
Ken Ojuka: Today I had the opportunity to speak with George, co-founder of Quokka Brew, a ready to drink, fully caffeinated generalist coffee. We spoke about how inspiration hit while he and his co-founder were cramming for finals. At UC Berkeley, they realized how much coffee they were consuming to try to stay sharp and realized ultimately it wasn’t working.
Ken Ojuka: They were full of jitters, and had a bigger rush of energy than a sudden crash. This is what got them thinking about a better future. George talks about their college campus ambassador program and how they were able to do their initial research by tapping into their college campus connections of students and professors, but then continued to promote the brand on campus after they launched.
Ken Ojuka: We also talked about how their go to market strategy changed once COVID hit and all the students left campus. It’s a great story about being nimble, scrappy and resourceful. I enjoyed my conversation with George and I think you will too. Hey George, how are you doing? Thanks for joining me.
George Passantino: Doing well, thank you so much for having me.
Ken Ojuka: Okay. So it sounds like I’m catching you on the road a little bit. What’s going on?
George Passantino: Yes, I am on the road right now on a bit of a road trip all across California, kind of visiting most of our retail accounts, as well as just spreading and getting into more accounts. I’m currently in San Luis Obispo out of a gas station parking lot.
Ken Ojuka: Well, Hey, thanks for taking the time and parking and taking this call. You know, I think this will be really good content for our listeners. We typically like to kick off this podcast with a quote, you know, something that’s maybe meaningful to you or something that you’d like to keep in mind.
Ken Ojuka: Do you have one in mind?
George Passantino: Yeah. So I guess the clothes that I’ve kind of been living by for the last couple of years, since starting my real entrepreneurial journey with Quokka Brew is kind of the idea that you never really know what’s good or bad. It’s the idea that seemingly terrible situations can eventually have positive impacts and seemingly amazing things to have negative impacts in the long term.
George Passantino: So I guess just keeping a level head, like when bad things happen in saying like, you know, this won’t make sense one day when good things happen, like don’t get overly optimistic. You never know what’s waiting for you right around the corner.
Ken Ojuka: Yeah. Definitely a good thing to keep in mind. I think in all types of entrepreneurship, you know, we build software, and so we don’t have a physical product, but the same type of thing.
Ken Ojuka: Right. We’ve got to keep the same thing in mind. Yeah. So why don’t we just start off by telling us just a little bit about ourselves and then, you know, kind of what led to Quokka Brew.
George Passantino: I’m currently 22 years old. What really led to the creation of Quokka Brew is my Co-founder Ofec. and I, we were studying for finals during our junior year at UC Berkeley. And like most college students, we were just drinking a ton of coffee. And from that we started noticing we were getting super jittery, anxious, and eventually just completely crashing and Ofec and I have been best friends since middle school over the last few years, we’ve launched multiple businesses together and we’re always looking for our next opportunity. And we noticed this and started thinking to ourselves, like, what if, like, why isn’t there a genderless coffee? And around those same times, you started to become a little bit more health conscious.
George Passantino: We were watching your sugar and calorie intake, trying to be a little bit better on that end. And we started to notice that all of the other ready to drink coffees and like the energy drinks we were drinking were just loaded with sugars and calories. I mean, like with your Vermont days, having like 28 grams of sugar, Starbucks cold brews having 44 grams of sugar.
George Passantino: So it was like this whole thing we realized, like what if someone created a healthy and generalist coffee and that’s kind of where the idea came from
Ken Ojuka: Very cool. And so were you actively looking for sort of the next thing for you guys, the next adventure for you guys? Or was it sort of, the idea just kind of came and you know, it was too good to pass up.
George Passantino: Yeah, it was always a little bit of both. I mean, for us, we kind of always have an eye open for opportunity. And for this one, it came at a very interesting time because it was during. The year at UC Berkeley with schools, we didn’t have too much free time. But we noticed like this is a huge, like, this is now the time to do it. If we ever want to
Ken Ojuka: Right, okay yeah very cool. So what distinguishes you, so it’s a generalist coffee is what you’re describing. So what kind of gives it that property?
George Passantino: Yeah, so it’s really interesting. So we started, when we looked at really what causes jitters, like why does caffeine make us feel that way?
George Passantino: And what we’ve found is that caffeine is naturally a vasoconstrictor, meaning as you consume caffeine in your blood vessels, naturally constrict. So this causes your heart to pump harder in order to move blood where it needs to go causing jitters. So what we had was the active ingredients found in green tea and matcha.
George Passantino: So those are like L-Theanine and Green Tea leaf extract. And then we add ginseng as well. And what they were to do is offset the negative based on constriction that’s caused by caffeine. So it gives you all the energy and focus just without those negative side effects.
Ken Ojuka: Hmm. Yeah. So I’ve kind of heard L-Theanine described as it kind of smoothed out, you know, the bump that you get from coffee, you know?
Ken Ojuka: And, and it makes it, so you still get all those benefits, but like you said, you don’t feel sort of the, the sharp jitters or, or whatever. So that’s pretty cool. Did you guys know about this before? Did you, was it something that you had researched before, or how did you come to that?
George Passantino: Yeah, so we didn’t really have any background in the copy space.
George Passantino: We’d been kind of into nootropics. I got, we’d heard of that scene prior to starting folk poker and felt that it could be a strong option when we were first launching the brand. But what we did is we started researching and calling as much as we could, like we called, we used our UC Berkeley emails to mass email every professor that’d be willing to talk to us and we would ask them questions about tea.
George Passantino: So we call it an email. It’s probably like 500 to a thousand different university professors all across the nation. And spent about six months on research and development testing really on ourselves. And then some of our really close friends were willing to give us honest feedback.
Ken Ojuka: Okay. Very cool. And so I don’t know, what kind of response did you get, you know, did these professors, were they pretty open or, or were they like, you know, get out of here kid? Like what was the response?
George Passantino: Yeah. Well, what we found is that in all walks of life, there’s people that are willing to help and those that aren’t willing to help.
George Passantino: And that is true in the university sense as well. So we had some professors that, you know, were extremely helpful. Like they poured their hearts out to us. We’re willing to talk about whatever. And then there were others that were kind of more along the lines of like, get out of here, kid. You don’t know what you’re doing.
George Passantino: I’m busy, which is totally fair. I mean, they’re different vendors. They’re busy. They’re doing research
Ken Ojuka: Sure. And you kind of expect that and looking at it, it’s like, what’s the worst that could happen. Right. You know, you really have nothing to lose, with that. Okay. So what are some of the things that you learned, you know, from, from these, from this research, from professors and other students?
George Passantino: Yeah. So what we did is we wanted to verify the ingredients that we could try in our blend. So we have a patent pending. But it did not start out that way. So in the beginning we had a list of about 45 different ingredients that we wanted to try out and just see the effects that they had.
George Passantino: They all were promising. But as you probably know from, you know, anything you have to eat, if it doesn’t take, eat or drink, if it doesn’t taste good, you’re not gonna, you’re not going to buy it again. Those trying to find that happy medium of stuff that, you know, performed how we’d want it to perform, like giving you the energy without the jitters or crash, but didn’t, you know, taste disgusting.
Ken Ojuka: Yeah. So I know a thing or two about that because, you know, I also was into nootropics for a little while. And I actually had, you know, probably like 15 different, nootropics, it probably looks pretty awful in my office, you know, when you looked around and he saw these bags of powder, but I would actually mix them and kind of mix and match and try different formulas, you know, to see, you know, what would work well.
Ken Ojuka: And I think you’re exactly right. The main thing is that they just tasted awful. You know,
Ken Ojuka: Yeah. Some, some that are really effective, but it’s just too hard to mask the awful flavor, you know? So, and I think that’s probably why most nootropics are in pill form or something. So you don’t have to taste it.
George Passantino: Exactly!
Ken Ojuka: Yeah, Okay. So you arrived at a couple that you thought would be really effective.
Ken Ojuka: And then, you know, what was the next step? How did you go about actually testing out the formula? And then obviously getting other people to taste, test your product and give you some feedback there.
George Passantino: Yeah, so we were still an undergrad at the time. This was kind of getting into our senior year, at the beginning of our senior year.
George Passantino: So what we did first was we launched a double blind study with 150 individuals. We basically rounded up 150 people from across the bay area, and split them into two groups for some to get CBO. And then some got our quota through with our generalist plan and we left them on marks. And what we did was just kind of survey the results.
George Passantino: And what we saw is that 97% of people, or other 60% of coffee drinkers experienced the jitters and crash with caffeine. But with focus groups, only 7% of them did. So we saw our efficacy rate was much, much higher than traditional coffees. So that’s when we saw like, you know, this really did work. And what we did from there is we just took a table down to UC Berkeley’s main plaza.
George Passantino: And we started just passing out samples and selling products like on Sproul Plaza. And what we found is that students were not only like, wow, this is insane. Like, it tastes good. It works well. They’re like, I want it to be a part of it. So from there we started just building a college ambassador program.
George Passantino: We started at UC Berkeley and then went on to branch in the slow UCFB and a ton of other university campuses across California.
Ken Ojuka: Very cool. Is this sort of a strategy that the ambassador program, is this a strategy that you’ve seen work with other brands or how to, how did you actually come up?
George Passantino: Yeah. So, I mean, we launched it because we didn’t really have any other choice. I mean, we were on campus. We weren’t able to drive around and do other things, but I mean, we could sell to the people that we’ve interacted with and seen every single day. And we knew that there’s a lot of other brands that have college ambassador programs.
George Passantino: Like I know red bull does want, and basically any brand that has a focus on the college market has some form of ambassador program. But what we wanted RSV was something like more than that, something that was fun and enjoyable. I fund people and, you know, learn and grow as individuals and not just promote a brand.
Ken Ojuka: Got it. And so obviously there’s benefits to it and you know, there’s also the negative obvious one being, you know, this could be pretty expensive to, you know, be giving out so many samples. How did you guys think about it and what are some of the positives and the negatives that you identified in that process?
George Passantino: Yeah, it is a little bit expensive. I mean, you do have to give them a product . There’s that upfront investment that was kind of tough, you know, in the very beginning. But what we saw is, this was, if we do it right, and we can have strong philosophies, both on our online stores, because the students will buy online as well as all the retail stores that were in, like around the campuses.
George Passantino: So it’s kind of a gamble that we took on ourselves. In the beginning, it was going extremely well. And then overnight, like when COVID happened, we saw our entire demographic go home overnight.
Ken Ojuka: What did you guys do at that point?
George Passantino: Yeah, so that was a very interesting time for us because you know, this is right in the early days of Foca and we saw like, legitimately everyone go home overnight and our sales kind of dropped up to near zero.
George Passantino: But you know, we understand. This was something where I got to deal with. We were kind of upset over it, like, okay, we should figure this out. So we transitioned to our entirely online. So we built out our website, kind of renewed focus on that. We launched on Amazon and then we also launched an Indiegogo campaign, to help launch a new product as well.
George Passantino: So we, we kind of took it head on and it helped us grow faster than we even expected.
Ken Ojuka: Okay. Yeah. Do you mind maybe double clicking a little bit on that, launching the new product on Indiegogo, right. And so I could see Indiegogo, you know, for Quokka Brew, which you were already selling, was it for that or was it for an entirely different product?
George Passantino: Yeah, so at the time our initial product was refrigerated. So you know, when you’re selling in, person isn’t the biggest problem because most stores are frigid. The problem is we’re selling online, especially during summer. It’s really tough to keep our products cold. So we’d have to buy these really expensive ice packs.
George Passantino: And, you know, if you lose your package for a few days, like then we have to send another package out to that customer or deal with it in some other way, whether that’s a refund or what. So we’ve launched an Indiegogo campaign to help us launch shelf stable cans. And with that, we are aiming to raise about $15,000.
George Passantino: We ended up raising over $74,000 and became one of the highest crowdfunded beverages of all time. And it really helped us put it on the map.
Ken Ojuka: Okay. Yeah, that’s pretty cool. And then it looks like, you know, what’s interesting about you guys is that you version, your product. You know, where’d the idea for that come from?
Ken Ojuka: Was it something that you saw Soylent duke? I think that’s the only one that I’ve seen do that. Yeah, like, I think you guys just recently, came out with version two, right?
George Passantino: We just launched our version three a few weeks ago.
George Passantino: Yeah. So we didn’t necessarily follow Soylent’s model. I mean, for us, it was like we launched version one. We knew it was going to be an iterative process just because we’re never really satisfied. It’s always like incremental improvements. So we launched version one and it was kind of like, we just called it brew and then when we reformulated and launched our second.
George Passantino: We didn’t really know what to call it. We started calling it V2 corporate brew and then it kind of just stuck on it. And people were like, thought it was really neat to be a part of this iterative journey. And now, you know, we’re working on V3 or we just launched V3 and we’re potentially launching a V4, slight improvement, like always trying to perfect our blend.
Ken Ojuka: Okay. And then, just a couple more questions about your actual product, you know, so you guys use a vanilla oat milk latte, so, you know, why oat milk? You know, why did you guys, you know, choose to go with that instead of, you know, like a dairy?
George Passantino: Yeah, we were, I mean, we’re based out of California, which is kind of spearheading the non-dairy.
George Passantino: And for us, we didn’t really want to launch a non-dairy product or a dairy product, just because we feel like, you know, non dairy is the future of, especially in the younger demographic. And we initially were an almond milk, but what we’ve found is that almond milk has a slightly negative reputation because it’s one of the highest water users in California and, you know, California needs the water milk, which has a lower allergen.
George Passantino: It’s better for the environment to use less water. And we also just felt that it had a thicker, better consistency.
Ken Ojuka: Got it. You got it. Any other choices and ingredients that maybe you could double click on for a second?
George Passantino: Yeah. I mean, for us you wanted something because I mean, first of all, that we’re drinking it ourselves.
George Passantino: I mean, everyone on the team probably drinks a few a week, if not one a day. So, and you know, all of our friends and family drink as well, so we wanted something that wasn’t where we didn’t have any corners cut. It didn’t have any filler or gross ingredients. So, you know, you wouldn’t want to. So we’re vegan, organic.
George Passantino: We try to put the very best ingredients that we can get our hands on, inside our product, just because we want to be, you know, leading with the best product possible.
Ken Ojuka: Okay. Yeah, I got it. And so just getting here to the end, I just wanted to ask about the name, why Quokka Brew, where’d that come from?
George Passantino: Yeah. So when we first launched the brand, we had kind of a brand identity that we were after. We wanted something that could. Represented us as individuals. We wanted something that just made people want to feel happy, essentially. That’s like we wanted our brand ECOS to be, and we wanted a small little animal.
George Passantino: We wanted something cute that stood up and represented the brand well. So we started just thinking about what animals would represent a coffee and we ended up landing on the cloaca and the cloak is a very interesting animal to small, little more, super cool from Austria. And it’s super unique because as it evolved, it had no natural predators.
George Passantino: So it has this innate sense of outgoingness and kind of confidence. And it’s actually dubbed the happiest animal in the world. So for us, it’s kind of perfect. Like we, you know, there are these cute cuddly little animals that are actually the happiest animals in the world. And our kind of goal with COVID was to create a coffee without the negative side effects that people can be their happiest, best self, just like them.
George Passantino: So a full circle thing. And also just, they’re just so cute. Like, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one before where they’re just so ridiculously cute. Yeah.
Ken Ojuka: It just pulled up a couple here. The computer actually didn’t know what Coco was. And so, yeah. Thank you. So, just tell us, what’s next for you guys?
Ken Ojuka: You know, what’s, you know, for the rest of this year, do you have any news that you could share with us about, you know, things that are coming up for Quokka Brew.
George Passantino: Yeah, so right now, I mean, we’re just focusing on building out our current model. I mean, just growing as much as we can, in terms of new things we have coming, we have two additional flavors that are launching hopefully before the end of the year.
George Passantino: That’s our, we’re launching a chocolate cereal milk latte. So it’s like the milk at the end of the cereal bowl. Infuse the corporate coffee, and then we’re launching just a plain black coffee with our generalist blend. So those two things we’re super, super excited for. But, I mean, just doing what we do everyday, just growing the brand, waking up every morning, excited for what we do.
Ken Ojuka: Okay. Very nice. Well, I’ve got just four quick questions on the quickfire round. And then we can wrap this up. Can you name one tool or resource that you feel is invaluable? To,
George Passantino: I am a huge proponent of Google sheets. I absolutely love Google sheets. Our business is run off of Google sheets.
George Passantino: That has been the most helpful thing I think on this planet.
Ken Ojuka: Nice. What’s one book that you could recommend to the audience?
George Passantino: My favorite book of all time, all I really have to start with is why and then great by choice. Those two are mandatory reads at. And they’ve impacted our business substantially.
Ken Ojuka: Yes. So the third question is, you know, what’s one piece of advice that you’d give to your 21 year old self. And I guess that was you. What last year? I think you said you were 22, right?
Ken Ojuka: So yeah. What’s one piece of advice that you’d give to your younger self.
George Passantino: The one thing that I would tell myself is that, you know, there’s going to be hard times. It’s going to be easy. What it’s about is just waking up every day and putting in the work. I mean, for us, like we found there’s no substitute for hard work.
George Passantino: So it’s just, you know, regardless of whether it’s a good day or a bad day, just.
Ken Ojuka: Okay. And, finally, is there a person or a brand that you may look up to admire, you keep an eye on, or maybe somebody that you’d love to take the lunch to?
George Passantino: That’s a tough one. I think one of my favorite brands is a smaller local brand from San Luis Obispo called whale bird.
George Passantino: I don’t know why. I just, I love their brand. They really focused on, you know, one geographic area and they killed it. Like they are ubiquitous along the central coast and they sponsor everything and they’re just such like a good, happy brand. I don’t know. I really liked them.
Ken Ojuka: Cool. All right. Hey George, I think this has been great.
Ken Ojuka: Do you have any parting advice for other people that are in the CPG market? You know, maybe they’ve launched their own brand or they’re thinking about it, you know, what advice would you give.
George Passantino: Yeah. I mean, I would just say don’t be afraid to ask for help. I mean, I’ve been a huge proponent of emailing as many founders as I could, and people that have kind of been there, done that.
George Passantino: So I mean, don’t feel afraid to reach out and ask for help. I mean, if we never did that, we would definitely not be in the stage we’re at right now.
Ken Ojuka: All right. Hey, thank you. Appreciate it. It’s been great.
George Passantino: Of course. Thanks so much for having me on.
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