Tell us about Sap! What inspired you to start the company?
Three years ago I was working for Senator Leahy in DC. I absolutely loved my time down there, but I was ready for a new challenge. I knew I wanted to move back to Vermont and start my own business, so I came back in 2014 and enrolled in UVM’s Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA program (SEMBA). My cousin Nikita and I reconnected that fall and we started talking through some potential business ideas. Nikita and I both come from a Vermont maple background, with Nikita’s side of the family having produced maple syrup for generations (Nikita also owns his own sugarbush in Underhill as well). Many Vermonters like us have had the experience of drinking sap right from the bucket on the tree during sugaring season. A few maple seasons ago, my father was getting tired of boiling our sap all the way into syrup (its takes a long time) and began to can sap in mason jars at different sweetness levels. Just for fun, he tested these different types of sap drinks on some family members at a party and the business idea sort of struck me as I was watching all of the positive reactions to the drinks.
Coinciding with this revelation, we realized that the beverage industry had been changing dramatically over the past five years. Customers were becoming more health-conscious, which explains the popularity of products like coconut water, kombucha, and now Sap!. Traditional sugar-sweetened beverages were, and continue to be, declining dramatically. Customers are looking for healthy, better-for-you alternatives, and we knew we had just the product to capture customers in this changing landscape.
But there was certainly a deeper component for me in starting a business as well. I strongly believe in the power of business to change the world for the better – socially and environmentally – and that the successful businesses of the future will have these thoughts front of mind. So when evaluating our potential business, it had to check all of the boxes. First, and most importantly, it has a path to profitability. Secondly, the products are healthy and support dozens of local maple producers who often rely on maple as their main source of income. Third, we need healthy forests to successfully make our products; supporting the working landscape and a healthy environment in Vermont is crucial to our success. In other words, it has the potential to be a triple-win business.
How did you end up at VCET?
I’ve been connected in with VCET for a while. I was a member as a graduate student at UVM and I know a fair amount of people who work in the space. Since we do not need our own office space yet, I wanted to be in a community with a diverse set of creative people. Ultimately, much of our success will come down to 1. Having a great set of products and 2. Being able to tell the story of our company in a unique and dynamic way to connect with consumers on a level beyond just our products. That’s what many people do here at VCET in their various industries. Even though we’re not a tech company per se, we want to eventually tell our story through different technology channels, engaging people in these new and unique ways. Having access to the VCET network will be helpful for that over time.
Where are Sap! drinks made?
All the maple sap is sourced from Vermont maple trees, mostly out of Franklin County. As of now, we are only in production during March and April (when the sap runs). Sap! is packaged at Woodchuck Hard Cider in Middlebury, Vermont. Since we produce all of our inventory during a small window of time to preserve the quality, it’s difficult to know how much to make for the year. And although our products have a long shelf-life (two years), the limited canning window is certainly the biggest difficulty in our current business model.
However, we have seen our products strongly resonate with consumers who understand that these drinks are completely natural and cannot be made out of thin air (normal soda is made in batches from syrup concentrate, as needed to stock the shelves). While we are experimenting with ways to store and freeze sap to extend our canning window as a long-term necessity of the business model, connecting the dots for customers on the seasonality of the maple season, where the maple sap is from, and how exactly the products are made really helps to build consumer understanding and loyalty.
What has been your biggest challenge starting your own company?
There’s a learning curve with any new business. It’s important for me to remember how far we’ve come in the last 18 months. We didn’t even have a product on the shelf a year ago. Now we are getting close to 300 stores and working with Whole Foods. I think initially the biggest challenge for me was more mindset and confidence in the products. Having a consumable product means that every time someone tries your product, you feel like you are being judged. And that is just part of the deal. I have seen thousands and thousands of people try the products now and I have sales numbers to tangibly show me people love the products and buy the products in large volume. I have tremendous faith in the products. I think the biggest challenge now is to handle the growth in a strategic way. There is still so much I need to learn about the beverage industry, and minimizing mistakes is crucial. Success will really be directly linked to how hard we work, how well we tell our story, and how smart we are with our resources.
Do you have a favorite Sap! product? What is next for Sap!?
It depends on the day, but I really drink them pretty interchangeably. Sales of both products are actually 50/50. We don’t yet have a complete theory about why that is. The maple soda, which is the sweeter one, is actually a little healthier because the maple is more concentrated.
Our next product is a pure birch sap beverage. People drink birch sap all over the Northern Hemisphere. especially in Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Northern Asia, but it hasn’t become popular yet in the United States. Birch sap is even lower calorie and has less sugar than maple, and is arguably a little healthier due to its complex nutritional profile. Whereas our maple products have a sweet finish, the birch product has a slightly more tart, floral, raspberry-ish taste. Our birch product will be the first commercial birch sap beverage sourced from birch trees in the United States. It’s especially exciting because if it takes off and does well, it will represent a new industry for Vermont.
We currently have a partnership with UVM to study our products. More and more research is being conducted on maple, revealing its health properties and functional benefits. Maple sap has long been consumed as a medicinal tonic by Native American tribes all over the Northeast, and now modern science is backing this up.
On a lighter note, but still actually pretty serious, we are also currently researching the effects of maple sap on alcohol metabolism. There are a few research studies so far that show that if you drink maple sap before you drink alcohol, or with alcohol, the enzymes in the sap help the liver break down the alcohol more quickly, putting less stress on your liver overall. Not only does this have the potential to help prevent liver disease, it also helps to prevent your hangover the next day! It has certainly been anecdotally proven to work. While we joke about this a lot, it could be a further angle to the business that has major potential in giving a customer yet another reason to buy Sap! We will be conducting a research study this fall if anyone wants to participate (free drinks!).
FreshTracks Capital’s RoadPitch 2016 concluded this past week. Sam and I were able to make it to the North Hero and Hyde Park stops to hear some really awesome entrepreneurs give their pitches. We look forward to hearing some of those entrepreneurs pitch again in October!
Congratulations are in order to former coworker Aimee Marti, who successfully sold her company, Starboard Collections, to Architec Products of Delray Beach, FL. Aimee is looking for new opportunities in the Burlington area, bringing with her her love of marketing and her startup experience.
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