Coffee blossoms flourish in Kona

KonaRed’s Dawn

Shaun Roberts is having a major jolt of success, thanks to his latest start-up.

Shaun Roberts, co-founder and CEO of Kaua‘i-based KonaRed, is on his fifth start-up. Early mornings. Late nights. Investor meetings. Marketing campaigns. Juggling company engagements and time for his wife—co-founder Dana Roberts—their children and surfing. He likes riding tall waves, but it takes more stamina to ride the tide of his new business.

“Four out of five start-ups fail. This is treacherous water. There are peaks and valleys. it’s not easy,” says the 43-year-old Roberts. “When you are growing as fast as we are and trying to boost science at the same time, it’s a heavy undertaking. it hasn’t been a walk in the park. honestly, i don’t know that i would do another start-up again. it’s a daily grind.”

Lucky for Roberts, his latest pursuit is a juiced-up energy drink with a natural jolt from its main ingredient: Kona coffee cherries, the hawaiian super fruit.

“It’s loaded with antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties. i drink about two KonaRed beverages a day, and i consume it in lots of other forms. it gives me natural energy,” Roberts says. “i haven’t been sick in three years. That’s really important when you are on this kind of pace.”

Since discovering the potential of coffee cherries, Roberts has been operating at break-neck speed. Though he put about 200 other products on the shelf before KonaRed, his latest project has been his biggest challenge. Roberts says it’s even more demanding than assisting his wife with malie organics, her decade-long natural cosmetics endeavor.

“We own 100 percent of malie,” Roberts says. “This business required quite a bit of financing. it was a pretty expensive undertaking to take a product out of the ground and make it viable.”

It’s tough to bring a new beverage to market, says curt smith, the director of sales and brands for KonaRed in hawai’i, the pacific Rim and asia.

“New beverages launch all the time. to make it work, we had to show that we were beneficial,” smith says. “shaun really believed in this product, and he put his passion into it. he has a talent for branding and for reaching the right consumer and it shows in our success.”

Roberts, who grew up in affluent newport beach, calif., has been preparing for KonaRed for nearly all of his adult life. he launched his first business, earth friendly products, in 1998 after his then-employer american building maintenance capped his commission schedule.

“I left that minute. it was totally scary. i’d just gotten married,” he says. “We sold our house and used the capital to go out on our own.”

Roberts now knows that he made the right decision, albeit a challenging one, with a steep learning curve.

“The last 15 years have been a defi-nite master’s degree in business, especially the last four years with KonaRed,” he says, alluding to the fact that the product was part of fairly new market. “There have been tons of bumps. Cash flow is always a tough one.”

The seed money for KonaRed came from family and friends; however, Roberts says that the company is gearing up for a round of institutional funding.

After a year in the lab and some time spent defending a patent infringement suit, KonaRed has been steadily ramping up. The company grew 55-percent from 2011-the year that it first appeared on retail shelves-to 2012, he says.

“Shaun is such a smart business man,” Smith says. “He had a plan and he knew how to go about realizing it. When something is good, he likes to say, ‘it’s standard.’ That’s indicative of the high expectations that influence everything in his life, from the quality of the product to the way that he does business to his relationships.”

In almost no time, KonaRed garnered high-profile endorsements from watermen Jamie Mitchell and Garrett McNamara and its sustainable business model began to receive national attention. The product makes use of the 40 million coffee cherries that Kona farmers would otherwise discard when harvesting the beans.

“We love to tell the story of Kona coffee and its farmers through our products,”

Roberts says. “People are responding.”

The KonaRed line is sold by quite a number of Hawai’i and U.S. mainland retailers ranging from Safeway and CVS in Hawai’i to Whole Foods, Kmart, Walmart, Walgreens, CVS and Albertsons. Recent nationwide deals put it in 148 Sprouts stores and 130 Fresh Market stores. Last summer, Hawai’i Jamba Juice tested KonaRed smoothies, and they were so popular that the promotion will expand to 750 of the retailer’s locations this June.

“If it’s as successful as it was in Hawai’i, it could become a permanent menu item,” Roberts says.

The company also is partnering with TCBY to launch a KonaRed yogurt flavor that will be featured during March, April and May, he says.

“It’s hard to believe that we’ve only been on the shelf for 18 months,” Roberts says. “We’re expanding further into the U.S. mainland and into Japan and Canada this year.”

Launching Java Red from Indonesian beans may not be far off into the future either, he says.

“Hawai’i is just a small blip on the coffee-growing regions around the world. There are billions of pounds of fruit on the ground,” Roberts says. “Ultimately, we believe that it’s really natural medicine. The future for the business involves staying true to Hawai’i and expanding into other parts of the world.”

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