Why These Beverage Founders Bet On Premiumization

Post by Cecilia F. Pineda

The Journey To Founding And Funding A Fresh Startup In A Traditional Industry

There was a time when ads claimed how delicious (and healthy) processed food like American cheese and Twinkies were. Chemical flavorings, colors, preservatives, and lots of sugar: These ingredients have now inspired whole movements and businesses whose aim is to eradicate them from our foods and beverages. As far as beverages go, for years people had been satisfied with mixing their whiskey with lemon-flavored soda or their rum with cola-flavored soda. Of course, there have been fancy mixers such as orgeat and falernum, but a visit to your local bar, restaurant, or club most often served guests cocktails with old-school mixers from a soda gun. 

AVEC DRINKS Co-Founders Denetrias “Dee” Charlemagne and Alex Doman knew that they and their fellow consumers deserved a healthier, tastier mixer alternative and set out to develop one. They both saw how people would try to hack their way to a healthier drink by switching out sour mix for citrus, adding herbs, or even nut milks. 

Healthy Trends And A Void In The Marketplace

After seeing these trends toward less processed and more indulgent food and drink with more natural, healthy, and interesting ingredients—and after rejecting some other less fun, less lucrative entrepreneurial ideas while still at Columbia Business School, both class of 2020—Charlemagne and Doman also recognized the relative void in the premium mixer marketplace. They eventually agreed to collaborate to create AVEC, named after the French word for “with.” With the examples of successful premium natural beverages like Seedlip and Fever-Tree mixers, they established their line of premium all-natural carbonated mixers featuring low sugar and exotic flavors.

The Right Industry At The Right Time With The Right Team

Doman’s experience as a management consultant with a food & beverage or hospitality specialty (working with a range of businesses from S&P 500 stalwarts to new-born startups) along with Charlemagne’s background in media and advertising (working at top firms like Ogilvy and Mather, WPP, and VICE Media building the brands of others) combine to form a diverse and complementary team that offers a fresh voice and an innovative product to a relatively stale, undiversified field. Although they just launched, the duo’s startup has already attracted the likes of Liquor, Trendhunter, Eater plus The New York Times’s Florence Fabricant’s “Front Burner” column. Doman states, “The industry is crying out for a healthy alternative to sugar-filled mixers and tasteless soda water. Our five flavors use real juice, natural botanicals, and spices to create delicious mixers without all the sugar.”

Although Charlemagne and Doman have yet to seek formal funding, Charlemagne does speculate about the eventual funding support for AVEC given the historical challenges. As she describes it, “I’m aware that there are only about 40 black female founders who have raised over $1 million in VC funding. I have met some of them and continue to be inspired by them as we build AVEC.” Overall, Black founders have received about 1{554322552816a46baa129cc1ab31b2aae22be5e23f407658ace83a643d80b0e9} of VC dollars, females founders 8{554322552816a46baa129cc1ab31b2aae22be5e23f407658ace83a643d80b0e9}, and Black women founders .0006{554322552816a46baa129cc1ab31b2aae22be5e23f407658ace83a643d80b0e9}.

Originally AVEC targeted raising a $1 million Pre-Seed with a big launch this summer. Due to Covid-19 and how it has affected deadlines worldwide, instead, they raised a Friends, Family, and Angels round. They launched softly while their customers have been meeting friends at virtual happy hours and quieter gatherings at home and now outside. Along with direct-to-consumer access via their website AVECDrinks.com, AVEC has succeeded in penetrating the local New York City and Hamptons-area markets at various small grocers and retailers, notably Brooklyn Fare and Dumbo Market, with more to come.

Bridging The American Divide

One woman whom Charlemagne finds particularly inspirational and fascinating to follow is fellow Columbia alumna Ursula Burns, MS ‘82SEAS ME, the former and first-ever Black and female CEO and chair of Xerox. She explains, “As a Black woman who is a leader in her field, I know she had to work that much harder to get where she wanted to be, where she needed to be, to succeed and fulfill her potential. That motivates me in everything I do. Her story plus a class I took during my MBA program called  ‘Bridging the American Divide’ made me think differently about the kind of business leader I want to be.” The class talks about the causes and consequences of the American divide—and what the students as future business leaders might do to help bridge it. 

Setting Goals For AVEC’s Future

“We want to redefine the ‘mixer’ category in the US around modern values—high quality, all-natural, low sugar, but also diverse teams and sustainable supply chains,” Doman explains. He points out that the company’s very name suggests and encourages the act of bringing people together, which in today’s world is needed more than ever. Ultimately, AVEC’s founders know that when people convene to eat and drink together, they are creating moments where they can converse, connect, promote change, and drive empowerment.

Charlemagne adds, “We want to promote living a balanced and healthy life while injecting a sense of fun in our brand and the way our products are consumed. Once we achieve that with the AVEC  brand, there are several lifestyle directions we could pursue where we could continue to support diversity in taste and in communities.”

When asked about what her idea of more immediate success would look like for AVEC, she envisions walking down the street and spotting people in restaurants, bars, and on terraces drinking an AVEC drink, with or without spirits. Based on their traction and the attention they have garnered so far, it looks like AVEC’s founders are on their way to making that first vision a reality. 

Cecilia F. Pineda is Senior Associate Director at the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center at Columbia Business School. For a while, her passion for food and beverage manifested in owning and managing restaurants/bars/catering companies, and marketing and distributing retail and wholesale food products. 

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