The product first debuted in Chop’t locations in New York City in January/February 2020 under the brand name ‘TRIP,’ which in retrospect was a poor choice, concedes McCabe, who was forced to rethink his branding strategy after consumers – who loved the product – assumed it was laced with THC (it isn't) and take them on a very different kind of trip.
“The idea was to communicate the idea of a journey and being out in nature and having an active lifestyle,” he told FoodNavigator-USA. “But a lot of people thought we were taking them on a psychedelic journey...
“The feedback on the formula was excellent, and we only made minor modifications, to increase the bubble size, but the packaging was a bit of a Junior varsity effort and we had to totally rebrand, before we launched in mid-July under the Free Rain brand. It was a valuable lesson.”
More flavor and more function
So what’s in the product?
“I came at this thinking that there’s room for more flavor in sparkling water, but also more function,” said McCabe, who pondered entering the functional beverage space after giving up alcohol when training for a triathlon and finding himself uninspired by the options in the sparkling water category.
Each can of Free Rain ($2.99) contains carbonated water, 17-21% juice – which adds flavor and masks the taste of some of the functional ingredients - and “efficacious” amounts of adaptogens delivering effects that “you can feel,” claimed McCabe.
There are three flavors targeting different usage occasions: Tart cherry and Siberian ginseng (330mg) for energy; blood orange, ginger, and ashwagandha (140mg) for focus; and blackberry and passionflower (225mg) for calm, which are all performing well, said McCabe. "In terms of online sales, it's around 40:32:28 for Focus, Energy, and Calm, so the fact that there's not a dog in the group makes me feel really great."
Each 12oz can has 5g sugar from fruit juice (there’s no added sugar), said McCabe. “I started with the levels of adaptogens that I wanted, and then varied the amount of juice to get to the flavor profile I wanted. But it was also important not to go over 25 calories.”
'I didn't want to get caught up in that larger conversation about CBD'
McCabe considered CBD, but has chosen not to include it in the first wave of products, in part because of the regulatory uncertainty, but also because he didn't want to get lost in all the noise around the ingredient, particularly as he felt there were other botanicals that would help the brand stand out and carve a more distinct path within the functional beverage space.
'I’m constantly saying to myself, Hey Colin, you still have a lot to learn'
Having built and run a restaurant business, McCabe has an advantage over entrepreneurs trying to enter the notoriously competitive beverage market from scratch (plus he has a bunch of ready-made locations where he can test his wares on consumers).
With contacts throughout the industry, he could “also get answers to the things I didn’t know” more quickly than a complete outsider, and he knows the vocabulary investors are looking for in a pitch. But Chop’t and Free Rain are two very different beasts, said McCabe, who is looking to raise a Series A round in 2022.
“It’s still food, but the beverage industry is very different to the restaurant industry, and I’m constantly saying to myself, Hey Colin, you still have a lot to learn.
“The marketing and influencer piece of the business is where most of your dollars in beverage need to go, and that’s what I knew the least about. So I’m learning a lot about how to work with influencers, and how to do e-commerce in a way that I didn’t know from the restaurant business.”
COVID-19 flipped the go to market strategy on its head
As for the go-to-market strategy, the original (pre-covid) plan was to "go foodservice, grocery, and then direct to consumer," said McCabe.
"When covid hit, we flipped that, and decided to focus on direct to consumer first [in July], then foodservice and grocery in parallel."
It wasn't planned this way, but beginning with DTC helped inform the bricks & mortar strategy by showing very clearly where most of the demand for the products was coming from, he added.
"It became obvious that New York and L.A. were our two biggest potential markets, and it helped us focus our resources. Our first major grocery account was Erewhon, and that opened some doors for us."