Making It: A Potomac couple develop a natural alternative to Diet Coke and get just the boost they craved

SPARKLING SUCCESS: Mary Heron and her husband turned a quest for acola substitute into their own soft-drink company.
SPARKLING SUCCESS: Mary Heron and her husband turned a quest for acola substitute into their own soft-drink company. (Copyright Keith Barraclough)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, December 28, 2008

Mary Heron used to be hooked on Diet Coke. Now her obsession is making her own beverage concept a success.

Mary, a resident of Potomac, grew up in Connecticut and attended now-closed Dumbarton College in Washington. She worked as a fourth-grade teacher in Montgomery County, but then "my competitive spirit came out, and so I went into modeling." She modeled for almost 15 years, appearing in print and television ads, including some for local retailers such as Raleigh's, Woodward & Lothrop and Hecht's.

When the second of her three children -- who are now 26, 23 and 17 -- came along, Mary became a stay-at-home mom. About 81/2 years ago, Mary and her husband, John, made their difficult break with Diet Coke for health reasons. But she "missed the bubbles, the little caffeine lift that you get, missed that great cola flavor," says Mary, who says she is in her late 50s. "So we decided to come out with a replacement that was better for you."

As a businessman and entrepreneur who co-founded the company that makes Balance Bar nutrition bars and later sold it to Kraft, John had the right experience. The couple contracted with food developer Pete Mattson, whose company is behind products such as the Starbucks Frappuccino, to come up with a formula that uses the equivalent of two cups of antioxidant-rich green tea as a natural lift in a sparkling, cola-flavored beverage. They named the drink Cricket and started selling two products, a cola and a diet cola, in late 2002.

Dean & Deluca in Georgetown was one of Cricket's first East Coast outlets and still carries the brand. But because the drink was bottled in California and because that part of the country seemed more ready for the concept, most Cricket sales were in "alternative neighborhoods" on the West Coast, Mary says. "It was a painful process of educating people, really, one by one at a demo, as to why green tea was good for you and what an antioxidant was."

Mary and her husband had spent $250,000 of their own money to get Cricket started, and later they took out home loans and raised capital from investors to expand. "We made a lot of mistakes in the beginning," such as having too many employees on the West Coast and trying to expand in too many markets, Mary says. So, after about two years, they scaled back. John left Cricket to work as an investment banker, and Mary and one employee stayed with the company as they continued filling orders from existing customers and retooled the product.

Mary decided to go all-natural, had the labels redesigned to make them stand out more, and expanded the line -- adding several fruit flavors -- so the product would take up more space on store shelves and catch shoppers' eyes. Cricket relaunched in fall 2007, and its annual sales, which had hovered under $500,000, are projected to top $1 million this year. The brand is now sold in half the Whole Foods Markets in the country and in many other specialty-food stores; suggested retail price for a single 12-ounce serving is $1.69.

This month, Cricket has been in final negotiations to be acquired by Meridian Beverage Co., based in Chicago, for an undisclosed amount of Meridian stock, according to Jason Maples, Meridian's chief executive. Maples says Meridian is focused on acquiring healthful beverage products and building a distribution network that will make them more affordable. Cricket fits into that model, he says, and "the product is outstanding."

Mary will go along as senior vice president of sales and marketing for Meridian and, for the first time, will receive a salary, though she will continue to work from Potomac. She says, "I always knew I could only take Cricket so far, and the company structure needed to change to let Cricket go -- almost like a child -- and grow."

Are you succeeding with a new or unusual career, invention, business or creative endeavor? E-mail

© 2008 The Washington Post Company