The Sunniva Caffe team. (Fom left to right): Jake DeCicco, Jim DeCicco; Kudzai Taziva; Jordan DeCicco, and Harry Glor. (Photo courtesy of Sunniva Caffe).

The entrepreneurs

As a college athlete juggling the demands of basketball and class at Philadelphia University, Jordan DeCicco was tired. Falling-asleep-in-class tired. He didn’t want the energy shots and sugary energy drinks available in the school convenience store. He couldn’t find a pick-me-up that was good for him, tasted good, and gave him the energy he needed to get through the day.

So he turned to a blender in his dorm room, and began mixing. He eventually combined organic Colombian coffee with 10 grams of milk protein isolate instead of fatty creamers. This lean protein fortified his coffee with essential amino acids and a smooth finish. He then added healthy fats from coconut oil (medium chain triglycerides or MCTs) for a sustained boost of focused energy.

In a few short weeks, Jordan’s teammates and classmates noticed his newfound energy. They wanted some, too, so he started selling the coffee. The dorm-room business grew on campus so quickly, prompting him to join forces with brother Jake. Last summer, they bottled the coffee and got it on the shelves of an area Whole Foods. The early success prompted oldest brother Jim to join business, too.

The pitch

Jim DeCicco, chief executive, Sunniva Caffe

“Our mission is to inspire healthy, productive living. All three of us brothers were college athletes and our mom raised us on organic foods, preaching the powerful effects of nutrition and real food on our health and performance. Most food companies focus on the function of flavor, compromising the authenticity and health of their ingredients. The market is saturated with energy products that are loaded with sugars, artificial flavors and harmful amounts of caffeine. All we’re doing is taking the beloved commodity of coffee and making it better – better taste, better energy, better for you.

“Each bottle of Super Coffee has 10 grams of protein and 4 grams of MCT oil from coconuts. We offer four varieties: vanilla, cinnamon, mocha and black.

“We’re based in D.C. We currently are in 21 Whole Foods stores from Northern Virginia to Baltimore and we sell our coffee on our website. We’re doing a case study with 7-Eleven in D.C. and we’re carried at Georgetown University and Philadelphia University.

“The bottled coffee industry is booming, but a lot of that is growth in cold-brewed coffee. Ours is a functional beverage – coffee fortified with protein and coconut oil – so it’s unique from the other options out there. Right now, we are a refrigerated product, but we’ve grown sales volumes large enough to hit the tipping point for a production contract with a shelf-stable manufacturer. This transition opens the door to new distribution and partnership opportunities.

“We’re currently in the middle of a seed financing round to propel our growth from the Washington region up to New York City. We’re targeting college campuses, natural food channels and select convenience stores. We want to be the healthy bottled coffee beverage that you can buy anywhere.

“We’re halfway to our fundraising goal. We’re hoping to bring on some strategic investors who also have connections in the food and beverage space that can help us with distribution and new accounts.

“As we go about that process, how do young brands convey with transparency their benefits? Food marketing often fools consumers. We are a truly healthy option, but how do we stand out?”

The advice

Elana Fine, managing director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business

“You need to do more than just say Sunniva Caffe is healthy and made with organic ingredients – take it a step further. Fortified coffee is a new segment so you really need to make it clear in your branding. People don’t think about coffee and protein in same vein. Focus more on the benefits that having protein in your coffee can provide. Also think about when consumers might want a coffee with protein and who really needs it. Is it breakfast replacement? Will it keep you fuller during the day? Is it a way to have more energy without more caffeine? Quantify the benefits and make sure consumers really understand what they are getting with your product. There is an education you can be doing about the benefits.

“It’s great that you are halfway there on your fundraising. To meet your goal, pinpoint what is resonating with the investors you have already brought on. For additional investors, look for people who are uniquely interested in food and have already invested in the space. Food is certainly a growing area of interest for investors, but it’s also a very competitive landscape and coffee is particularly competitive.”

The reaction

DeCicco

“The medium chain fats from the coconut oil in Sunniva contain more energy per ounce than carbohydrates and our bodies burn these fats for energy. The result is a long-lasting organic energy, from nature, not labs.

“Though created by athletes, Sunniva is crafted for young professionals, college students, yoga moms, corporate offices and more. We drink super coffee in the morning, after workouts, or during late nights in the library.

“Consumers are losing trust in big brands and favor smaller, underdog brands with transparent messaging and authentic stories. Our consumer benefit of healthy, fortified energy is innovative in the coffee space. Investors are excited about this key differentiator in a booming bottled coffee industry.

“Additionally, most investors have been very impressed by our local ‘velocities.’ Our same-store sales growth in a very limited distribution area has been an encouraging proof of concept. Our customers understand super coffee and they keep coming back for more. We’re looking for strategic connections who can help us replicate these velocities in new markets.”

Looking for some advice on a new business, or need help fixing an existing one? Capital Business and the experts at the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business are ready to assist. Contact us at capbiznews@washpost.com.