Sanzo has experienced skyrocketing growth over the past 4 years building the first Asian-Inspired sparkling water brand. I sit down with founder Sandro Roco to discuss what led to starting the brand and how he’s navigated their fast growth.
Startup to Scale is a podcast by Foodbevy, an online community to connect emerging food, beverage, and CPG founders to great resources and partners to grow their business. Visit us at Foodbevy.com to learn about becoming a member or an industry partner today.
Sandro Roco - Sanzo
Jordan Buckner: [00:00:00] Hey everyone, Jordan here and I'd like to welcome Sandro Roco, founder of sanzo, launched in 2019. It's the first Asian inspired sparkling water brand on a mission to bridge Eastern and Western cultures. Sanzo has a retail strategy that goes deep, not wide. And after seeing 350% year over year wholesale growth, Sandro's 2023 approach to retail is to dig deep instead of going wide.
In the short time since launching sanzo, they can be found in 3,500 doors and more across the country and major retailers like Whole Foods, target and Sprouts. I buy mine from Whole Foods every week, and Sandro's goal is to really nourish these relationships and. solidify Sanzo's position as a key player in the saturated market of sparkling beverages.
Sandro Roco: Hey, thanks so much for having me. Great to be here. .
Jordan Buckner: Thank you. So I've been a long time follower of all the work that you're doing and really impressed of what you've been able to build in the last four years. [00:01:00] But I'd love for you to take me back to the beginning and help me understand what was the spark that led you to create Sanzo ?
Sandro Roco: Sure. Yeah, and I think you mentioned it at the top too, that, you know been about four years since we've you know, been in business. And it's interesting, like when I think back to that time and the way that the world was and the way that it is today obviously a lot has changed and.
Variety of things, but the biggest thing that I think has really come to even bigger fruition but was a seedling at the time, was like the bridging of cultures. , I guess a crossover appeal of Asian culture across a variety of you know, creative verticals into the really, like the broader American mainstream , lot of the idea for Sanzo was, you know, in the year before I started the company, so that was in 2018 or so. And. At the time, you know, that was the year that Crazy Rich Asians became the number one film at the box office. It's now actually the sixth highest grossing romantic comedy of all time.
Just right behind, there's something about Mary Nice. Just kinda show you like , how ubiquitous the appeal of that film was. And you know, since then, You know, there've been films [00:02:00] like you know, parasite Xi, the Legend of the 10 Rings. A Marvel film that grows half a billion dollars at the box office.
Korean pop music has really become like, true. I mean, this past April, it was, you know, black, pink headlined Coachella. And they continue and a variety of K-pop Acts, p t s, I mean, I could go down the line here. Literally sell out football stadiums. And. Yeah. At the, yeah. Back in 2018, I think you were starting to see this happening.
And like, I think little data points, like very strong data points were happening. And then even for my own personal journey, I'm Filipino American, and let's say, since in the 2010s that I was even starting to develop even my own sense of appreciation for my you know, Asian American heritage.
It had always been. There growing up, but not necessarily something that I was you know, really heavily like attaching myself to. But seeing just a bunch of these, you know, like amazing creators do what they do and have a real impact on society had me wondering, hey, is there something that I might be able to contribute to this conversation?
And. Yeah. Also in 2018, at least for [00:03:00] myself was also like that to me was like the summer of LaCroix in the summer of Sparkling Water. Yeah. I was working at a technology company at the time and our fridges were stocked with LaCroix bubbly I think come out that year. There just a bunch of other.
Yeah, brands, both private label and third party that were just like getting really popular. And I just was finding that it was like replacing for me, like literally water. Instead of water I really enjoyed and just got so much more joy and satisfaction drinking sparking water. And I was like, Okay, it, this is cool.
But then what I also noticed was in this fridge our office manager would buy from, you know, all these different brands from box.com and the , cool brands, but the same exact, for me at least, like lemon, lime, grapefruit, mixed berry, mixed Andrew flavors, all kinds of flavors.
And I just felt like, Awesome. But gosh, I think there's so much more room to have real conversations here about like other, like other interesting flavors. And so those points really you know, really served as the like spark plug for asking like, Hey, is there room [00:04:00] for brand here to have and open up these kinds of conversations that can celebrate you know, these underlying cultures that have these amazing fruit flavors.
And so yeah, that's what kind of started me down the rabbit hole. And it's a, you know, four years later you know, here we are.
Jordan Buckner: Yeah. I absolutely love that. And so, what was going on in your personal life that led you to think that this was the right time to start a beverage business? Right? You're at this technology company that you've been there for a couple of years, you noticed this, you know, a couple mega trends that were going on , and had this personal need.
But what actually was the impetus for you, like stepping out in launch as a company?
Sanzo Roco: Yeah,, I'm sure it's the question that many entrepreneurs are aspiring entrepreneurs ask themselves, which is like, okay, I have this idea. What do I want do about it? You know, and I think, you know, what I've seen, and fortunate that in the five years you know, before starting the company, that technology, the company that I was working at I was one of the first hires at the company.
Was, you know, basically this, the right hand person to our CEOs for almost like the entire time. [00:05:00] So I got to see him and his co-founders, you know, build the company and see all that they had to go through. And you know, I think the ultimate question was just like, am I the person to do this?
Like, why me? Or yeah, someone else surely has this idea and is going to go ahead and do it and whatnot. But kept like asking myself it, , and the more just like, frankly I couldn't go to sleep without thinking about the idea or kept waking up and like thinking about it, the more I was like, Hmm, you know, Maybe there's a reason it doesn't have,
and like, I remember like, you know, doing Google searches and being like, okay, some things that are like maybe somewhat similar or at least like these import brands that are like super cool, but there's really nothing quite like what I've thinking about right now. And , it would like legitimately eat at me.
what if I don't pursue this? Will I regret this? Because I think someone else. You know, will, , I don't think I'm the most like, original person out there. I'm not , inventing new battery technology or like saving the war. Like I don't think I have the capability to create like, you know, history changing technology.
And [00:06:00] so, I was like, surely someone else might have this idea. But gosh, I think I have something unique to maybe to like lend to it. And so it was really just coming from that perspective that just kind of led me down a path of like, okay, it's at least worth exploring. And again, like, yeah.
Folks who are listening here also, like, it's not like I had the idea and then immediately just like quit my job. I just went at it like actually. And I actually coach a lot of folks, I actually tell folks, especially in this industry, gosh, keep your job for as long as you can.
Especially the first iterations of research and development you know, initial brand building, things like that at least my experience is it actually takes quite a bit of time. And, I decided to formulate on my own but then was getting my recipes like.
You know, signed off by a process authority, had to order raw materials, had to find a co-packer all these things that just frankly took time. But honestly like. At least what I found was they don't also take up 40 hours a week right. In the beginning. And so I actually think the best thing you can do as a founder is like, actually continue, like to maintain a job[00:07:00] and use, you know, whatever discretionary income you have remaining to help fund this and see.
What actually makes sense because there's some things that I found were like, okay, actually, you know, we put maybe a couple hundred bucks into this, you know, into this iteration and didn't quite work out or didn't go the way that I thought it would. And so okay. That's actually a quick pivot. That's easy to do, easy to fund when you were drawing a salary.
And it really took, maybe, honestly it took about a year's worth of moonlighting on the brand before I thought it made sense to actually like fully make the leap. So for me it wasn't nearly as like dramatic as, okay, I have this idea now I'm gonna like, Drop everything and like step in and this is, and this is it.
It was a much more gradual process for me.
Jordan Buckner: Well, I appreciate you sharing that because the business, especially being the beverage business, it's really expensive. The minimum order quantities that you know is really large, and then you have to try to get all those accounts and sell, it's hard to launch e-commerce because you're shipping liquid water across the entire country.
Right. And so having [00:08:00] the funds to be able to support that initial lift and initial growth, We'll be able to kind of give you more opportunities so you don't have to take bad deals just to kinda sell some product at the front end. And I really appreciate you mentioning the larger cultural movement around kind of this continued growth in Asian culture and Asian American culture even specifically.
And it's really one of the mega trends that I've seen. And when I say mega trends, something that's going to be lasting for a long time, that's fueling a lot of growth in the country right now. And as you mentioned, it's in movies, it's in music, it's in C P G products. I mean, you're part of a wave of Asian American c p g founders who are really building amazing businesses and seeing great growth.
You know, there's companies like, you know, fly by Jing and Osom and tons of others who I could mention. And I love seeing that movement. And so, you know, what is it even like building amongst other Asian American c p G founders?
Sanzo Roco: Sure. It's funny hearing you say that it's now a megatrend because if you [00:09:00] asked us, you know, for the last, like four years before this we believed it.
But a lot of investors even certain buyers, distributors, like it's been a sell. And I think even I've now learned you know, trends have to get started by. Someone or some entity or some community, they don't just you know, manifest themselves. And so, you know, again, even I think just like a lesson that I learned as an entrepreneur is like you can read into like industry trends and try to cobble things together that way.
And, you know, that's a very like big c p g playbook or. Like, at least for us, I think we started with our community and built a trend out of that by, you know, by investing into this community. And I think at least from my perspective, where we've all developed like very strong friendships on a much more personal level, even beyond, is just, you know, founders, is that we had similar thesis around being you know, first generation Asian Americans who, you know, have strong familial ties.
Both our families that are here, but also the families that live abroad [00:10:00] and wanting to make sure that we're doing both the work of respecting and honoring those cultures. But also, you know, from our perspective too, like laying down the foundation for what the future's gonna look like.
I saw this in a tweet and so I apologize, I can't remember who this should be attributed to. But. Something that really, really spoke to me was that it was a tweet that was like a lot of first gens focus too heavily on being good descendants versus being great ancestors for the future.
And that just really struck with me because it's like, you know, while we do wanna respect the past, like there's also a very unique story that I think a lot of us first gens have in being, you know, predominantly born and raised here, but having those connections. And so I think, you know, the last point that I'll say there, I.
Is that it has made it, I mean, nothing in this industry is easy, but if there's anything that's at least made it more joyful and sure, maybe a little bit of an easier lift is that, you know, we are all helping to carry it for each other. So like, you know, the work that we're doing [00:11:00] in beverage, we.
We get benefit to your point from, you know, brands like Fly by Jing, you know, the Mo Fuku, c p g line bot ons, Omsom, the work that people are doing, you know, so everyone that, all the work that's being done in sauces there's also a lot of amazing brands, you know, being built in the of ALK space.
The snack space. And so it's like, it does help when you're part of a larger trend. And I think in beverage, a lot of it had been let's say like the, the coconut water wars or, you know, more recently the role of like, you know, probiotic and prebiotic sodas. It's like you're kind of more directly folks building out a set.
I think what we're building, it's a slight tweak, but you know, it's not too dissimilar in that, you know, we're tapping into what had been a really unmet consumer need and demand across aisles.
Jordan Buckner: Yeah, I absolutely love that. And, you know just made me think about A series of posts that I think Kim and Kim and Vanessa from made around like breaking out of the ethnic aisle a couple years ago.
And I [00:12:00] love that there's just a proliferation of products across, as you mentioned, the entire grocery store across category, all with a similar mentality of how can we leverage traditional flavors, maybe from areas of the world that we're from. And being able to re-envision that in. A current way, right?
It's like, not even a re it's just like the current lives that we're living. And I love that quote that you found around really being good ancestors for the future. So absolutely love that. I wanna dive into your business a little bit, right? So you've seen pretty quick growth in the last four years.
What have been some of the biggest challenges in managing just the growth and the size of the company and building that as a beverage brand?
Sandro Roco: Yeah, I mean, we talked about it a little bit. Yeah. It didn't in the last one, but like, just, you know, beverage in particular it's an expensive category. You know , I started, actually started the company with just my own capital.
You know, no co-founders didn't have any previous business partners. And also [00:13:00] clearly because of that, no previous industry experience. Because what I've learned is, you know, yeah, having tried to be as. Scrappy as I think I could possibly be in the beginning and getting it off the ground you do hit a point where especially if the business is going well,
if you have the fortune of, you know, getting in and actually having some like good velocities out of the gate you need significantly more capital to fund continued growth. And look like at the time, especially in the beginning. Like, I'm kind of not. You know sugarcoating it, like in the beginning days, like I was not getting a lot of yeses from investors. There were folks who didn't quite understand the thesis.
You know, so many of the questions were, is this drink just for Asians? How big of the market is just the Asian American consumer? And kind of like taking you down a line of questioning that would make you think that , like no one else except. Asians who only speak like non-English languages would consume this product. And like, again,
Jordan Buckner: well, you know, like only people who are Chinese at Chinese restaurants.
So it would make sense, right? A higher world does
Sandro Roco: Obviously, right? Like there aren't [00:14:00] chains like Panda Express that have like, you know, global dominance, right? Like and so, you know, , it did take a while and look like I, that first like, you know, 18, you know we've been around for four years.
But I'd say even just. It's really only been the last year and a half to two years that we've even had like real distribution. I mean, a lot of our business in the beginning was direct to consumer or just like building up smaller case studies in regional tests because that's really all the business could afford.
And so you know , it's been a bit of , that part had been a slog, but it was also a good forcing function for me to say, okay, I do have to prove it out. You know at a local regionalized level before folks will give us the capital , to grow and in many ways, like, I think a lot of it was intentional on my end just because I realized how much capital I did not have.
A part of it also was a good thing, right? It actually meant that we had to show real product market fit you know , before we could earn the opportunity to scale beyond that. And so, you know, I think especially, I think just generally as an emerging beverage brand, capital constraints are always gonna be a thing.
Especially over the last, you know, 18 months, we've had to be a [00:15:00] lot more watchful over our runway. We were fortunate, I'll say, to have raised a larger round of financing when times were good. And so that definitely helped in being able to. Kind of like, say like, you survive and even thrive during what's been a pretty tough time for a lot of folks who are fortunate there.
And now, I'd say the biggest thing that I am, you know, working through on a personal professional level is really how I take the, you make the transition from being purely founder into founder, c e o. You know, our team has increased in size as it's needed to, to support the retail distribution that we now have.
We're now at 19 full-time team members. Wow. And that's, you know, , we had even up until the end of last year, been predominantly a natural channel brand, but this year we've now opened up you know, conventional grocery in a little bit more of a meaningful way. We're in every safe way.
Albertsons and Vons, in and pavilions in California and Hawaii. We also opened up about a month ago every stop and shop in the Northeast. And so. You know, as the distribution has grown so has the [00:16:00] need. To develop a real culture. 'cause now that we have a team, like folks rightfully, you know, expect certain things out of their employer.
And so, you know, we want to give our employees you know, a fantastic experience while they're here. And so just, you know, I think before. You know, one of the biggest benefits I think I had was, you know, as a previously bootstrapped brand was, you know, I had to learn every single part of the business and I loved it.
You know, I'm an engineer by trade, , also I worked in finance and then I also worked in, you know, in marketing. And so I just enjoy every aspect of the business. But, you know, now that we have, you know, functional leaders for each, you know, key part of the business you know, I've also had to learn where I'm actually being a bottleneck for the team if I'm, To invest it in the weeds.
And I need to actually like, empower the team to be able to make their own decisions. And for me I don't wanna say get outta the way, 'cause actually some people will say that and I actually disagree with that. I think, you know, team leaders, they want their c e O to.
Be there. Not get outta the way, actually get behind them. Yes. As they're making a [00:17:00] decision. And so that's, you know, like , that transition has definitely been one of the most fun and empowering ones. And just, yeah, it was like awesome to see like our team leaders. I. You know, take it to the next level.
And yeah, , that's been a fun, awesome transition for me.
Jordan Buckner: Well, that's definitely an important and powerful milestone, and so excited , to hear about just what you've been going through as you've been navigating that process. You know, one area that from the outside at least I see you and the team doing a really amazing job at is on retail activations.
And merchandising and setting up displays. It really makes a huge impact, right, of like the ground game and making sure that you're getting the visibility and, you know, frankly right then that drives sales for the brand as well, in key stores. And so any insights on really how to be successful at each individual store level account that you're in when you start growing?
Sandro Roco: Yeah, I mean, it goes back to the point that I talked about with. You know, having more regionalized you know, distribution and like [00:18:00] maybe s slightly slower distribution gains than some folks who may, you know, come out of the gate with, you know, 5,000, 10,000 doors. At the end of the day, once you open up those doors you need to support them or like, or you don't.
Right? And so I think for us, you know, because we've gone at a bit more of a measured pace, you know , we've been able to develop learnings at each level about what works and what does not. And I think having that level of perspective and I'll say too, like giving that to the retailer, you know, showing them like we will do whatever we need to do to support.
Here's also what we've learned and what we have found is that the retailers and our distribution partners, Very much value that, especially if it's coming from a place of real lived experience. And so, You know, what I'd say to folks who were in the earliest stages is like the value of building credibility through, you know, those early days of like actually being in the field learning about your brand, interacting with customers, interacting with the distributors, interacting with the, you [00:19:00] know, the retail team.
At, four or five o'clock in the morning as they're resetting the store for the day especially in the earliest days, like that really can't be understated. Obviously at some point you gotta turn on the, you know, the bigger brand awareness machine through, you know, at a home.
You know, you're like social media fees or Yeah. That it's becoming increasingly important. But also that doesn't matter if. Someone comes to a store and they can't find you, or you're not in the right place, or they find another competitive brand , that does have a better place and they add them to cart before you.
And so, you know, I think the biggest lesson that we've had that we've taken is. That we've gained is like when we go into a retailer, we actually, think for the most part, have at least a semi-educated point of view on how we think merchandising can go. And you'd be surprised I think like how much the retailer really respects , and wants to work with you on that.
Jordan Buckner: I think that's amazing, Sandro, and I appreciate that insight. Sandra, thanks so much for being on the show today. If anyone's listening and hasn't tried Sanzo out, like definitely make [00:20:00] sure you drop by a Whole Foods or SPRs to get some My favorite's, Aliche, but everyone has their own. So pick up one of each and figure out which one's your favorite.
Sandro Roco: Thanks for the time.