By Hanna Neier, Senior Content Editor
Brother and sister duo Daniel and Rebecca Dengrove just scored a major victory. Their company, Brewla Bars, maker of ice pops from naturally brewed ingredients, was recently acquired by Ruby’s Naturals. Here Daniel Dengrove talks about how he and his sister found their niche in a saturated market and why they decided to sell.
What inspired you to build an ice pop business?
Growing up in Los Angeles, I always loved eating ice pops. But then as an adult, I would go to the supermarket with a craving for one and find that ice pops hadn’t evolved much. There were still only artificial, overly sweet, basic flavors, so there was a real opportunity to make an impact there. I talked to my sister, Rebecca, who’s a food scientist and had done some cool stuff with Vitamin Water and Pepsi, and we started the company right out of her kitchen in New York.
And how did you carve out your niche?
We landed on the idea of tea, with its health connotations and complex flavor profile, as the basis for our ice pops. We tested the market by bringing it to farmers markets in New York. We learned a lot, like not everybody likes tea. So we expanded to include different brewed ingredients, like our root beer float and coffee flavor, all which have that same complex flavor profile.
We also created a great nutritional profile—our pops are 50 calories or less with most of our products not containing any added sugar. We’ve also packed in vitamins and minerals – our root beer flavor delivers 10% of your daily calcium, and there’s zinc and Vitamin C in our strawberry hibiscus pops – so you’re getting some real nutrition in addition to a low calorie sweet treat.
How did you get Brewla Bars off the ground?
When we first started, we both had full time jobs and I was living on the West Coast. We spent about a year in transition until we really felt like we had something. We talked to tons of local bodegas, asked them what kind of products would move. We did a Kickstarter campaign in 2011 to raise money for packaging and an initial run with a co-packer[L1] . That was so successful I left my job in biotech to do this full time, and I moved to New York at the end of 2011.
We were doing all these events, trying to get the word out, and we were starting to outgrow my sister’s kitchen. We worked Friday midnight to seven in the morning and would sell all weekend. It was mostly my sister, but I’d come over and help out.
We found a shared commercial kitchen, and also looked for a larger scale co-packer. Before Kickstarter, we had been making 500 pops a day, and now we had to make 5,000. We give the co-packer our specifications, we coordinate the raw materials, and they make it in their facility for us.
How did you get the word out?
We were participating in Smorgasburg in New York when the New York Times was doing a cold food round up and so we got exposure through that market. We also did a tradeshow early on and Fairway came by our booth. We were pretty lucky with all of that. We also asked all our friends, anyone who had any connections, to somehow get a write up about Brewla Bars.
Once we were in the grocery aisles, we worried more about marketing. Even then we kept it basic with in-store demos and social media and not much beyond that.
What about financing?
Initially we put in some money ourselves. We also had a few friends and family members helping out. Then of course we used Kickstarter and when it was time for the grocery store launch we took out a small loan through Accion .
How did your deal with Ruby’s Naturals come about?
We were looking at various financing options at the time and decided to also start asking other frozen companies if they were interested in doing a deal.
Were you looking for a buyer? Why was this an attractive option?
We were considering multiple options. Merging with another company was attractive because of the operation synergies and other complementary benefits that would result.
Will you and your sister stay on in any capacity?
Yes, we will both have more specialized roles working across both brands. Rebecca will be in charge of product development and I will be managing marketing.
How has it been working with your sister? Is it still just the two of you?
It’s been good! Working with family you can be really honest which can be good and bad of course. It is just the two of us mostly. I even did the initial website myself, although later we hired someone. We have some close friends helping out though. And on the sales side, we work with an external sales team.
We are moving into new geographic regions, introducing our product at trade shows, and continually trying to improve our product and develop new products. The category is so competitive you really have to actively be selling, so we’re always meeting with retailers to discover new opportunities.