After a decade in the fragmented but fast-growing kombucha market, Cary-based Tribucha believes it has found the formula for success.
The company was the first in the industry to use cans and six-packs, ahead of brands owned by Coca-Cola and Pepsi, and its fermentation process creates flavors that are
more palatable than its vinegar-tasting counterparts. That’s attracted investors, and retailers such as Harris Teeter, Whole Foods and Publix.
“This was the first kombucha I ever tried that actually tasted good and I wanted to drink it,” says David Gardner of Cary’s Cofounders Capital, an investor in Tribucha. “I was also impressed with the passion of the founders and the quality of the board members,” including Jim Geikie, former CEO of Burt’s Bees, and Mike Hockenberry, a former Target
vice president who is now a partner in Durham-based Disruptive Enterprises.
Tribucha is about to sign a marketing deal with a rock band to promote its drinks, and Publix is adding it to 500 stores in the Southeast in October. The company has raised another $1 million from investors to use in sales and marketing efforts and says it will become profitable in 2024 on $4.5 million in revenue. Sales this year are projected to be $2.4 million.
The company is betting on the increased popularity of health drinks. Polaris Market Research projects the $2.6 billion kombucha market to top $11 billion in annual sales by the end of the decade. In 2019, Coca-Cola invested in Los Angeles-based HealthAde and rolled out the Honest kombucha brand. PepsiCo owns KeVita, and Molson Coors acquired Clearly Kombucha in 2018. And while Tribucha is in the top 25 kombucha brands, there are hundreds of different companies in the industry. Harris Teeter locations in North Carolina are also stocking Lenny Boy, Synergy and Brew Dr.
Tribucha founders Adrian Larrea and Amo York grew up in Cary and started the company a decade ago. Larrea’s main interest was creating an organic drink that is healthy for consumers and tastes good. Fermented kombucha teas have been around for centuries and are credited with digestive health benefits. “Our goal was to make it light, bright and drinkable,” says Larrea. “We’ve done things the hard way for a long time, but it’s what has gotten us to the level we are today.”
Its kombucha flavors include The Main Squeeze, a drink with lemons and berries, and Controlled Burn, which has ginger, cayenne and turmeric. By 2017, Tribucha was in 150 bars, restaurants and cafes. The next year, Lowe’s and Ingles grocery chains added the drinks. Whole Foods and Harris Teeter were added in 2020. Tribucha also rolled out another drink called Super B in 2021 that has no calories, no sugar and is intended for hydration. All of the drinks are sold two for $5, or a six-pack for $15.
Larrea and York, who is the head brewmaster, knew they needed help to grow Tribucha, which previously raised $1.7 million from investors. A year ago, the company hired Mark Mullins as chief executive. “It was getting super complicated,” says Larrea. “I raised my hand to the board and said, ‘I don’t have enough experience and can’t catch up fast enough. I need someone with beverage experience.’”
Mullins was a cofounder of Social House Vodka in Raleigh and had been vice president
of sales of Mati Energy, a Durham-based company that has since closed. “I love the beverage space, as complicated and as complex as it is,” he says. “But my first answer
was no [because] I don’t drink kombucha.” He changed his mind once he tasted the Tribucha flavors.
“I have dealt with founders before,” adds Mullins, sitting at a picnic table outside Tribucha’s building. “They don’t want to part with their babies. If I didn’t think I couldn’t come in and help, I wouldn’t have joined.”
Mullins now hopes that the Publix distribution deal, a Super B 2.0, and money from investors to launch a marketing campaign will take Tribucha to the next level.
“There was some cleaning up to do,” he says. “Now, we’re going to take some swings. You have to do that in the beverage business.” ■