Spiked seltzer—also known as hard sparkling water—is undeniably the sip of the summer, with brands like White Claw, Bon & Viv and Truly dominating the beverage conversation.
But alcohol isn’t the only unexpected infusion seltzer has been getting recently. Phocus is a caffeinated sparkling water that offers consumers a non-coffee, non-soda beverage option to get their morning (or midday) jolt. Like many of the sparkling waters on the market, Phocus comes in several flavors (as well as a non-flavored option): blood orange, grapefruit, yuzu and lime, peach and cucumber.
John Mittel, the co-founder of Phocus, said the idea for a caffeinated sparkling water came to him during his second year in medical school at the University of Louisville, where nights studying until the wee hours left him in desperate need of caffeine. All he could find to provide that jolt, however, was coffee, soda and energy drinks like Red Bull.
“I spent most of my time in front of a coffee machine or some kind of a cooler door trying to find something that wasn’t an energy drink or a healthy alternative, that I felt comfortable carrying around in the hospital or having in the call rooms with me,” Mittel said. “Aside from a Monster [Energy] or a Red Bull, which I didn’t want to drink, coffee was the only option.”
Mittel brought up his concerns with Tom O’Grady, a mentor of his who would go on to become his co-founder and investor. “We looked at the market: There were a few other players out there, but no one had done it really well,” Mittel said. “No one was really filling the niche that we thought was there, with the growing sparkling trend and soda and artificial sweeteners dropping off.”
How Phocus delivers alertness without the jitters
Since the idea first came to him in 2015, Phocus has become a full-fledged brand and product, first hitting shelves in 2017. And Mittel, who graduated from medical school last year, is now focused—no pun intended—on the venture full-time.
Phocus takes a digital-first approach to distribution: It’s sold on Amazon (a 12-pack will cost you $21.99), or through a subscription model through its website, which Mittel said they were inspired to do after seeing how high their reorder rate was on Amazon—about 53%. This year, they’ve teamed up with distribution service Big Geyser to further expand the brand’s footprint.
What really sets Phocus apart from its caffeinated counterparts is that the boost it provides is less intense than what you might expect from your traditional caffeinated drinks: In each can of Phocus is 75mg of caffeine, about the same as a cup of coffee, as well as the amino acid L-theanine, which, according to Phocus’ website, allows “for the steady release of energy without the jitters or crashes.” Mittel explains that consuming caffeine creates “high beta waves” in a person’s brain, which can often lead to that jittery, anxious feeling that can be associated with caffeine. But by pairing the caffeine with L-theanine, which “induces calm,” it helps counteract those feelings.
“It really is a big difference in the way that you feel when you drink the caffeine,” Mittel said.
That combination was important to find for Mittel, who wanted to make Phocus an option for those who aren’t typically drawn to caffeinated beverages.
“For people who are caffeine sensitive, have just had a bad experience with coffee, and wouldn’t dream of touching energy drinks, we really have created an alternative for them,” he said.
Because most consumers aren’t familiar with L-theanine, and the effect it can have on the body when consumed alongside caffeine, Mittel said they’re sure to make consumer education a sizable part of their business—particularly because the effect that L-theanine has is what people tell Phocus they love the most about the product.
“We make sure that when an order goes out for someone—at least on our own website, where we can control the messaging—that they learn about L-theanine through that process,” he said. “It seems to be a much faster trend, so we’ve made it a bigger part of our messaging. Anytime we can explain that in person, or through literature, we do that.”