Suja Juice c.e.o. spills secrets for growth

by Monica Watrous
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Suja Juice offers organic cold-pressed juices.

SAN DIEGO — Since launching in 2012, Suja Juice has made a splash in the premium beverage category, generating an estimated $80 million to $90 million in revenues this year. The brand of organic cold-pressed juices is sold in approximately 10,000 outlets, with exclusive products offered at such retailers as Target, Kroger and Costco. Currently, the company manufactures more than 50 varieties.

Suja’s rapid pace of product development comes with challenges, said Jeff Church, co-founder and chief executive officer.

"Because H.P.P. (high-pressure processing) has a shorter shelf life than traditional pasteurization, we have to make every s.k.u. (stock-keeping unit) every week in order to maximize shelf life that our consumers and retailers get,” Mr. Church told Food Business News. “So that’s where the complication comes in. We’re making on average 9 to 10 different flavors a day.”

Jeff Church, co-founder and c.e.o. of Suja.

The San Diego-based company sources more than 800,000 lbs of organic produce a week from California growers and processes it into bottles.

 “In this space there is not really an organized co-packer or contract manufacturing network like in most categories, so we actually have to make everything we sell,” Mr. Church said.

Another challenge Suja faces is growing competition from other premium juice brands. Even Campbell Soup Co. is entering the category with its new 1915 organic cold-pressed juice line.

“Our consumers tend to like the experience they have with Suja,” Mr. Church said. “There’s a broad set of taste profiles for people who might want something very sweet, to taste profiles with zeros grams of sugar in it. I think we offer a broad spectrum to our consumers to allow people to pick where they want to be along that taste profile side.”

In an interview with Food Business News, Mr. Church offered insights behind the brand and the $2 billion category.

Food Business News: How do you differentiate your brand from other cold-pressed juices on the market?

Jeff Church: We’re really trying to move fast. Our business has grown significantly, and we’re trying to build our distribution nationally in the conventional grocery and be the first guys to get on the shelves, so then it’s more difficult for people to knock us off the shelves.

It’s really (important) just to stay ahead of the curve and take advantage of the opportunities, when Costco or Target or Publix or Kroger knocks on your door. We try to focus on primary retailers and increase our shelf space with those retailers.

How are you able to source organic produce year-round? Are there limitations to what you can offer based on the length of your products’ shelf life?

Mr. Church: We follow the sun, if you will. We’re in San Diego, which is not the most efficient location from a freight distribution standpoint, but it’s probably the best of the best from a produce availability standpoint. We get produce year-round available to us.

Suja bought its own produce distributor, Jack Family Farms, a year and a half ago.

In the winter months, we get our produce from about three hours from San Diego; it’s called Imperial County. As we get toward the spring and summer, we actually go up into the Bakersfield area and are able to source there. In the fall we come back down to the San Diego area.

We bought our own produce distributor a year and a half ago called Jack Family Farms. It’s a really great group of people. Four young guys who were building a business on their own, and their father owned between 5,000 and 10,000 acres of organic fields in Southern California, so we’ve been able to tap into that, and now we actually contract grow, so we work directly with the farmers to say, “We want to grow for the next 16 weeks cucumbers, and we need this many acres of your land.” Essentially, you’re renting the land, but it ensures us that we get super low costs and are able to have availability when we need it.

How does product development work at the company?

Mr. Church: We are trying to add more discipline into it, so we’re trying to look at it as a nine-month cycle. In reality, we can have a product from idea to shelf in, amazingly, as little as six weeks.

The inspiration for the ideas comes from meetings every week with the product development group…. There’s people from finance, sales, marketing, manufacturing, R.&D., and we’re throwing around ideas. We look at a combination of what we’re hearing in the marketplace from a sales standpoint, what are we seeing trending from a functional ingredient standpoint.

Suja recently released a line of products under 10 grams of sugar, including its new Lavenade juice.

Then we look at what we think we can do in terms of nutritional impact. We focus on reducing sugar, even if it’s all-natural pure cane sugar. We launched a line of products this year that were all under 10 grams of sugar to give consumers more options along those lines.

We have three Culinary Institute of America-trained chefs who work for Suja and take the idea we’ve come up with and come back to us with 5 to 10 samples of different iterations that we can test or taste. Taste is the king. We drive everything off of taste. We have a phrase we throw around here: “Health without the punishment.”

Have there been any flavor combinations you’ve tried that simply have not worked?

Mr. Church: We had a product in Whole Foods called Mango Fuego. It was a mango-based drink with a little serrano chili in it. We thought about putting cayenne in it because we use cayenne a lot, but we thought the Whole Foods consumer was a little more curious.

It did okay in the market but not very good. I think it was because the chili aspect had an off smell to it. It didn’t stick with the consumer. We stopped that product as we were going.

We’ve also had products where we’ve started and now that we’ve gotten so big we have to be sensitive to how big the product can be from a scale standpoint. We had an incredible animal-based protein drink on market. It had 10 grams of animal-based protein and tasted incredible. You couldn’t even taste the protein at all. And it just shot off shelves, but unfortunately the availability of that protein just wasn’t available in large scalable quantities, so we’ve had to stop the product.

What are your best-selling varieties?

Mr. Church: One of our best selling products is Mighty Greens, which is a green product that has apples, celery, cucumber, kale, collards, lemon, spinach, ginger, spirulina, and alfalfa in it. Those all sound harsh, but the apple cuts against it and makes a really good moderate tasting product. For people who don’t want to go all the way to the uber-healthy ones but want to drink something that tastes like a real green juice, it’s a great product and hits in that sweet spot.

One of Suja's best-selling juices is Mighty Greens.

What’s next? Any line extensions or new categories for Suja?

Mr. Church: Our whole focus is to democratize cold-pressed organic juice and make it available to the masses at an acceptable price point. So last year we launched a product called Essentials at a $3.99 price point. It’s all organic and has the same features as the classic line, but at a price point that’s really attractive. It’s about $1 more than the Naked Juice or Bolthouse juices of the world, and we felt like the consumers are ready for an organic product and would be willing to trade up to a slightly higher priced product but a product we believe is better and has better features.

It’s just about the juice for us. And it’s really about us converting this category, which is about a $2 billion-a-year category at retail sales, and we’re all about converting that category as quickly as we can to organic H.P.P. juice.
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READER COMMENTS (3)

By Greg Nelson 8/14/2017 11:13:38 AM
Suja juices are great. I understand the clear advantages of keeping the company privately-held, but have you considered whether you might seek an investment from some kind of closed-end social choice fund to garner additional support from your loving fans?

By Raederle Phoenix 8/14/2017 10:36:47 AM
I love Suja Juice. I discovered it a few years ago and was ecstatic that Harmless Harvest Coconut Water was no longer the solitary product available to me using HPP. I've spent entire years of my life consuming exclusively raw foods, and HPP makes it possible to include store-bought juice as part of a raw food diet. That's exciting to me as a nutritionist and health consultant. I recommend Suja to my clients for its obvious benefits. Affordable, flavorful, and no compromise in health. My favorite is Green Delight. Everyone loves its sweet flavor, but it also contains spirulina and other more "serious greens". It is something easy I can add to a home-made juice if I accidentally make it too strong. Now I'm currently writing a recipe book that recommends Suja Juices in many of the recipes. Thank you Suja!

By Allen 8/12/2015 7:42:52 PM
Mr. Church congratulations on your huge success. I applaud you for your passionate work ethic. Love which you stand for you no doubt enhancing the lives of countless people. I've been in business for myself for over two decades, so I know it's important to not only produce a premium product that's priced to sell and one that everybody has a need for. In this day and age it's so true. But I thought I would introduce you to the concept of growing all year round with a vertical aeroponic growing system. The foot print of each unit has a 2.5" x 2.5" and uses modular stackable growing pots. You can grow up to 44 plants per commercial tower. It's technology recycles 100% of the nutrient solution. It uses up to 95% less water as compared with conventional organic farming and uses up to 90% less land by growing vertically – all without the use of any harmful chemicals. Aeroponic technology, combined with the natural ionic mineral plant food, simply provides better tasting, more nutritious, faster growing, chemical-free plants.