Food Entrepreneur HOBOKEN, NJ. — A certified food scientist, Dan Levison for more than a decade developed snack products for multimillion-dollar brands, including Oreo, Triscuit and Popcorn, Indiana. Yet he longed to launch his own business, combining his innovation expertise and lifetime love of tea.

Three years ago, he departed his job at Mondelez International, Inc. and debuted VIBAL Energy Tea. The line of low-calorie beverages incorporates a science-backed blend of ingredients designed to deliver a sustained boost and improved focus.

“The reason I started VIBAL in the first place is because I’ve always had trouble concentrating,” Mr. Levison said, adding he relied on “copious amounts of caffeine” while studying food science at University of Massachusetts Amherst. “One of my roommates and I used to try all of the energy drinks and would wonder why is there so much junk in here? They were full of artificial sweeteners, flavors, colors, preservatives and tons of sugar.”

A composite of “good vibes” and “balanced energy,” VIBAL features organic, fair-trade black, green and red tea blends plus organic fruit juice. The drinks are lightly sweetened with organic wildflower honey or organic fair-trade cane sugar and monk fruit extract. Formulations contain natural caffeine, panax ginseng and amino acids L-theanine and L-tyrosine, which are linked to stress reduction, relaxation and mood support.

Flavors include wild honey, lemonade, pomegranate, tropical punch and spicy ginger.

“I always want to showcase real ingredients,” Mr. Levison said. “I use real fruit juice in all the products, and it’s not just label candy, which is one of my biggest pet peeves as a developer. I hate when you see people sprinkle on an ingredient, you see it toward the bottom of the list, and they’re just doing it so they can write it on the front of the label.”

Mr. Levison began his career at ready-to-eat popcorn brands Popcorn, Indiana and Dale and Thomas Popcorn as a product development chef and later a senior food technologist, creating new popcorn flavors, as well as extruded puffs, snack bars, clusters, chocolate products and popped chips.

“We had products that we literally went from idea to market in six weeks,” Mr. Levison said. “It was fun and got me thinking more in innovation and working with a startup mentality.”

Following a seven-year stint there, he joined Mondelez as an innovation scientist, focusing on North American biscuit brands. His responsibilities spanned concept ideation and testing, new ingredient sourcing, prototyping, formulation scale-up, shelf-life analysis, supervising production startups and more.

In his spare time, he tinkered with tea blends and supplements, planting the seeds for VIBAL Energy Tea.

“My personal ethos is to develop products to help people live healthier and happier lives,” he said. “I had to ask myself, ‘Is that what I’m doing at Mondelez?’ I was working on some healthier products … but I felt like there was this disconnect.”

Over the next few months, he partnered with beverage experts and manufacturers to develop the recipes, inspired by his homemade concoctions, and produced an initial batch of bottled teas, which he planned to sell into convenience chains, natural and specialty retailers and college campuses.

And then the pandemic swiftly spread across the globe, suspending all go-to-market activities for new brands.

“All of the events I had been thinking about doing were canceled,” Mr. Levison said. “Any opportunities to do demos were canceled. Farmers markets, everything was canceled. I pivoted to try to focus more on online and social media.”

In the years since, the brand eventually gained retail distribution and currently is offered in a smattering of convenience stores, bodegas, delis and bagel shops scattered throughout the New York City area. Additionally, VIBAL recently landed shelf space at ShopRite in Hoboken. The products also are sold online at drinkvibal.com and Amazon.com.

The $48.4 billion functional beverage market in the United States is forecast to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 6.6% between 2020 and 2025, per Euromonitor International data. Energy drinks carve out the largest share, at an estimated $18.6 billion.

Nootropics, a term referring to substances that improve cognitive function, include L-theanine, caffeine and ginseng and recently were described by market researcher Mintel as “the future of functional drinks.” Forty-eight percent of millennials surveyed by Mintel said they like food and drinks to contribute to both mental and physical health, signaling an opportunity for product developers to add functional ingredients to everyday items.

In its latest global food and drink forecast, Mintel predicted increased consumer demand for formulations that optimize cognitive performance.

“I’ve done lab testing, probably more than I need to, but coming from a food science background and having worked at larger organizations, I’ve always had that ‘test, test, test’ mentality,” Mr. Levison said. “It was really important for me to verify everything I could. I did verify levels of different compounds to make sure they’re there in the finished product. I did that on various batches and flavors to see if there was any variation. It was very expensive, but I need to know personally I’m delivering the highest quality product with the effectiveness that I want.”

In addition to his beverage startup, Mr. Levison operates a consulting company, Apple and Orchard Labs, providing a range of product development services and turnkey solutions to businesses of all sizes.

“I help people with anything from concept ideation to prototyping, consumer testing, branding, product development, package design, process validation, feasibility, copacker search, pilot scale testing, production trials, production startups and full commercialization,” he said. “I’ve been blessed to work in such a range of different working environments from startups, small, medium and large companies, and I’ve worked as a consultant and with outside consultants, so I have this unique 360-degree perspective on the interaction between brands and consultants, where I’m able to help people think through problems and manage projects well.”

As “the guy in the lab” for most of his career, Mr. Levison admittedly has scaled a steep learning curve to master marketing and sales for his entrepreneurial venture. Looking ahead, he intends to build the brand’s retail footprint while continuing to develop new food and beverage products.

“I’d really love to partner up with the right people to take VIBAL to the next level, but also have a platform where I can keep bringing innovation to the table,” he said. “Innovation is the word you’ll hear me use the most. I love innovating.” 


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