Entrepreneurs are often at the forefront of driving innovation and creating new products, even entire categories.
So, it should come as no surprise that Canada’s functional coffee category is being led by two dynamic entrepreneurs: Josh Barr, MBA’17 and Amar Gupta, MBA’17.
Four years ago, Barr and Gupta launched brüst; a cold brew that brings together caffeine and protein to create the perfect healthy energy beverage. It is this multifunctional, dual nature that lands brüst as a functional coffee, and the only Canadian brand to bring protein into the mix.
Thanks to help from the Morrissette Accelerator at the Ivey Business School and Canadian tennis star Denis Shapovalov, they’ve become players in the functional coffee game.
It all started back in 2017 at the Western Student Recreation Centre.
After frequent workouts, Barr and Gupta found themselves with a cup of protein in one hand, and a cup of coffee in the other, with a gym bag and work bag, slung across their shoulders.
“The protein drink we hated, and the coffee would be cold by the time we were ready to drink it,” Barr said.
Then Gupta came up with the idea of creating a better protein drink that combined coffee and protein to make a healthy source of energy, something that could work as a quick breakfast or a midday energy boost.
Since that eureka moment, Barr and Gupta have transformed their personal pain point into two blends of cold brew coffee that occupy shelf space across Canada through Loblaws, GNC, Longos, Walmart Canada and various specialty stores.
Still, with any new category, education and mainstream visibility are essential.
Barr and Gupta got first-hand experience of that while running sampling booths during the early days of brüst. The face-to-face feedback validated their idea and proved brüst was not going to be stored away as some secret family recipe.
To supercharge their branding efforts, Barr and Gupta have brought on top Canadian tennis player Denis Shapovalov to bring brüst to centre court. Shapovalov was a semi-finalist in the 2021 Wimbledon Championship and is the third highest-ranked Canadian male player in history.
While the Canadian market is slowly evolving, brüst is not alone. New entrants and established brands are making a play with various combinations of caffeine and superfruits, spices, cannabinoids, mushrooms and other wellness labels like keto.
And if the market size or potential was a question, Barr and Gupta are buoyed by the category’s rapid growth in the United States with celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez making big investments.
“We like it when other people spend the money to pave the way and educate the consumer,” Gupta said.
It gives brüst every opportunity to jump right in with a differentiated, better tasting (and better made) product.
There’s plenty of room to grow.
Celebrity brand ambassadors have always played a key role in defining brands, whether it’s American rapper 50 Cent with Vitamin Water, Aviation Gin’s partnership with Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds, or the slew of online influencers across Instagram and TikTok.
While that might seem par for the times, Barr and Gupta wanted to be intentional with their choice.
They didn’t want a brand ambassador who would put together a social post every other week, but someone that cared about the product and wanted to get involved with the brand brüst was building.
And there were plenty of top Canadian athletes in various sports that regularly used brüst. But not just athletes.
“Some of Toronto’s great musicians drink our product too!” Barr said.
Still, as with everything else, Barr and Gupta were strategic with their choice.
“It took us six months to solidify this partnership because we were looking for the right person,” Barr said.
And that right person was Canadian tennis star Denis Shapovalov.
“He talked about how much he loved the product, and how he used it before his training session, after training sessions, and sometimes right before a quick nap,” Barr said.
In Shapovalov, brüst discovered a hands-on partner, eager to be involved in various aspects of the business, whether that’s playing tennis with customers, attending board meetings, or joining important meetings with large retailers.
With the signing, Barr and Gupta have their targets set on growing brüst amongst Canada’s lifestyle athletes. They describe this key category as extremely busy people who are looking for healthy food choices and love working out.
In some ways, it connects back to Barr and Gupta’s days at the rec centre.
While Canada remains their central focus, Barr and Gupta are also monitoring exciting growth south of the border.
One trailblazer is Kitu Super Coffee, which is playing a major role (with a lot of marketing dollars) in building the functional coffee category in the American market. Last year, Super Coffee’s parent company raised $106 million in a Series C funding round, bringing its total valuation to over $500 million.
“We see it as an opportunity, not a challenge,” Barr said.
“We’re no longer pitching the retailer on the category. We are pitching to them as a competitor that tastes better, has a lower calorie count, and has premium ingredients.”
Growth through partnerships
If there’s one thing both Barr and Gupta have learned from their journey over the past four years, it’s the importance of partnerships.
With their lean business model, partnerships have been an essential part of brüst’s growth – where they’ve gone from creating a couple of thousand bottles in a production run to meeting sufficient scale to fill over 700 stores across Canada.
The process of forging those partnerships has also informed Barr and Gupta on what parts of the business they can do well, and what parts they can off-load to capable partners.
“It’s really about growing strategically and finding partners that could make our lives easier and surrounding ourselves with experts who know more than us and who can assist us beyond what we’re capable of doing ourselves,” Gupta said.
That’s easier said than done.
Entrepreneurship is often compared to wearing multiple hats, but there comes a stage in every startup when that balancing act can tip over.
“I think it’s a battle every day when you’re an entrepreneur to unload some of the work onto other people,” Barr said. “And sometimes, it’s been a strategic choice and sometimes we’ve learned that the hard way.
For example, after working with a few agencies on their e-commerce marketing, Barr and Gupta discovered they could be more efficient and bring down the cost of acquisition by handling that facet of the business internally.
On the other side, brüst’s sales partners were able to better manage relationships with retailers.
“They were able to get meetings with the buyers more frequently and understood what their needs were a little bit better than us,” Barr said.
Strong partnerships have become even more essential with the frequent supply chain disruptions plaguing every industry over the past couple of years. With so much fluctuation, the value of trust – whether it’s the ability to change up payment structures or adjust to increasing lead times – has helped keep many brands afloat.
Finding their runway
When the former athletes, turned MBA students, came across the idea to improve their cold coffee and chalky protein drink into something more appealing, they combined their learnings at the Ivey Business School to create a product from the ground up.
A year after graduation, Barr and Gupta joined the Morrissette Accelerator where they spent three months ironing out the concept. Soon, they had patched together a formula and a strategy and were ready to test the public’s appetite for their concoction.
“Consumers couldn’t believe there were 20 grams of protein, they couldn’t believe the taste,” Barr said.
The slew of positive feedback gave them the confidence to try scaling up the business.
Barr and Gupta ran a pre-seed round in 2019, which allowed them to transition from their admittedly “terrible supply-chain” to working with one of Canada’s largest food and beverage manufacturers. That allowed brüst to grow across the province and launch an additional dark roast flavour a year later. In April 2021, Barr and Gupta pitched to Ivey and Western’s alumni investors at Western Angels’ Demo Day.
Since then, brüst has continued the upward trend, forging new partnerships with suppliers, manufacturers, retailers, and investors.
For Barr and Gupta, it’s been a rewarding journey but one that’s encompassed a lot of hard work, just like a good workout.