“How did I get here?” Jane Adolph said when I asked her about her background and how she got involved in selling a cacao-based dark chocolate drink, Mayésa Cacao.
Every food business story is unique—in why the owners begin the business and how they approach it. For Jane, a former nurse practitioner who had also worked in business and marketing for the past 20 years and has started other small businesses, such as a rehabilitation and occupational therapy staffing service, the food and beverage industry was totally new to her. But the impetus to get into the industry was a business opportunity that seemed too unique to pass up.
As Jane tells it, one of her business partners, Abby Hanneman, who had background in a nutrition and personal training, had been living in Costa Rica running a yoga retreat. At the retreat, Abby discovered the kitchen workers making something where they would take ground raw cacao and make it into different beverages. The drink was a perfect “pick me up,” particularly before or after exercise, and because it featured the cacao, it was full of nutrients and health benefits. Delighted to be able to have chocolate and not feel guilty about it, Abby started experimenting with cacao in her own kitchen. Soon, she had stopped drinking coffee and was feeling better and full of energy.
“As you research the benefits of dark chocolate,” Jane said, “you realize it’s called the super food for a reason.”
When Abby returned to the U.S., she reached out to another friend, Karel Guardado, who was living in Massachusetts at the time, and the two started experimenting more with the cacao drink in their kitchens. Then they flew out to San Diego, where Jane lives, because they were excited to share it with her.
“They said, ‘gosh, we’ve gotta show you this. We really love it, and we think it’s something that we could take to the marketplace. There isn’t anything else like it on the market,’” Jane said. “Dark chocolate was also becoming more popular. That’s how it really came about.”
That was in 2007. The friends and partners spent the next two years trying to formulate their product and put together a business plan. “Like any evolution of any product, it has lots of twists and turns,” Jane said. Eventually they found a lab in LaCrosse, Wisc. that helped the team come up with the formula they wanted—something healthy and nutritious that was natural, organic and totally plant-based.
“We’ve always been very wellness focused, all three of us, very conscious about how we eat, so we wanted to take something to the marketplace that we felt would be a great alternative for people, as an alternative snack and a healthy beverage for all ages, not just for adults, but for kids also,” Jane said.
Working with the lab, they came up with a gluten-, dairy and soy free, vegan cacao-based drink. The drink is also protein rich, using protein derived from peas. According to Jane, they had originally planned to use hemp protein for their formulation but when they tested the product, they found it was testing positive for gluten. After much investigation, they traced the test back to the hemp supplier. They also decided that using hemp would require far more education and that it might pose a problem with trying to get parents and schools to allow kids to drink it, so they decided to go with the pea protein, Jane said.
“Pea protein is becoming much more popular,” Jane said. “Number one, it’s plant-based. More and more people are looking for alternatives to animal-based products, so plant-based protein can really offer some great benefits. And pea protein is a wonderful protein for your body, so it’s a nice addition to our product. Cacao, itself, has some protein in it, but we wanted some additional protein, so we added the pea protein. The product is still vegan and the pea protein is very easy to digest and absorb into the body, so it’s really easy for the body to utilize it.”
Mayésa Cacao sources its cacao from Peru. Each 8 oz. drink includes a “high level of cacao,” Jane says, to maximize the health benefits. According to her, the health benefits of dark chocolate include increased circulation and immune system support, and it’s good for both the heart and for brain functions, she says.
“You could read a thousand articles on the benefits of dark chocolate. There’s things coming out everyday and studies being done,” Jane said.
Between the energy benefits of the cacao and the pea protein, Jane says athletes, in particular, have gravitated to their product. The pea protein is especially helpful in healing fatigued muscles, she says.
Although the three women each had an “entrepreneurial spirit,” Jane says, none of them had any experience with food or beverages when they started the company. But all of them had worked as independent business owners before. Having partners was key to forming the business, Jane says, because starting a business on your own can be very challenging. In fact, she says, businesses that have more than one partner involved have a higher likelihood of lasting for more than one year, she said.
“If I was on my own, I don’t know that I would have done it, I might have talked myself out of it. But when you’ve got three people going ‘you know, I think we can do this,’…it really helps when you have the camaraderie.”
To help them familiarize themselves with the food and beverage industry and all its particular regulations, Jane and her partners turned to a consulting firm in Los Angeles to help them figure out how to bring their product to market.
“I can certainly say I’ve learned a lot along the way!” Jane said. “We were very fortunate that we were able to get into some places like Sprouts and Whole Foods—I think they were very intrigued with our product. It is unique. There still isn’t anything like it on the marketplace. It’s a new beverage, it’s not a beverage where the marketplace is already quite saturated like energy drinks or coconut water where there’s lots of other choices. We’re giving people a new alternative.”
At this point, Jane says, the business is currently in expansion mode. They recently brought on a CEO from the food and beverage industry, Jeff Hill, who has been with them for about a year. In that time, the company has created a new logo and gotten new packaging for the product (Tetrapaks so they can be recycled). Her co-founders are still shareholders in the business, but are no longer involved in running the business day-to-day, Jane says. “We’ve put all these things in place…and now we’re really ready to grow,” Jane said.
“It’s been a fun ride the last few years. It’s challenging at best, just getting something on the shelf, number one, then being able to formulate it and co-pack it and get it on the shelf and now we need to expand our shelf presence and get customers to know that this is in the stores.”
Mayésa Cacao currently comes in four flavors—Original Dark Chocolate, Mint, Mixed Berry and Banana. The cacao is still the main focus in all the drinks, but the flavored versions have the added benefits of fruit or mint. Mayésa Cacao can be drunk at room temperature, chilled or warmed. Jane says she likes to freeze the drink for about 20 minutes and then have it as a slushy.
Having four flavors also helps the company create a larger presence on grocery shelves, Jane says. They have also been doing a lot of in-store demos throughout Southern California and recently in Northern California. Jane says demos are important because this particular product does require a bit of education to help consumers understand the benefits of the drink since there aren’t other products like it on the market. “It’s more of a grassroots type of marketing,” Jane said.
Currently, Mayésa Cacao is available online and in stores primarily in Southern California, Arizona and Nevada. Sprouts recently rolled the product out nationally, which included stores in Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Utah. The company plans to expand next into the Pacific Northwest. The product is usually found in the non-dairy section of the market, in the same vicinity as nut and grain milks, or on occasion in the cold case alongside things such as coconut water.
“It’s been a hard journey, there’s no doubt about it because it was not a familiar industry to us but we’re all have a tenacity to us also. Once you start something you think, well I’ve gotta continue down this path,” Jane said.
What drew you to food/beverages?
I think it was just my friend discovering [the drink] in Costa Rica and coming back so excited about it. I mean she just really loved it, she had been consuming it for almost a year and just really enjoyed what she felt were the benefits of the beverage she was making. That’s what caught my attention, and I was really intrigued about it and then when I tried it, I really liked it also.
Why a cacao beverage?
I think we were intrigued, too, with the benefits of the cacao. I can honestly tell you I think to just have a beverage that tastes good and say ‘let’s put another drink out on the market,’ I don’t think any of us would have been as excited about it. In researching cacao and really understanding what it has to offer and being able to give it in a [liquid] form—if you think about it, we’re really going back to the traditional Mayan way of how they consumed cacao. It was always consumed in a beverage form, and they used it for fatigue and illness, and it was really heavily consumed mostly by the royalty. In those days it was so valued—really as currency—and they traded the cacao. So it wasn’t really until the Europeans got a hold of it that all of a sudden it became a bar and chocolate. We used to call it liquid gold, going back to the Mayan tradition, and they called it the food of the gods. It’s got a very rich tradition, as many things do when you take a look at the history, but I think the benefits of the cacao and the drink itself and doing something that was ultimately beneficial in addition to being a viable business. I think that combination intrigued us to give it a try.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
I think inspiration comes from, if we talk about flavors, from day one we’ve have inspiration from family, friends, from consumers once it got onto the market for other flavors, so we have a whole list of flavors to consider for sure. I think that part not only comes from ourselves, but also people who have touched the product themselves and said, ‘wow this is really good, have you ever thought about dark chocolate and berry? Or dark chocolate and banana? Or dark chocolate and orange? How ‘bout dark chocolate and coffee?’ So we kind of make a list of them and look at what is doable from a formulation standpoint. Because then you have to say what’s realistic to do and put together. And it’s really kind of endless, and it just depends on the direction we’re headed. And we have other ideas for even expanding the brand beyond a beverage. We have ideas for other things as we grow our company, so we’re always sort of being creative and writing those things down.
The name itself was kind of an interesting process. Naming your brand is sort of like naming your child or maybe your company even. So our company name is JAK Native, Inc. and JAK stands for Jane, Abbey and Karel, so that’s the three of us that started the business, so we just took our first initials and that’s our business name.
The name of the brand we labored over for probably six months, coming up with lists and lists of names and ideas and throwing out to people, ‘well, how does this sound and how does that sound?’ and there were lots of different ideas. We wanted something that felt more Mayan but everything that had ‘Mayan’ in the name was taken, so that wasn’t really an option. So my business partner Abbey, the same one that was in Costa Rica, believe it or not, the word kind of came to her in the middle of the night. I think because we did so much whirling around in our brains, the next morning she called me and said ‘what about Mayésa?’ and I said, ‘well, how do you spell that?’ Mayésa. We all instantly liked it, it just resonated with all three of us. When we threw it out to other people Mayésa had a little bit of a Mayan flavor to it, it felt feminine. We’re all three women, and Mayésa felt like a little bit of a feminine name. If you look at how it’s spelled, it has the word ‘yes’ in it and we said, ‘yes, we can do this.’ So that’s how we came up with the name, which is kind of intriguing, and I think has been a really good choice for us. Then we said can we get the website for that, and the word was taken, as a dot com by somebody in Spain. So we worked on that for a few years to try to purchase that, and we were finally able to purchase that so it was wonderful to be able to have the www.mayesa.com, so that really worked out for us and we’ve all been really pleased with the name.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
I think there’s several pieces to it. You really do need to put together a road map or a business plan. You really do need to have some time and energy to do that otherwise you’re just kind of running around like a chicken with your head cut off. You need to have a plan, which is a business plan or roadmap or whatever you want to call it. Then I think you really need to surround yourself with people that have the expertise that you don’t. So recognizing the things that you’re good in is really important, and it’s as important to recognize the things that you’re not as efficient in and who can you find to fill that gap. That’s one of the reasons that we hired the consulting firm to work with us. Their focus on beverages really helped us to get to the marketplace. They help you from start to finish, then once you’re in the market then you’re not really using them, it’s really about how you put the business plan together and how do you do this and use that to guide you.
So I think you need to have mentors if it’s not something you’re really well-versed in. Business plan, mentors, good people that can support you and then the other thing is financing.
You really have to give some thought to what is your capital, what’s it going to take to really start your business and get it on the marketplace and how are you going to sustain yourself because you’re doing to be in the red for a while. That’s the reality of most businesses, unless you’re maybe a tech start-up, and boom. Most businesses take a while to get going, so how are you going to sustain yourself? So I think being able to raise money [is important]. We had some wonderful angel investors at the beginning, which were family and friends, and that was really helpful. Those are the things I’d advise people of. You kind of start with an idea and something that you’re passionate about and do the research and see if it is marketable—not every great idea is marketable, so you have to think that through, how are you going to do that? And then, those three things that I mentioned, putting a business plan in place, surrounding yourself with the right people who can help you be successful and also raising capital.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
I think hands down the biggest is always raising money. The other things are doable, workable. You make mistakes, you fix them. You do have to be persistent if you’re going to start a business and get out there. But I think raising capital and being able to continue to expand and raise more capital is—and when I talk to other businesses I kind get the same things—but I think raising money is always the most challenging.
What is the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
I think the independence with being able to make immediate decisions and affect changes right away. We all work together, we all have the same end goal in mind, so it’s very inspiring to be able to have a conversation and say, ‘ok, let’s make this change’ and boom, we’re making that change to make it better for our company, our product, our consumers. Being able to see results right away—I think that’s just fun.
And I love seeing the customer’s reactions. I love getting letters from people saying ‘I’ve been looking for stuff my son can eat because he’s a picky eater, now he has to stay off gluten, he has allergies, and he loves your product.’ You know what? That makes me feel really good! I feel like we’re contributing something that’s a positive and loving being able to be in an environment where we can be independent and make changes immediately and be effective.
What’s your favorite flavor on your menu?
Oh, that’s like saying what’s your favorite kid! I don’t know if I can do that or not! I have to say, it keeps changing. I’ve always been a bit partial to the Mayésa Mint – I love the Mayésa Mint. I love putting it in the freezer for about 20 minutes and then taking it out because it makes a little bit of a slushy. I love drinking it that way.
I don’t know. One of our new flavors is the Mayésa Banana, and I have to say I’m pretty intrigued with that flavor, so I might start to lean more toward that. I drink all of them at different times. It just depends on what my mood is—they all have something a little bit different to offer. And I do like the original, too, the original is just no nonsense, it’s the cacao, there’s no other flavoring in it, so sometimes—maybe after exercise or something—I’ll grab the Mayésa original.
What other local food/beverage artisans do you admire and why?
I guess I like the whole trend where things are heading in that I enjoy the creativeness and the health focus of what’s happening in the industry. Consumers are driving it because there’s so much interest. It’s fun to see new products on the market that when you look at the label, it’s what we call a pretty ‘clean’ label in that they have lots of great things in it, so I think whether it’s a food or a beverage or something, it’s nice to see that trends of options for people that are really tasty. So, I think sometimes when people think ‘organic’ or I say the ‘benefits of our product’ people look at me and go ‘well, what’s it gonna taste like? If it’s good for you like that, it may not taste very good.’ But it’s just inspiring these days, whether it’s a gluten-free product or a beverage or other things, not only how good they are, but how flavorful and tasty they are. It’s pretty exciting. I think people can find things that they like no matter what their palates are these days.
If you had to choose your last beverage, what would it be?
My last beverage ever? That would probably be a glass of red wine. And second to that would definitely be Mayésa!
Favorite San Diego area food/resto/chef?
I do love Alice Waters’ restaurant [Chez Panisse] in Berkeley. I went there eons ago and that’s always been a favorite of mine.
In the San Diego area, there’s a lot of great vegetarian things happening down here as far as that becoming more popular. There’s lots of options for that kind of food these days. I’m not a vegetarian, I do eat fish and things like that. Sipz—I just think the food is fabulous. They have different salads and unique noodle bowls and stir fries, just the flavors and spices that things that they use. They’re in what we call the North Park area, not too far from Balboa Park and downtown San Diego, so they’re more in the heart of San Diego. They’re just a great restaurant, but vegetarian, that anyone could enjoy going to.
Photos courtesy of Jane Adolph and Abby Hanneman, Mayésa Cacao.