A small Adelaide-based beverage company has gone from “very humble beginnings” brewing kombucha in the back shed to being acquired by Coca-Cola after nine years in operation.
Organic & Raw Trading Co. was started by founder Anthony Crabb back in 2009, although the business had technically been operating for a few years prior. Crabb tells SmartCompany his humble beginnings consisted of him and some fermenting bacteria and yeast, much to his wife’s displeasure.
“I started out brewing kombucha at home, playing around with my first kombucha culture in the kitchen, which horrified my wife and meant I had to transition to the shed,” he laughs.
“I made that into a little fermentation room, and got to work on perfecting the culture and seeing how it reacted to different things.”
For those feeling out of the loop, kombucha is a fermented, mildly alcoholic tea that has become immensely popular over the last decade due to its numerous purported health claims and fairly low sugar content. The tea is brewed from a culture of bacteria and yeast, known as a SCOBY.
Though kombucha’s origins can be dated back more than 200 years, the drink remained in the realm of health fanatics for some time before breaking into the big time recently. Back in Organic & Raw’s early days, Crabb says he’d dish out the drink to his family and friends who had no idea what the murky brown liquid was — and they couldn’t get enough of it.
“No one knew what it was in those days, we were giving it to friends and they were coming back saying, ‘that was really different, can I get some more?’. It was on that momentum I figured we should hit the markets with this,” he says.
Crabb branded his product ‘Mojo Kombucha’ and started selling bottles to his local healthfoods stores and in Adelaide’s collection of farmers markets. The word started to get around about the product, and Mojo went from strength to strength, with more and more stores hoping to get it on their shelves.
Crabb and his team bought a small bottling facility in Willunga, South Australia, and started ramping up production. It was a very hands-on business in the early days, says Crabb.
“We had a lot of help from family and friends, a lot of free labour to get off the ground. At one point my 85-year-old grandfather was on the production line — we took whatever help we could get,” he says.
“It was a very hands-on business, and it still is today. Those principles we had in the early days still run through our business.”
Coke slurps up Mojo
On launching Mojo in 2009, Crabb had one store stocking his product. Today, the business has over 4,000 distributors across the country, made up of a number of independent retailers, plus the likes of Woolworths, Costco, and Aldi.
But 4,000 stores is just the tip of the iceberg for Mojo thanks to a recent acquisition by the Coca-Cola Company, which has acquired full ownership of Organic & Raw Trading Co. and the Mojo Kombucha brand.
Terms of the acquisition were not disclosed, although Crabb and his team will be staying on board to run the operation, including sales and marketing director Andrew Buttery who has been with the company since its inception.
“Our goal is to bring Mojo to more Australians by making it available in more places across the country. Consumers will be able to see the same great Mojo products on more store shelves,” president of Coca-Cola Australia Vamsi Mohan said in a statement.
“This is another important step in our company’s ongoing work to offer beverages for all occasions, which continues our evolution as a total beverage company. Across Australia, we now have more than 165 products and 24 brands. The addition of Mojo kombucha fits perfectly with the growing popularity of organic, probiotic drinks.”
Crabb says the acquisition will mean big things for Mojo, giving the brand reach across a massive new range of consumers and “into a lot more fridges” across Australia.
But an acquisition is never something Crabb aspired to; he says his business had been so busy and growing so fast he hadn’t had time to make grand plans.
“In all honesty I’ve been so busy and our business has grown so significantly since we started that I probably should have taken more time to reflect over the years, rather than just barrelling along,” he says.
“We were just out there in the market doing our thing and selling kombucha when Coca-Cola got in touch and we started having discussions.”
Crabb also isn’t one to take much praise himself, eschewing any suggestions the acquisition was a mark of validation for himself as a business owner. Instead, he says the congratulations should be for the 61 employees at Organic & Raw.
“It’s all about those guys for me, and how they’re going to have security moving forward into the next stage of the business,” he says.
Culture of a different kind
According to Crabb, kombucha is the fastest growing beverage category in Australia, and the founder says Coke getting a piece of the pie makes good sense, both from a business standpoint and in terms of the global company wanting to be “on trend”. But the Coca-Cola isn’t the only drinks giant looking at Aussie kombucha brands, with international beverage company Lion taking a stake in Remedy Kombucha earlier this year.
“Kombucha is absolutely going to the mainstream, watch this space,” says Crabb.
While Organic & Raw’s business has morphed and changed over the past nine years, one thing has stayed the same — and for good reason.
The original culture Crabb used to make his first batch of kombucha in his shed nearly 10 years ago is still what provides the flavour profile of Mojo’s brews today. Crabb says it’s just as important as bakers’ yeast, and the original SCOBY is quite literally under lock at key at the Mojo headquarters.
“Some people have their SCOBYs for generations, it’s not unlike a family heirloom,” he laughs.
Crabb’s not one to revel in his success, but he does have some choice advice for other business owners hoping to see follow in the footsteps of Organic & Raw.
“Dream big and just keep hammering away. If you believe in what you do and your product, that’s infectious, and people will be drawn into the journey with you,” he says.
“Every business has its ups and downs, including ours, but you need to keep the focus on and keep going if you want to find success.”