As Shaun Roberts sits and chats outside the Shops at Kukuiula, his wife Dana Roberts walks by on her way for a morning cup of coffee.
She stops for a moment to say hi, but declines the invitation to join her husband as he tells the story of KonaRed. After all, she’s busy enough as the face and CEO of their other company, Malie Organics.
“He’s Mr. KonaRed,” Dana Roberts said, smiling.
The name fits.
This is the man, after all, who is founder and CEO of the company and its product, KonaRed, described as a Hawaiian superfruit-antioxidant juice; a health drink — something that not only tastes good, but is darn good for you.
As far as Shaun Roberts is concerned, KonaRed is all that and more. There’s no doubt, no hesitation, no disclaimers, as he recites its benefits.
“You drink it, you feel it, it works,” he says. “It gives you natural energy, it boosts your immunity and it helps fight inflammation.”
Roberts continues describing KonaRed, explaining its high antioxidant content is absorbed quickly into the body’s system and boom, you’re off and running. Well, not literally running, but perhaps you’ll feel like it.
“You actually end up feeling the product when you take it, and the reason you feel it is because of the absorption capacity,” he says.
The antioxidants, he explains as simply as possible, neutralize free radicals in the body’s system, which make you tired or just plain beat and cause all sorts of havoc.
“So, you actually feel your natural energy,” he said.
Roberts, who drinks about a 16-ounce bottle of KonaRed daily, swears by the stuff. He’s not just selling it. He’s drinking it. He’s living by it. He’s staking his name and reputation on it.
Remember, this is Mr. KonaRed.
“For example, I haven’t been sick in almost four years, since I’ve been consuming the product,” he said.
If his son or daughter comes down with the sniffles, Roberts gives them KonaRed.
“It goes away,” he says.
While KonaRed is many things, here’s what it’s not:
“It’s not an energy drink,” he said. “It doesn’t give you a spike or a crash.”
KonaRed, in its distinctive red bottle, is showing up on more store shelves across the country. In Kauai, you can find it in many sites, including Costco, Longs Drugs, Safeway, Foodland and 7-Eleven. And Roberts just made a deal with Walmart for around 250 of its stores in the Southwest to carry it, too.
Annual sales are in the millions.
Professional athletes are signing on as KonaRed Ambassadors, including surfer Garrett McNamara, paddleboarder Jamie Mitchell and triathlete Shonny Vanlandingham.
“They swear by the product because of what it does for them,” Roberts says.
Who is Shaun Roberts?
The 44-year-old is a Southern California native and San Diego State University graduate and soccer player who majored in economics. He and Dana met in college.
Roberts worked in sales early in his career and helped develop a range of earth-friendly cleaning products.
“I got kind of interested in the natural cleaning aspect of things,” he said.
A national sales position followed, before he tired of corporate America and decided to set out on his own.
Roberts went home and started a company that offered a line of those environmentally friendly cleaning products he likes.
Like many, he and his wife vacationed in Kauai. But unlike many, they decided to move here. They sold their business holdings, bid goodbye to California and arrived in Kauai in 2001.
A few years later, he and Dana started Maile Organics (Maile means calm, quiet, serene). The company offers a line of natural, organic, luxury spa and beauty products along with a collection of women’s resort wear designed for life on Hawaii.
When they launched Maile Organics, Dana was the face of the company and Shaun took care of operations.
In the meantime, though, he was looking for another venture and came across a press release from the University of Hawaii touting the antioxidant benefits of the coffee fruit.
Roberts, interest perked, investigated.
Shaun and Dana lived above Kauai Coffee, so he went down for visit. It was then he learned that coffee was actually a fruit, and the coffee bean was actually the seed of the fruit.
Roberts called a friend in Kona, Tom Greenwell, president of the Hawaii Coffee Association. In Kona, there are about 650 small estate plantations, where the coffee beans are hand-picked.
Their conversation went like this:
“What are you doing with all the fruit?” Roberts asked.
“We’re just throwing it away,” Greenwell answered.
“How much are you throwing away in Kona each year?”
“About 20 million pounds a year.”
“Do you think that’s valuable?”
“Yeah, I do think it’s valuable.”
So Roberts hopped on a plane to Kona for an up-close look at this supposed superfruit.
While convinced of its benefits, there was the trick of how to salvage it. The coffee fruit, he learned, starts to ferment three to four hours after it’s split. He had to figure out a way to dry the fruit before that happened.
He and some biochemist-type friends did.
“We basically take it right there and we work with the Kona farmers to be able to dry the product right away,” he said. “We dry it in these big horizontal drum dryers you normally would use for drying coffee, but we converted to drying what they call skins.”
Starting in 2008, the product was studied a year and a half in the lab: extractions, toxicity tests, identifying antioxidants, developing something people could actually consume.
“We realized this product was the king of superfruits.”
Roberts’ original idea was to create a company that would provide the raw coffee fruit in liquid extracts and powders to other companies as an antioxidant enhancement to their product.
But he saw more opportunity.
In 2010, KonaRed was launched.
Because the coffee fruit utilized by Roberts came from Kona, and it’s red, the name was easy to come up with, but darn catchy: KonaRed.
“At the end of the day, we needed to look at what would be most recognizable, most acceptable, and the best product,” he said.
The investment, Roberts said, has been “substantial.”
“It’s a home-grown business, a sustainable business model,” Roberts said. “We’re taking something that wasn’t used in the past and we’re paying farmers for their waste streams.”
“To put it into a consumer product and develop a new category has been a heavy undertaking,” he added.
But it’s paying off and will continue to do so, Roberts says.
“We believe in the big picture of this,” he said.
They were able to get KonaRed on stores shelves in the beverage category in Hawaii.
“We were fortunate to start in our backyard and have a very well-received product,” he said. “We had a pretty easy entry into the promotion of the brand and quickly gained a following.”
Grocery chains on the Mainland picked it up, too.
“That success spilled over the West Coast,” he said.
Still, sales didn’t skyrocket. Name recognition takes time.
“The beverage space is very competitive. It takes a lot of promotion of the brand. That’s really what we’ve been doing, building the foundation of the company, and the branding. Building brands takes a lot of my energy,” he said.
KonaRed is in what he calls in the premium juice category, which he says is a fast-growing segment of the beverage industry, along the likes of coconut water and pomegranate.
“We’re really developing a new category,” he said.
What makes it different?
The main ingredient is the fruit of the coffee plant that “surrounds, protects and nourishes the coffee bean.”
Roberts says KonaRed has an “extraordinary” level of nutrients and antioxidants that are absorbed at the cellular level.
“It’s an amazing product. We know it works.”
KonaRed’s sales headquarters are on Oahu, while development and research is on Maui. A 12,000-square-foot distribution center is in San Clemente, Calif. Roberts oversees KonaRed’s operations from Kauai.
While declining to give specifics on sales, Roberts said they are rising. Fast.
“We’re in the millions in sales each year,” Roberts says.
KonaRed isn’t affiliated with only health drinks, but coffee, too.
Hawaii is only state in the U.S. that commercially grows coffee, Roberts said, and coffee is the No. 2 traded commodity behind oil.
“We really want to be synonymous with the world of coffee for KonaRed.”
Roberts rises by 6 a.m. each day to begin returning phone calls and emails, reviewing plans and products lines, as he catches up with the West Coast running three hours ahead.
Long days are a necessity.
“I’m pretty much an around-the-clock type of guy,” he said. “It’s a pretty busy time as we grow the brand.”
Still, he tries to leave the office by 6 a.m. so he can be with his family. And when he does get free time, he surfs, hikes, paddles, fishes and explores the island with his wife, son and daughter.
“We spend a lot of time at the beaches, the mountains, enjoying the island,” he said.
He is convinced KonaRed is a “good feeling” story for Hawaii and coffee. Sit down and chat with him, he’ll convince you, too.
“We just want to produce a great product, something that people know what they’re drinking,” he said.
They recently introduced a new product, a powder solution, 100 percent water soluble, no sugar, no calories.
“You simply put it in your water and you get all the benefit of coffee fruit right away,” he said.
Down the road, plans are to offer Kona Red in other forms — capsules, tablets, nutritional bars, and increased types of beverages.
“You’ll see KonaRed branch out into the nutritional space,” he said.
More national chains seeking to gain standing in the wellness category may carry KonaRed soon. The market, Roberts believes, is wide open.
“I think you’ll see some exciting things that are going to happen here in the next three to four months with KonaRed as far as the availability of it and where we’re going,” he said.
The most important thing, he says, is that KonaRed delivers as promised.
“You could drink gallons of whatever juice there is and you will not feel it,” he says. “You drink KonaRed and you actually get the effects of it and it actually works.”