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Brothers George Passantino and Kevin Borgh couldn’t find a coffee drink that provided a caffeine boost without the crash. So, they created their own product. Today, Quokka Brew is carving out a unique space in the beverage business.

Finding Their Niche in the Crowded Space of Coffee and Caffeine

Powering their way through final exams in Spring 2018, Beta Psi Chapter brothers George Passantino (right) and Kevin Borgh (left) (UC Berkeley) relied on copious amounts of coffee to stay alert and focused during long nights spent in the college library. 

But the temporary jolt from the caffeine had a downside.

“All the coffee made us feel extremely jittery and anxious…and eventually just completely crash,” said Passantino, who, along with Borgh, graduated from Berkeley in 2019.

The two began looking for options for coffee that would still keep them awake and focused but without the “jitters” that came with caffeine. 

“When we searched for a solution, we couldn’t find anything, and we discovered another concern,” Passantino explained. “All of the ready to drink coffees and energy drinks we found were loaded with sugar and calories.”

Nowhere in the multi-billion-dollar world of “ready to drink” coffees was there a healthier option that promised a caffeine-fueled experience without the inevitable crash.

“So, this got us thinking, ‘why isn’t there a jitter-less and healthy coffee?’” said Passantino, who, along with Borgh, quickly recognized a market sector opportunity right in front of them.

Using Science and Nature to Calm the Jitters 

After graduation, the two set their sights on developing a healthy caffeinated product - without the downsides of a caffeine crash. They remained in Berkeley - a coffee lover’s “nirvana” with more coffee shops per capita than any other city in the country.  

“We spent close to six months on research and development, working with scientists and food chemists to develop our proprietary ‘jitter-less’ blend,” Passantino said.

They learned the science of caffeine is relatively simple.

“Caffeine is a ‘vasoconstrictor,’ meaning as you consume caffeine, your blood vessels naturally constrict…causing your heart to pump harder in order to get blood where it needs to go,” Passantino explains. “This is what causes the jitters.”

They looked to the natural ingredients found in green tea and matcha, which have long been used for their calming properties. 

“These naturally produced ingredients dilate the blood vessels back to their natural state, allowing blood to flow freely…thereby reducing the jitters,” Passantino said.

Five months later, in the fall of 2019, after extensive research of ingredient blends, optimal heating techniques, and testing more than 200 variations of roast combinations, Quokka Brew launched with a ready-to-drink vanilla oat milk latte.

Marketing and Mascots

Passantino and Borgh understood the risks. According to a Harvard Business School study, each year more than 30,000 new consumer products are launched and 80 percent of them fail.

Additionally, Quokka Brew was jumping into a crowded market of coffee-related beverages, all vying for a piece of the $82 billion spent on coffee products each year in the United States.

However, Quokka Brew was unique. It was the first caffeinated jitter-less beverage, quickly distinguishing itself from the mega-companies and niche brands dominating the coffee sector. 

“There is no caffeinated product currently offered on the market that solves the jitters like our product,” Passantino explained.

But the product allure extended beyond the “jitter-less” tagline. Quokka Brew contains five grams of sugar, 60 calories, is dairy-free, and vegan. Additionally, it still delivers a caffeine kick with 135 milligrams of caffeine – compared to only 80 milligrams in a standard cup of coffee. 

It certainly didn’t hurt marketing efforts that the company’s symbol adorning each can was a smiling furry creature that had nothing to do with coffee – but was super cute.

“When we were first launching Quokka Brew, we knew we wanted a mascot that really stood out,” Passantino explained.

So he and Kevin went through a list of every animal on earth, till they landed on the quokka, the always-smiling wallaby native to Australia. They knew they had a winner. 

“Quokkas are unique because they have few predators, so they are naturally happy and outgoing,” said Passantino. 

And if you do a search for “what is the happiest animal in the world” you will land on the quokka. 
“This connects perfectly with our mission of creating a beverage without the jitters so you can be your happiest best self, just like a quokka,” Passantino said. 

Market Testing through Sigma Nu

Even before Quokka Brew entered the picture, both Passantino and Borgh had an aptitude for business and marketing. At UC Berkeley, Passantino studied Environmental Economics, while Borgh’s degree was in Cognitive Science. 

“We were both involved in various e-commerce and market arbitrage businesses in college,” said Passantino, noting Borgh was his “big” in Sigma Nu. “However, [Quokka Brew] was our first business venture into consumer packaged goods.”

During the early stages of product development and research, the two relied heavily on their brothers in the Beta Psi Chapter at Berkeley for input. 

“They were our ‘guinea pigs’,” said Passantino, laughing. 

He and Borgh would show up to the chapter house with samples for the members to try, then go back and make tweaks to the product based on feedback.

“The next day, we would show up with another bag of samples!” said Passantino. “This helped us ensure we were creating a product people actually liked.”

The demographics of their Sigma Nu brothers also reflected the eventual customer base for Quokka Brew once it hit the market. 

“Our audience leans towards a younger demographic,” Passantino said. “They are college students and young professionals who are the most willing to try new products like ours.”

That “consumer input” was incredibly valuable for Passantino and Borgh as they navigated the landscape of bringing a product to market. It also helped validate that Quokka Brew had the potential to be successful.

Sharing Lessons Learned

Looking back over the past four years, Passantino and Borgh know they have defied the odds. According to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, about a third of small business ventures won’t make it past the second year.

Those figures should serve as a challenge for entrepreneurs, Passantino noted, not a stop sign.

“The worst thing you can do when you have a great idea is to do nothing,” he said. “Start researching, start talking to people, try building a prototype…just do something.”

It was not all smooth sailing for Quokka Brew at the start. The COVID-19 pandemic derailed expansion plans in 2020, technical issues disrupted their crowdfunding platform – all of which only served to motivate Passantino and Borgh to dig deeper.

“If you believe in what you are doing…which we did... then giving up feels like betraying yourself,” Passantino explains. “So as long as you love what you are doing, have a strong support system, and work with a good team, the risk of giving up is pretty low.” 

He laughs at the image people often have of business owners with yachts, private jets, and all the glamorous things the movies portray.

“The reality is that you have to work hard, for very little pay, and in the beginning, do everything no one wants to do, and work harder and longer than you ever had before,” Passantino said. “But we loved every minute…and we still do.”

The Road Ahead 

Since its launch in 2019, Quokka Brew is now carried by nearly 400 retail locations, primarily along the West Coast, and nationally through Amazon. Reviews for the product are positive from customers, as well as industry reviewers who praise the concept and the content.

Quokka Brew now offers a chocolate “cereal milk latte” alongside the vanilla bean oat milk latte. In August 2023, the company entered the energy drink category, launching Quokka Energy as a “jitter-less” energy drink.

“Our customers have been loving it,” Passantino noted. “In terms of future plans, we may be launching a few more flavors of Quokka Energy later this year, so stay tuned!”

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9 North Lewis Street, P.O. Box 1869, Lexington, Virginia 24450
Phone: (540) 463-1869 | Fax: (540) 463-1669 | Email: headquarters@sigmanu.org

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