Even if you’re more likely to sip on a green juice than anything alcoholic or loaded with caffeine, chances are, you remember when Four Loko was A Thing. The fourth best-selling alcoholic drink in the country at its peak in 2009, the beverage was a favorite of frat boys and 20-something party girls who needed a little help staying up ’til 3 a.m.
But a couple years ago, co-founder Chris Hunter decided to pivot…to the health-food industry. He’s now the CEO of Koia, a dairy-free protein drink.
On the surface, the 180 may seem like an uber-conscious business move—after all, the healthy food and drink business is thriving. But when I spoke with Hunter, I got the sense that his career pivot is a reflection of changes that happened in his personal life. What exactly went down that inspired the party-drink entrepreneur to launch one of the best-selling plant-based drinks on the market? Keep reading to find out.
Scroll down to see how entrepreneur Chris Hunter went from Four Loko to Koia.
Living la vida loca, er, loko
Hunter didn’t grow into having an entrepreneurial spirit—he had it from the start. After selling cherry vodka for a spirits company, he launched Phusion Projects with two partners when he was 25, to create his own version. “It was being used as a mixer with Red Bull for cherry bombs,” Hunter says. And that gave him an idea: Why not just combine the booze, caffeine, and flavoring in the same can?
Soon, it was everywhere—including 20 other countries. But in 2010, there was backlash saying the drink was being marketed to teens and encouraging underage drinking. And people really started to wonder if combining alcohol with caffeine was really okay. After several states banned the drink from being sold altogether, Hunter and his partners reformulated the recipe without caffeine.
Meanwhile, Hunter’s personal life went through some changes. At 34, he was married and a new father. He was also paying more attention to his fitness. “I started running half-marathons, and then marathons, CrossFit, triathlons, and then an Ironman,” he says. During the same period, his wife became a nutritionist and personal trainer, so health was something they enjoyed geeking out over together.
“My career was trying to catch up with the evolution of my life,” Hunter says. At the time, craft beer was starting to take over, so he started working with a brewery outside of Chicago called Small Town Brewery, helping them launch a root beer. It wasn’t exactly kombucha, but it was a change. He also started investing in a few healthy food brands, including a meal delivery service called Factor75.
The cleanse that changed everything
Hunter’s diet was evolving, too. The first step: When Hunter and his wife discovered their second son had a dairy sensitivity, they became a dairy-free household. Then, Hunter went on a cleanse that really changed the way he thought about food. “It was a pretty strict eating plan,” he says. “No caffeine, no alcohol, no dairy, and no gluten.”
After three weeks of cutting everything out completely, the program allowed Hunter to start adding foods back in, one at a time. The first was gluten. “I remember talking to people who were gluten-free and I thought it was a bunch of BS,” Hunter says. “But when I did the elimination diet and added it back in, I really did feel more sluggish and tired. I saw the power of what I was eating and putting into my body.”
Around the same time, Hunter discovered a dairy-free protein drink at his gym called Raw Nature 5. The packaging wasn’t exactly Instagram-worthy, but it had a clean label, tasted delish, and his gym buddies told him it sold really well. Hunter became an investor, and over time, the product morphed into Koia. Now, he’s the CEO.
Fun for the whole fam
A recent trip to San Francisco acts as a near-perfect analogy for Hunter’s personal and professional transformation: He and his family were able to scope out Koia on the shelves at Whole Foods—somewhere Four Loko would never be found.
When Hunter was 25, Four Loko—which is still a thriving business—was right up his alley. But now that he’s a family man and living the wellness life, Koia makes more sense for him on a personal level. “I like to work with things that align with my lifestyle,” Hunter says. “There’s nothing wrong with products that don’t fit with my life, but I like when something is really engrained in the way I live,” he says.
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