It started with a desire to offer an all-natural juice option on deli and convenient store shelves in Mexico. But HOLA Smoothie is so much more than that. Manuel Villarreal and his partner Jorge Bouffier have not only launched a healthy and delicious Mexican-sourced beverage, but also invented a wacky and fun brand personality that is delighting customers every day.
HOLA Smoothie produces and bottles 100% natural fresh fruit juices and smoothies sold to the mass-Mexican market at Superama, Sam’s Club, and 7-11.
Who are the founders and what were you doing before starting Hola Smoothie?
My partner Jorge Bouffier and I started the company in 2008. We first started thinking about going into business together in 2006. Jorge was 23 and working for a packaging company; I was 25 and had been working in Strategy at Grupo Modelo (the makers of Corona beer) for a few years.
How did you know you were ready to start a company?
I personally had always been entrepreneurial as a kid so I guess it was just a matter of time before I started a business of my own. I also figured that it was the best time to start something. My partner and I are both young and if we take a risk, the most we would lose is maybe a little money and a little time. Nothing we couldn’t get back.
So starting a beverage company seems logical based on your work experience…but why smoothies?
We first looked into opening a special type of “café” format that was becoming more popular in Mexico City —places that would offer a variety of well-made food and drink (including smoothies) available for take away. We ultimately threw out the idea because we didn’t have enough experience in the restaurant business and it would have been too costly. But there was something interesting about smoothies, especially given my knowledge of the beverage industry.
We started researching smoothie trends in other countries and comparing what was going on around the world with what was available in Mexico. Most of the bottled smoothies and juices had too much sugar or artificial ingredients. We also didn’t feel loyal to one particular brand. That’s when the puzzle pieces fell into place.
What were some of the defining moments that encouraged you to move forward with the concept?
Turning Our Kitchen Into a Factory: Beginning in October 2007, we started experimenting with recipes in our kitchen. Jorge is the engineer so he figured out some low-cost processes for us to manually bottle the smoothies using big water dispensers. My cousin, Andrea, did some free design work for the packaging and marketing materials and we compensated her with smoothies. The whole operation was manual, labor intensive and not particularly fancy. It was just the two of us squeezing juices until 3am in our kitchen and hand-delivering smoothies to stores in our cars. We weren’t sleeping.
But this was an important time because not only were we validating our concept but Jorge and I tested our ability to work together.
Getting so big we had to stop: So for a few months, we continued this way, selling to a handful of cafés and university convenient stores around Mexico City. By April 2008, we had to stop. Business was growing fast but we couldn’t keep operating out of the kitchen. We explained to our customers that we would come back soon and when we did we would be able to produce larger volumes at a better price.
Scaling up: It took us a while to get the new production system set up but we re-entered the market with a new process and our current brand identity. We went back to our initial customers and grew from there. Jorge was in charge of production and I was in charge of sales and marketing.
Let’s talk about your unique brand concept. How did you come up with your marketing vision?
We’ve studied studied brands from all over the world, and whether big or small, the ones we love are authentic and honest. So we applied the same approach to our company. We created a brand personality that allows us to say what we want and show customers who we are.
We started working with a design firm called Substance that was referred to us by a friend. It took a while for us to get the brand right, but after a few meetings, we did. Substance really understood what we wanted and brought a lot of new ideas to the table.
Our brand personality definitely has a sense of humor. In Mexico, especially Mexico City, everyone is always stressed; they’re worried about work, security or whatever. We try to help people relax and have a laugh through our site, videos, and advertising.
How is Hola Smoothie doing?
We’re profitable and selling to Superama and Sam’s Clubs, 7-11, Café Punta del Cielo, and Palacio de Hierro in Liverpool. We also just launched a new juice line called Frutas de Vida in three flavors.
What is something you do for the success of your business that other business people may view as totally crazy?
If a customer tells us they like our product we ask them for their address and say we want to send them a survey. It’s just an excuse. We really send them a box of juices and smoothies, plus t-shirts or other small gifts. We love to surprise people.
When Mexico City launched a new bike share program we wanted to get involved and show our support. We set up stands and gave people free smoothies for riding one of the free bikes.
We don’t think of surprising our customers as a cost. It’s who we are and what makes us memorable.
What’s next for Hola Smoothie?
Continue to launch new flavors and passionately grow in Mexico.
If you could have any successful businessperson in the world serve as an adviser to your company, whom would you choose?
Richard Branson – He does what he wants in so many industries and consistently proves success.
Visit Hola Smoothie: www.holasmoothie.com