Many entrepreneurs speak fondly of their “aha moment,” but for Juan Ignacio Stewart, the spark that led to the launch of his Boulder-based beverage is part of his very identity.
Juan, who was born in the United States but raised in the Central American country of Guatemala until he was 17, is the founder of Boulder-based Frescos Naturales, which in November last year earned top prize at Naturally Boulder’s 17th Annual Pitch Slam and Autumn Awards.
Frescos are classic Latin American carbonated fruit beverages with purposeful, colorful branding meant to honor its Latinx roots. “Fresco” is short for refresco, which means refreshment.
In Guatemala, Juan explains, people vastly prefer lemonade or horchata over water because there is abundant, inexpensive fruit from which to make drinks. The idea to bottle and sell these drinks—Juan originally used glass but then switched to cans due to cost—came from his son, who was 15 at the time. While traditionally these homemade beverages would not be carbonated, he says he added carbonation after the switch to cans because the idea excited him.
“Colorado has a vibrant beer industry that allows you to get cans and be able to carbonate stuff pretty easily,” he says. “To me, it's an exciting innovation from the more traditional way, although I still intend to make the non-carbonated versions in the future.”
His cans are sourced from Cansource, a Longmont-based can manufacturer, and he has been co-packing with Denver-based TEAKOE Tea Supply Co.
Juan now has more than 60 accounts throughout the Denver metro area and beyond, and six flavors: rosa de jamaica, tamarindo, maracuyá, mango, piña and guayaba. By fall of last year, he had sold more than 60,000 cans in just eight months on the market.
“The result has been incredible,” he says. “There are so many flavors, and you can make room anywhere. Coffee, grocery, breweries—anywhere.”
Having prior experience in food and beverage gave Juan a leg up bringing a new product to market. He is also owner of Green Belly Foods, a local hot sauce company that can be found at Whole Foods, Natural Grocers and more. Juan says being able to test his products at farmers markets in Boulder and beyond, which he had done beginning in 2019 with the hot sauce, has been key to his success.
“The farmers markets are this incredible economic engine,” he says. “Imagine opening a store every Saturday in Boulder for four to five hours. You can sell a ton.”
In December 2020, he officially registered Frescos with one flavor—rosa de jamaica—and the next month started selling the drinks door to door at eateries around Boulder. Frescos can be purchased by the can at Sanitas Brewing, Ozo Coffee, Organic Sandwich Company, Yellowbelly, Rincon Argentino and grocery stores like King Soopers and Whole Foods, as well as in six packs online.
Before getting into food, Juan worked in freelance video production and taught youth media at several high schools. His comfort in front of the camera was on full display at the pitch slam, where he warmly and enthusiastically delivered a polished pitch and came away with a $3,000 cash prize; a guaranteed spot in next year’s Expo East Pitch Slam; and a bevy of in-kind business consulting services on branding strategy, finance and brokering.
At the pitch slam, Juan spoke of how “legit refrescos Latinos” are part of who he is. The small-batch beverage contains five to 10 grams of added sugar per can, a stat Stewart knows may be a turnoff for some. (In his defense, there are 39 grams of sugar in a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola.)
Even so, he says he insists on honoring the cultural roots of the beverage. “I want to stick to the real recipes,” he says. “I grew up with this. Why would I change it? My grandmother is 92 years old and has been drinking it all her life. Frescos in Guatemala are always lightly sweetened.”
Frescos is also seizing on opportunities for those who are burning out on booze amid a stubborn pandemic. The non-alcoholic drink trend has been steadily increasing for years, and Juan is happy to contribute to the growing market of interesting, N/A alternatives. At $3 to $4 a can, Juan is aware his product is more expensive than some other N/A drinks like sparkling water—but then again, he emphasizes, Frescos are much more than sparkling water.
“I get alfonso mango from India—it’s the ripest mango of your life,” he says. “The tamarind is the consistency of apple sauce. The guava is so silky. What makes them really good is the high-quality ingredients.”