Niki Sawni grew up in a health-conscious family, but like most twenty-somethings, enjoyed his fair share of alcoholic beverages. The hangovers that came along with them, however, not so much. In 2019 he started Grüvi—a premium nonalcoholic beer and wine brand—to create space for people who enjoyed the taste and social aspects of alcohol but didn’t necessarily want to get intoxicated.
“At the time, no brands were resonating with the younger demographic,” says Sawni. “A lot of people think if they don't drink, their social life will go down the tubes.”
Sawni saw an opportunity for innovation in Denver—a city known for its beer culture and healthy lifestyle—so he relocated from Toronto and got to work building his first brand. It’s going well: Grüvi’s flavor-forward brews and sparkling wines were a hit at their exclusively nonalcoholic Tasting Room, and retailers including Total Wine, Whole Foods and Target took notice. In October 2020, Grüvi won the Naturally Boulder Pitch Slam and the Naturally Boulder People’s Choice Award, snagging a booth at Natural Products Expo East 2021 as part of the prize package. We caught up with Sawni to chat about the brand's latest win: Natural Products Expo East 2021 Pitch Slam Rising Star.
What’s Grüvi's mission?
Niki Sawni: Our mission is simple—help others be healthy and stay social, one drink at a time. We strive to make nonalcoholic products cool, fun, and exciting. That’s where the name comes from. In the 60s, “groovy” meant fun, love, peace, and positivity—but the nonalcoholic beer and wine category is typically associated with negatively stigmatized words like addiction. Our goal is to bring the same love that people have for alcohol, craft beer and wine to an underserved and ignored space. Our vision for Grüvi is to be the most fun, social brand of alcohol-free products.
How do you drive product discovery?
NS: We do everything in-house. Not everything is successful, though! We’ve developed a large list of customers through the e-commerce website, so we send out polls about what customers want or what is missing from the market. That leads us to what we know we need to work on next.
For example, red wine was the most requested product from our customer base, so we worked with winemakers, food scientists, and tech partners to develop it. Then we sent it to customers, got feedback, and kept trying until we perfected it.
Sounds like you have an intimate relationship with your customer base.
NS: We are fortunate because the customers in this space are very kind and willing to help. When we first released the red wine, it received six out of 10 feedback. If you did that in any other category, you'd lose that customer forever, but our customers are so excited about what we are creating they're willing to support you as long as you're trying to make it better.
Have trade shows played a role in your success?
NS: Trade shows require a lot of effort and investment with setting up and having your staff there, so you really have to make the most out of it and be well organized to get a good return. Since we’re new at this, we were just taking it all in and learning from it. A lot of the value from trade shows like Expo East is the opportunity to connect and network with people in your industry. Next time, we will have more clear goals; who are we trying to meet and what are we trying to learn?
Were there any questions from the judges that sparked ideas you hadn’t considered before?
NS: From the questions and other conversations that we had at Expo East, the general consensus among marketing executives is that our brand has a lot of potential, but we need to hone our message.
Right now we say a lot of things: You can be healthier, socially included, and don’t need to compromise on taste. The big takeaway for our team was that we should pick one message that resonates and go with that. We need to figure out: If Grüvi had only one thing to say, what would it be?
What advice can you offer other brands who pitch at Expo East or other shows in the future?
NS: Don’t just pitch facts and figures—you need a story that has a mission and purpose. Make sure it’s a succinct story that people can connect with, and it should be more of a conversation than a pitch on the business.
What have you learned about yourself and your company since Grüvi's journey started?
NS: About a year ago, I came to the realization that it’s okay to ask for help. I always felt it was my and my team's responsibility to solve everything. But going to a trade show like Expo East—where people freely offer their help and connections—was an affirmation that being proactive in asking for help is necessary in order to grow. It’s hard if you don't have connections as a small business. Introductions and advice can save you a ton of struggle.
You’ve experienced astronomical growth in the past year—400%, to be exact. What’s that been like?
NS: It was a tough year for the supply chain, whether that was securing bottles or organizing freight. It was stressful, but we are starting to see some large retailers such as Whole Foods, Target, and Total Wine carve out full sections for alcohol-free products. Retailers have a strategy for this category and their viewpoint led to a lot of that growth. Ultimately, though, it’s fueled by consumers.
Where do you see the company headed in the next five years?
NS: The category is evolving as more people are trying nonalcoholic products and finding a way to fit these products into their lifestyles. If we can be present in people's minds when they are having a good time without alcohol, that’s where we want to be—at concerts, cookouts and anywhere you’re hanging out with friends.