From tasting freshly squeezed Florida orange juice as a young boy to driving past rows of almond trees in blossom en route to his Bakersfield, Calif.-based plant, Califia Farms’ Founder and Chief Executive Officer Greg Steltenpohl derives inspiration from smelling and tasting new innovations, while listening to and leading a team of passionate employees.

Founded in 2010 in partnership with Pasadena, Calif.-based Sun Pacific, Califia Farms LLC, also based in Pasadena, is shaking up the status quo, Steltenpohl said. With a portfolio of 55 SKUs of premium plant-based almond milks, coffee creamers, ready-to-drink (RTD) cold-brew coffees and specialty citrus juices, Califia Farms is fueling a plant-based beverage revolution, he added.

“Califia has really shaken up and disrupted the status quo by offering consumers a tasty, premium plant-based brand that delivers on every level: healthful clean ingredients that taste great and are delivered in a beautiful, appealing bottle,” Steltenpohl said.

Steltenpohl added that same disruption applies to the brand’s packaging.

“Our iconic 48-ounce carafe truly stands out on the shelf and is an icebreaker with retailers,” he said. “Its pleasing shape has opened the door for lots of consumer trial and internal innovation because the shape…piques curiosity.”

Since 2012, Califia Farms has added 45 SKUs including nine varieties of almond milk, four varieties of coffee creamers, nine RTD cold-brew coffees, a cold-brew coffee concentrate as well as a specialty line of citrus juices, aguas frescas and clementine juices.

“We approach all product development in the same way,” Steltenpohl said. “We listen to our consumers. Lowering calories, lowering sugar and creating cleaner labels is, and will always be, a leading-edge for Califia.”

Consumers actively are seeking Califia Farms, and it’s considered one of the fastest growing natural beverage companies in the country, according to Schaumburg, Ill.-based SPINS.

Available at 27,000 retailers nationwide, Califia Farms has nearly quadrupled the number of retailers carrying the brand since 2013.

Slated to open in early 2016, a new distribution center opening adjacent to the current Bakersfield bottling plant will give the company more than 100,000 square feet and will further increase supply chain efficiencies, Steltenpohl noted. The company plans to be running at more than 10 million cases a year by the end of 2016, he added.

Almond authenticity

Califia Farms has contributed to a 40% growth of almond milk sales in both the natural and conventional markets, according to SPINS data. 

In the refrigerated nut beverages segment within the natural channel, Califia Farms grew 55.8% from June 14, 2014, to June 14, 2015, with the natural category overall experiencing a 9.2% increase, according to SPINS’ data. Califia Farms’ refrigerated almond milk — ranked No. 5 — amassed sales of more than $25.4 million, a 226% increase, in U.S. multi-outlets through Sept. 6, 2015, according to data from Information Resources Inc. (IRI), Chicago.

Steltenpohl said that almond milk’s taste and authenticity are appealing to more diverse demographics, including men who “traditionally value taste above good-for-you-ness.”

“Plant-powered” beverages

Having grown up with a mother who was an accomplished chef and well versed in the food business, Steltenpohl’s vision for Califia Farms was born when he discovered the flexibility of almond and coconut milks for cooking and drinking.

“They are a wonderful medium for flavors with a great mouthfeel,” he explained. “They really make the flavors stand out, especially when combined with coffee or spices, such as in our Vanilla and Cinnamon Horchatas, Holiday Nog or our extensive line of cold-brew coffees, including Salted Caramel, Double Espresso, Dirty Chai and Mocha.”

Steltenpohl said Califia’s mission is to create healthy, great-tasting beverages for consumers who want to go “plant powered” and dairy free, without compromise.

“We avoid using the word ‘natural’ because it means different things to different people. We don’t want our consumers to have to interpret the meaning of our labels,” Steltenpohl said. “When it comes to ingredients, we feel less is more. We start with getting our core ingredient right — whether it’s almonds, coffee or fruit —we always use a process that brings out the best.”

Coffee is king

In addition to its success in the almond milk category, the company also is making its mark in the natural channel’s $50.7 million RTD coffee category. It is No. 1, with a 32% market share and 76% growth year-over-year, for the 12 weeks ending June 14, according to SPINS.

“At Califia Farms, we view coffee as an adventure,” Steltenpohl said. “It’s the central element in a world full of unique flavors, milks, creams and textures. We are creating an entire ecosystem based around coffee in all its permutations — with our flavorful Cold Brew Coffee at its core.”

Califia Farms’ RTD cold-brew coffees with almond milk are available in 48-ounce multi-serve bottles in four flavors: Café Latte, Double Espresso, Salted Caramel and Mocha. It also offers 10.5-ounce single-serve bottles available in Salted Caramel, Double XXEspresso, Cocoa Noir, Dirty Chai, Mocha Mexica and Triple Shot flavors. The coffees are dairy- and soy-free and contain no saturated fats, oils, GMOs or gluten. They also are significantly less acidic than hot-brewed coffee, according Steltenpohl.

“Today’s coffee lovers, especially the coveted Millennials, are extremely sophisticated. They like to customize their daily cups, depending on their mood — hot or cold, sweet or strong, flavored or not, rich or subtle,” Steltenpohl said. “And, increasingly, they want those cups to be easy to make, healthy and dairy free.”

Disrupting the dairy case

With its distinctive hourglass shape, Califia Farms’ 100% recyclable bottles stand out from the standard cartons in refrigerated dairy cases. That, too, is by design, Steltenpohl said.

“As we developed our delicious beverages, we also worked to create magic in our packaging. We spent months of experimentation to invent a bottle that really stands out on the shelf,” he said. 

Califia Farms’ packaging innovations are being recognized. Consultant firm Seurat Group recently named Califia Farms a “Top 10 Challenger Brand,” noting that its “bottle is reshaping today’s dairy case.”

Steltenpohl said that the tactile relationship with the Califia bottle — making it feel good in consumers’ hands —was critical to the design process as well.

“We created a soft, feel-good plastic with a grippable neck and ergonomics that lend itself to an easy twist-off cap,” he said. “And, because sustainability is core to our ethos, we embedded sustainability into the bottle: we use a resin that goes into one recycling stream, ensuring the bottle is 100% recyclable.”

Although known for its plant-based beverages, Califia Farms also is the largest marketer of tangerine juice in the United States, according to Steltenpohl. Although the citrus category has remained flat, if not declining, in most parts of the country, that’s not the case for Califia Farms’ juice brands, he said.  

“This is another interesting example of how Califia can ignite a category,” Steltenpohl noted. “Sales of our citrus drinks are growing at the same rate as our cold-brew coffees and other categories. That’s really the power of coupling a great brand with innovative approaches.”

What’s next?

In spring, Califia Farms will introduce two new concepts — one coffee-based that will be available in a new packaging format and another that will extend the brand into a new category within the dairy case, Steltenpohl notes.

“Through Califia’s R&D process, we’ve learned some incredible things we can do with creamers and will be bringing new innovations to the market,” he said. “I’m particularly excited about our plant-based Unsweetened Almondmilk Coffee Creamers that are 100% sugar free.”

In mid-September, New York-based Stripes Group invested $50 million to further Califia Farm’s innovations in plant-based beverages. The investment helped fund the opening of a new marketing headquarters in downtown Los Angeles as well as the opening of its new warehouse in Bakersfield in early 2016.

Steltenpohl said that the power of coupling a great brand with innovative approaches remains his biggest inspiration. 

“While we’re always inspired by the natural channel and its leading retailers, we’re also interested in being part of the evolution happening in conventional channels,” Steltenpohl said.

“We’re challenging what is the norm for a beverage company. Our mission is to be the food and beverage company of the future.”

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the December 2015 issue of Beverage Industry, a BNP Media publication (like Dairy Foods). It was reported and written by BI Managing Editor Barbara Harfmann and edited by Dairy Foods Managing Editor Sarah Kennedy.