Upon expecting a set of twin girls, Neel Premkumar and his wife decided to make a lifestyle change to consume natural and organic products. While searching for natural solutions, Premkumar noticed a void in the marketplace. As a result of his wife’s desire for a natural product to help keep her hydrated during the pregnancy, he founded Stur, a natural water enhancer. However, just a few years later, he developed another product that catered to those, like himself, who are looking for a natural energy boost. With this goal in mind, he founded FORTO Coffee, a brand of West New York, N.J.-based Dyla LLC.

“I used to travel a lot for business and I was on the road all the time, and with little toddlers at home, I was constantly exhausted,” says Premkumar, founder of Dyla LLC and FORTO. “I used to drink a lot of energy shots in addition to drinking a lot of coffee. It always just struck me as a big need to have a wholesome, organic quick shot of coffee to-go.”

Founded in 2014, FORTO has doubled its sales every year, Premkumar says. In fact, the brand ranked as the No. 1 organic, ready-to-drink (RTD) shelf-stable coffee in the North American market for the 52 weeks ending Dec. 31, 2017, he adds, citing client-customer research from Chicago-based Information Resources Inc.

“We’re thrilled. We do feel like we’ve got a lot to do. We’ve got this constant need to keep growing and expanding,” Premkumar says. “… The more stories I hear, the more feedback we get from consumers, the more I just want to try and get the product out to every potential store I possibly can. We’re an impulse-driven product, so being available everywhere is really a critical piece of this, and I think we’re really bringing something new to the category and really expanding the energy category.”

An organic, RTD coffee shot, the FORTO brand consists of two lines, each with three flavors: 100 mg caffeine versions offered in Pure Black, Vanilla Latte, and Hershey’s Chocolate Latte, its most recent version; as well as its 200 mg caffeine line, which is offered in Vanilla, Mocha Chocolate and Sweetened Black flavors.

The products are made with 100 percent Arabica beans, which are cold brewed for 20 hours, depending on the caffeine level, Premkumar says. The 200 mg line uses more beans and is brewed longer than regular coffee. For the varieties that contain milk, the company uses organic whole milk sourced fresh from farms in Indiana, while the sweetened varieties contain a teaspoon of organic cane sugar, he says.

Although the ingredients are simple, formulating the product and developing a process that allowed it to be shelf- stable wasn’t, Premkumar explains.

“It was a difficult process making it, because I had to make something that tastes as good the day it was brewed as it does 12 months later. Figuring out how to get that kind of shelf life, I had to invent a process,” he says. “… That was unique [and it] took a while to figure out. Then, being able to package it and actually developing that iconic coffee cup package took a long time to be able to do that.”

Premkumar adds that the process took him a couple of years to complete the packaging.

Yet, with growth comes change. To start, the brand is planning its first national advertising campaign along with national field marketing and sampling.

“We’re going to be doing geo-targeted ads to consumers who live within a mile of the stores that sell FORTO, so we’ve got a nationally advertised video campaign that should be starting in February,” Premkumar explains. “We’ve got a field marketing infrastructure put in place, and we just hired on a team to do field marketing. The fellow who used to run VitaCoco’s field marketing joined us, and we’re going to be sampling in a dozen markets around the country as well as [at] several colleges.”

But, the change doesn’t stop there. In March, FORTO will introduce a redesigned label for its coffee cup-shaped package. The new packaging will make its debut at the 2018 Natural Products Expo West tradeshow, Premkumar says.

“In the beginning, we called out one benefit, and over time, we started adding more and more. This year, we took stock of the packaging and realized it’s really crowded, there’s just so much stuff on it. We thought ‘hey, you know what? Let’s get back to the roots of the product. What’s the primary benefit?’ So we clarified it and just made it a lot simpler [and] bolder, and we’re in love with it, internally.”

Currently, FORTO is distributed via wholesale distribution to convenience and grocery stores in nearly every state as well as online. With more in store for the future, the brand plans to move into the mass merchandiser channel later this year, Premkumar adds.

“We have huge room to grow the brand and get more product into more people’s hands. I’m just excited about continuing to double the business and grow as fast as we can to get product into people’s hands,” he says. BI


FORTO develops unique package design to withstand processing

After switching to a more natural lifestyle, Neel Premkumar developed products for others with similar goals. Seeing a void in the market, he developed FORTO, an organic, cold-brew coffee energy shot. With a background in the marketing of consumer goods, Premkumar knew the importance of package design. So, when it came to creating a package for FORTO, it was essential to create a unique and stand-out package, he says.

“It’s really critical to have packaging that’s instantly identifiable,” he explains. “We smaller brands compete with huge companies, and it’s difficult to compete with the dollars their spending on market, but your packaging is your best marketing tool, and you can make and have complete control over it, unlike other things. So you really should spend the time and energy to make it right. I invested the time and energy into the packaging in the early days.”

This concept was particularly important to FORTO, an impulse product mainly distributed in the convenience store channel, he says. FORTO is packaged in 2-ounce coffee cup-shaped packages, which not only provide shelf appeal, but also show consumers what they can expect from the product while also keeping the product shelf stable and fresh.

“Our product is an impulse product. You’ve got about one or two seconds to make up your mind as to whether you want it on the shelf,” Premkumar explains. “We wanted to have a package that was instantly recognizable for what it was, knowing that people are really busy at the check-out counter. In a second, you can look at that and be like ‘ah, it’s coffee. Do I want a coffee to go or not?’”

Designing a unique, stand-out package can have its own challenges, but because of FORTO’s proprietary processing, Premkumar was faced with additional hurdles. The new package design and treatment had to be able to withstand the processing, and custom equipment had to be designed to handle the process in order to ensure a consistent flavor for all of its products, whether they contain milk or not. 

“No one had ever done that kind of package before, so it was a custom product,” he explains. “Then, the material had to be strong enough to withstand the processing, which took a year and a half to figure out. Then, we had to get the equipment right, so we could do it. .. It was a very difficult process — two-plus years and a lot of money and a lot of energy.”

As the brand has grown, it has evolved. With this, the company will debut a new label design for the FORTO portfolio at the 2018 Natural Products Expo West tradeshow, Premkumar says. The new design will be simpler and bolder, he adds.