Growing up in a family who practiced Eastern philosophy that included a deep appreciation of plant-based medicinal foods, GT Dave often was exposed to unique foods and ingredients from around the world. Around 1992 when he was just a teenager, Dave’s family was gifted a SCOBY, which ultimately led to him gaining a new appreciation for a new plant-based food: kombucha.
SCOBY, which stands for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, is an ingredient used in the fermentation and production of kombucha. Dave and his family used the SCOBY to begin homebrewing small batches of kombucha. However, he admits that he didn’t really like the taste of kombucha at first. “To my then teenage palate, kombucha had such a pungent smell and strange taste; it was sort of this weird thing my parents enjoyed that I just had to deal with in the house,” he explains. “But, over time, I learned to love it and grew a real affinity for its taste and more importantly, how it made me feel.”
Twenty years later, GT’s KOMBUCHA, now under the new name of Los Angeles-based GT’s Living Foods, was one of the first brands to bring kombucha to U.S. shelves, and also is the No. 1 selling brand in the country, the company says. As a family owned and operated company, GT’s works to continue its innovative spirit, creating healthy and functional products inspired by Mother Nature.
Embracing core values
At a young age, Dave had the opportunity to visit ashrams in India, where he learned firsthand from spiritual gurus about Eastern philosophy’s core values of integrity, selflessness and leaving the world better than you found it, he explains. The Dave family home featured unique artifacts from diverse cultures and religions, all of which encouraged him to be guided by a loving heart and live with an open mind, he adds.
With his spiritual connection to Eastern philosophy guiding him, Dave began brewing and bottling his own kombucha at age 15. “The impetus for bottling and selling kombucha has never been about starting a business or making money,” Dave says. “Early on, I recognized that kombucha was something special; it had helped my mom during her battle with breast cancer and I was convinced it could help others. I could tell it needed to be kept sacred and special, so I was committed to honoring it and protecting it. Its purpose is my mission — to help people live happier, healthier lives.”
Also responsible for the birth of GT’s KOMBUCHA was his mom’s battle with cancer. “My mom, Laraine, successfully battled a very aggressive form of breast cancer in the early ‘90s,” he says. “Before, during and after her recovery, she would drink our homebrewed kombucha, which we believed helped keep her body [be] strong and resilient against the cancer as well as the debilitating chemotherapy and radiation treatments she had to endure. After seeing the role kombucha played in her journey, I felt it was important that authentically fermented kombucha be available in a pure and accessible, ready-to-drink form for all people to enjoy.”
Witnessing her successful recovery really is what began Dave’s journey with the fermented tea, thereby igniting the creation of a very successful business. “I felt like kombucha chose me more than I chose it,” he says.
In 1997, after several years of brewing in the family kitchen, Dave moved operations to a 2,000-square-foot space in Gardena, Calif., in order to keep up with the growing demand of his products. In 2005, the company relocated its operations to a facility in Vernon, Calif., where it still operates today.
Since its inception, GT’s KOMBUCHA has followed the same brewing process. “The initial base of kombucha is quite simple: it started with the heirloom living cultures from the SCOBY that was gifted to my family all those years ago, which then is added to a medium of sweetened green and black tea,” Dave says. “To create each unique flavor, we simply add a touch of organic and raw ingredients that compliment and even energize with the raw kombucha.
“GT’s KOMBUCHA is never processed, pasteurized or filtered — [it’s] served just like the ancient tradition intended,” he continues.
Across its portfolio, GT’s brews and manufacturers five beverage lines. The most successful line, GT’s KOMBUCHA consists of 42 varieties plus four seasonal varieties that rotate in and out throughout the year. The most popular flavors within the kombucha line are Gingerade, a blend paired with fresh-pressed ginger; and Triology, an amalgamation of tart lemon, tangy raspberry and spicy ginger, Dave explains. Recently garnering more attention is Watermelon Wonder, a fruity blend paired with fresh-pressed watermelon, sweet cherry and tart lime. Watermelon Wonder currently is the fastest-growing SKU in the entire kombucha category, he notes.
Since the successful launch of his kombucha, Dave has spent a lot of time innovating to create more offerings that share the nutritional gifts of Mother Nature, he says.
“Continuing my love affair of fermented foods, I partnered with Michael Larsen to launch our second offering, COCOKEFIR, a therapeutic, potent probiotic shot,” he explains. COCOKEFIR is made from a fresh coconut base and is available in five varietals: Matcha, Ginger Turmeric, Raspberry, Cacao and Pure.
After COCOKEFIR, came GT’S ALIVE, which is the brand’s second most popular line, Dave says. ALIVE is a line of adaptogenic teas inspired by Ayurvedic medicine. An infusion of three adaptogenic mushrooms, reishi, chaga and Turkey tail is combined with select varieties of teas and a touch of raw apple cider vinegar.
ALIVE is available in six flavors: Black Lemon, Cascara Spice, Matcha Vanilla, Guayusa Turmeric, Mate Mint and Pu-Erh Root. Each is flavor is a specific combination of tea and ingredients, for example, Pu-Erh Root is a combination of Pu-Erh tea and root beer spices, Dave says.
The third brand, VEGGIEKEFIR, a sister to COCOKEFIR, is formulated with nutritious fermented vegetables in mind, the company says. VEGGIEKEFIR is available in three varietals: Cucumber Dill, Kimchi and Tomatillo Habanero.
GT’s Living Foods also launched DREAM CATCHER, which celebrates the properties of [cannabinoids] CBD, Dave notes. DREAM CATCHER is a line of sparkling wellness waters flavored with high-quality fruit, floral and herbal extracts, infused with a trio of natural nutrients and caffeine from organic coffee berries, the company says. The wellness water is available in four flavors: Blood Rose, Cucumber Basil, Ginger Lemongrass and Orange Elderflower.
When asked what inspires each variety and flavor, Dave notes he aims to challenge consumers to deviate from their normal, everyday flavors. “As a person that’s passionate for exploring unique ingredients, I make a conscious effort to utilize ingredients and flavor profiles that encourage the consumer to be more adventurous with their palate and to challenge the ‘norm,’” he explains.
“The end result is usually flavors that you don’t normally find, which allows them to stand out on the crowded store shelves,” he continues. “I also seek out ingredients that have a flavorful, yet very functional quality that you can immediately feel.”
A true pioneer
Although the proliferation of kombucha and fermented beverages has resulted in increased competition, GT’s Living Foods prides itself on being the category pioneer.
“GT’s KOMBUCHA continues to deliver more sales than all of [its] competition combined every year,” Dave says. “We believe there’s more than enough room for other players in the category and we embrace our competition as it only legitimizes what we’re doing. Of course, there are times when the shelves feel overly crowded with too many copycat brands but ultimately the consumer decides which ones stick around for the long run.
“Being the first in the category usually means that every newcomer is trying to push you aside, but luckily through our commitment to quality and potency, this has not been an issue for us and we retain consumer’s preference and the strongest velocity,” he explains.
GT’s has maintained its status as the “most loved kombucha in the world” by staying true to its roots and not getting caught up in the “gold rush” that seems to be occurring in the kombucha category, Dave adds.
Kombucha also bodes well as a functional beverage, which plays a key role in GT’s product formulations. “All of our products have a significant functional quality to them,” Dave says. “We put a lot of thought and development in all the ingredients, flavors and recipes we utilize, knowing that consumers now expect more from their food and beverages.”
All of GT’s product offerings are raw, never pasteurized and made with real and fresh ingredients, following Mother Nature’s rhythm and lead, he says.
Just as other industry experts do, Dave predicts the market for kombucha and other wellness beverages will only continue to grow. However, the emerging category comes with the caveat of being diluted if brands decide to chase profit and greed over quality and authenticity, he warns. “The only way to avoid this is to remain grounded with integrity,” Dave says. “This may unfortunately come with a category correction where some of the smaller players are forced to bow out.”
A source of inspiration
Aside from fermenting in small batches and using only natural and raw ingredients, GT’s Living Foods finds other creative ways to stand out from the crowd.
One example is its packaging formats and designs. Like the beverages themselves, the packaging is inspired by Eastern cultures and beliefs from countries such as India, China and Japan, Dave says.
Each line is packaged in a different colored glass bottle as a visual cue to distinguish one offering from the other.
“My offerings are truly an expression of myself and my values, and our packaging design is a reflection of this,” Dave explains. “Every square inch of how we visually express ourselves has a thoughtful and symbolic quality, much like the interior of a temple or church.
“Nothing is casual or gratuitous, therefore, everything is intended to resonate with a consumer that is seeking personal enlightenment for their mind, body and spirit,” he continues. “From the Lotus flower that symbolizes personal transformation to our logo that was inspired by the Seed of Life, every piece of our brand imagery is needed to inspire.”
Another way GT’s differentiates itself from other brands is through its “Words of Enlightenment” series featured on its line of kombucha bottles. Beginning in 2010, fans of the brand were able to share their own words of enlightenment via email and social media posts, which then are added to the back of the bottles. “The quotes are their own words and/or sayings that have inspired them,” he says. “They are tailored to be uplifting and inspirational.”
A big advocate of positive affirmations, wise words and poetry, Dave affirms that his positivity began as a youngster when his mom used to write him notes and stick them in his lunch box. Growing up, those notes brought him lots of joy and inspired him to create the same experience for his fans, he says.
Another way the company seeks to inspire is by volunteering throughout the community. For instance, the brand launched a program hashtag #GTs4Good, where employees can volunteer to help local organizations nourish the roots of the community, it says. For example, the brand volunteered at Los Angeles-based Grow Good, a nonprofit organization that works to turn communities into agricultural centers filled with all kinds of greenery.
Moreover, GT’s Living Foods employees have volunteered with other local organizations including The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, where they packed boxes of healthy foods for those in need; Heal the Bay where they helped clean up plastic pollution on the beach; and Tree People where volunteers worked to preserve Topanga Canyon by planting and caring for trees.
Taking it a step further, GT’s also donates through different social media campaigns. “We are particularly proud of the engagement we are receiving on our seasonal activations, where we celebrate and express our cardinal values, while allowing us to be philanthropic,” Dave says.
For example, the brand asks its consumers to post a picture of themselves and a bottle of the seasonal kombucha on Instagram using the different seasonal hashtags. For instance, as a part of its spring campaign, GT’s asks fans to post their picture with the Bloom Kombucha bottle, using the hashtag #InFullBloom. For every picture posted, GT’s donates $5 to Lady Gaga’s Born this Way Foundation. Similarly, in the fall, GT’s asks fans to use the hashtag #LivingInGratitude and for every picture shared, the company donates to Feeding America.
“This not only builds consumer engagement, but it allows us to put our money where our mouth is,” he adds.
The future of holistic health
As the kombucha and functional beverage category rapidly continues to gain steam, GT Dave plans to continue creating and innovating, using Mother Nature as his main source of inspiration.
“I am a very creative person, so innovation is one of the driving forces in my day-to-day [routine],” he says. “Given the tremendous bounty of her [Mother Nature] gifts, I truly believe the possibilities in the world of holistic wellness are limitless and you can certainly expect to see new things from GT’s in the future.”
Dave’s latest creation, which just rolled out last month, is GT’s AQUA KEFIR. AQUA KEFIR is a delicately fermented sparkling water intended to quench thirst, the company says. It is a bright and crisp flavored drink that is cultured with ancient, non-dairy kefir grains that offers probiotic benefits, it adds.
“This water kefir is a great way to get familiar with fermented beverages and get all the benefits,” Dave explains. “If someone is intimidated by kombucha, our AQUA KEFIR will help people overcome that trepidation by bringing a light and refreshing experience while still offering authentically cultured goodness.”
AQUA KEFIR currently is available in select Sprouts locations and is gaining distribution at other natural retailers in the Los Angeles area, he adds.
Going forward, consumers will continue to see new product releases from GT’s that support happy and healthy lifestyles. “GT’s Living Foods has only begun to scratch the surface of what I believe we are capable of,” Dave says. “I am so blessed to have been able to be the vessel for sharing kombucha with the Western world and I am so excited to bring more unique offerings to the people in the years ahead.
“Our mission has always been and will always continue to be to help people live happier, healthier lives,” he says. BI