To celebrate his first anniversary earlier this month, Sandro Roco posted this photo on Sanzo’s Instagram and thanked the people and companies who have supported him. He ended his message with “From the basement of my parents’ house and the bottom of my heart, thank you. - Sandro.” | Photo courtesy of Instagram/@drinksanzo

A Filipino American has been silently but efficiently disrupting the heavily evolving and saturated market of carbonated beverages, and in this specific case: sparkling water.

Meet Sandro Roco, the 31-year-old founder of NYC-based company called  Sanzo.

The global pandemic has thrown a huge curveball to everyone, derailing business plans all over and forcing some small businesses to close shop.

“The biggest thing I’d say is that the pandemic, unfortunately, caused much of our wholesale business to shut down. However, we were able to quickly shift resources to our online store, which had already been up and running. This has allowed us to grow the total business tremendously,” Roco told the Asian Journal.

For the past few months, he has been working hard to adjust to the situation and to pivot accordingly. Earlier this year, he already had about 185 retail partners in New York, about 30 in Los Angeles and 10 in Chicago.

Last week, he announced that they have begun to roll out to the first of 50 Whole Foods stores in the New York tri-state area, covering Western Connecticut to South New Jersey. Quite fitting for a product that was launched exactly a year ago.

Sanzo founder Sandro Roco with his dad, Angel Roco outside Whole Foods in Hudson Yards. | Photo courtesy of Instagram/@drinksanzo

“Now, more of the focus is on what the retail landscape looks like in a ‘new normal’ world. We don’t know all the answers yet, but we do know that it will involve a mixture of online and offline selling,” he said.

Before the pandemic, we had a chance to sit down with Roco at one of the trendy cafes in New York’s Koreatown, which serves his drinks. We talked about how the sparkling water market is big and growing and how he is celebrating fruits and flavors through his products.

This stretch of restaurants and bars on 32nd Street is also where the idea of his own sparkling water came about. It happened with a visit to an H Mart, an Asian grocery a few doors down from the cafe.

“If you walk into that H Mart, the first thing you’d see is a huge beverage shelf. Half of it has this iconic modern ‘American better for you’ products. A little down the middle is the Asian section,” he shared.

He wondered why there were little to none when he looked for Asian flavors. Sure, there were iconic and legacy brands, imported sodas and juices from across the region but most were too sweet for his taste.

“When you look at the ingredient panels of some of these products, you can see that it’s all sugars, concentrates, preservatives,” Roco said. “I think in general, we are now more discerning about these things.”

Since sparkling water is all the rage, he thought about using real fruit with no added sugar.

He thought about the comforting calamansi  drink he had been drinking since childhood. In the instances, he had the citrus as a beverage, it was hot and almost medicinal. He wanted to celebrate calamansi  more.

“The very first thought that came to mind when I was playing with the idea was calamansi. It’s the best possible version of a citrus fruit. It has the beautiful tart elements of a lime, but unlike a lime that just stays tart, it rounds up a little bit of sweetness in it,” he said. “I love the taste of calamansi so I looked for the right taste or version of a calamansi juice or  calamansi  ade for me. That’s how it came to be.”

Sanzo’s original flavors: calamansi, mango and lychee. | Photo courtesy of Instagram/@drinksanzo

And as such, Sanzo’s original flavor was born.

He had to look at specialty farms in Florida or California for his supply of  calamansi but ended up importing purée straight from the Philippines.

Next up was mango.

He initially started with Philippine mangoes, then transitioned to Indian Alphonso mangoes. He said he personally felt the difference and that the Alphonso mango just had a deeper flavor to it when mixed with sparkling water.

Lychee became the third flavor, completing a trifecta of robust and unadulterated flavors, minus any sugar substitutes or sweeteners.

“I thought it was the best way to celebrate and highlight each of the fruits’ elegance. When you douse something with sugar, that overpowers the flavor,” he said.

Business venture

Roco launched Sanzo in July 2019. A piece of trivia, the brand is a portmanteau of his given names: Alessandro and Lorenzo.

Before this, he went into early beta testing. His initial products were in bottles but his goal was to get into cans, but it was a bigger dollar investment so he wanted to do get it right.

He had the same original flavors: calamansi, lychee and mango. Then, he upgraded the sourcing of the purees, manufacturing quality and made some tweaks in the packaging and on the labels.

Sandro Roco enjoying some dimsum paired with his sparkling water brand, Sanzo. | Photo courtesy of Instagram/@drinksanzo

A year in and despite the current situation, he saw the growth and it was better than expected.

“I self-funded the whole operation up to last December so I only just recently started taking outside investor money. That’s of note because a lot of brands come to market and they raise a lot of money before they launch so they can afford bigger blowouts and within a couple of months, they can be in 500 or 1,000 stores,” he explained.

Roco has always hoped to rally the Asian American community behind the product, from restaurateurs to owners and operators and coffee shops like Grace Street and Kabisera.

He said he wanted to take more of a bootstrap, methodical approach but even then, he has been surprised as to how quickly people have gotten it.

“What got me even more excited is that we’ve been able to crossover into the “mainstream”, I hate using that word but for these purposes, fine. While we’re doing well at Momofuku, Grace Street or Kabisera, we’re also selling at By Chloe, this very trendy vegan fast-casual chain, or Charlie Street, an Australian hip coffee chain,” he said. “I was always hopeful that the product would be good enough to sell in these places.”

Now, he has reached a point where the company is growing despite the challenges brought about by the current world situation. He hopes to continue to grow with it, learning and unlearning lessons along the way.

“Launching a product is hard but now that we’re beginning to grow, I realized that it is also hard to scale. You have to be constantly leveling up and learning because, in six months, there’s going to be something new to tackle,” he said.

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