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These Wharton grads invented spiked coconut water in a Philadelphia apartment. They hope it’s a billion-dollar idea.

Coconut water is a billion-dollar business. So is spiked seltzer. That’s what these MBA students were thinking when they devised Osena.

Osena founders Chris Allen (left) and Vicente Surraco unload cases of the spiked coconut water at a distributor's dock.
Osena founders Chris Allen (left) and Vicente Surraco unload cases of the spiked coconut water at a distributor's dock.Read moreCATHY ALLEN

We didn’t know that the world needed spiked coconut water. Neither, for that matter, did Chris Allen and Vicente Surraco.

But here they are, selling Osena, a lightly carbonated drink with 100 calories, zero sugar, and 5% alcohol in its 12-ounce cans, launched in bottle shops and supermarkets throughout the Philadelphia area on Monday, April 26.

As MBA candidates at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, they shared an entrepreneurial bent and, later, an apartment during their summer internships in 2019 in New York City. They wanted to create some sort of start-up, and the canned-beverage industry intrigued them — not only as “avid consumers,” as Surraco described themselves, but as a business.

Hard seltzer was the darling of the industry. “It grew so much so fast,” said Surraco, 28, who had interned for a company owned by Anheuser-Busch. Brands such as Truly, Mike’s, and White Claw created a multibillion-dollar-a-year market in less than five years by touting the zero-sugar, low-carb, low-calorie aspects.

“We asked, ‘What would be an upgrade to this? What would serve this consumer even better?’ ” Allen, 30, said. “And that’s how we landed on coconut water.”

Coconut water was another billion-dollar category.

“When you look at different nonalcoholic beverages in the market, coconut water really stands out for all of its different properties,” Allen said. “It has naturally occurring electrolytes. It’s got this great flavor, and this tropical fun atmosphere.” Perfect for a pairing with booze.

They began building a company, CV Brewing, while taking classes and, Surraco said, “incorporating all of our learnings directly into it.” Surraco began brewing in his tiny Rittenhouse Square apartment, setting up multiple refrigerators and various apparatuses.

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“We are definitely not made out to be brewers ourselves,” Allen said.

Still, they needed to answer a crucial question: “Can this even be done in a way that’s going to taste good?” Surraco said. “We took a very similar process of the way you make spiked seltzer.” They came up with a formula that included coconut water’s mouthfeel and sweetness (while maintaining the electrolytes and vitamins), but the beverage still needed refinement.

They enlisted Ethan Buckman of Stickman Brews in Royersford, who tweaked it to a point where a “flavor house” in Los Angeles could create a recipe for production.

On the eve of their first meeting with a branding company, in March 2020, the pandemic set in.

Digital collaboration tools replaced sticky notes on a whiteboard. Every meeting became a Zoom session. Focus groups went virtual. “That was incredibly hard because, you know, even though we are both digital natives, it’s not the kind of work I think you thought you would want to be around at a conference table,” Surraco said.

Because Surraco and Allen were working on Osena concurrently with their classes, Wharton colleagues worked with them. “At the end of the semester, we would have a 25-page marketing plan mapped out with a lot of our class ideas,” Surraco said.

The flavor house came through, hosting safe in-person tastings. “One of the first things we started on was the flavor,” Allen said. “And it was one of the last things that we finished because we really wanted to get it right.”

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From the beginning, they imagined Osena as a still beverage. “We ended up lightly carbonating it,” Allen said. “That was a change that we made based on taste feedback.” They settled on plain and pineapple flavors to start.

The branding agency River & Wolf devised the name. The business partners said they were looking to convey a tropical feel, while also maintaining a “premium” air. Osena is a portmanteau of the French word for water (eau, pronounced “oh”) and an approximation of the word sense. “So water which awakens the senses, or water for the senses,” Surraco said.

The Wharton grads financed the company with savings, and said friends and family members funded the first round of inventory. The first territories are eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and southeastern Massachusetts, through Origlio Beverage, the Philadelphia region’s largest distributor.

The partners’ first goal is nationwide distribution. “We have absolutely loved this experience,” Surraco said. “We have a vision of what we want to do and we want to make sure that vision stays intact.”

After that, perhaps outside investment or a deal with another company is possible. “I think for the foreseeable future, we’ll be running it,” Allen said. “And then after that, let’s see where we are and go from there.”