BURLINGTON, Vt.—So what happens to your maple beverage business after you refuse $600,000 in capital on national television?
Why, it grows, of course.
“It’s been pretty wild,” said Chas Smith, who co-owns Sap!, a budding maple beverage business based in Burlington, Vt.
On Jan. 28, Smith and his business partner, Nikita Salmon, appeared on ABC’s popular show “Shark Tank,” a seven-year-old reality show that lets entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of investors known as the “Sharks.” The Sharks question contestants about their company and offer to help it grow, in exchange for something else.
Smith and Salmon saw “Shark Tank” as a way to attract a larger consumer base to Sap!, which makes a line of sparkling beverages made from 100 percent pure maple and birch sap sourced from trees in Vermont.
During the episode, Robert Herjavec, one of the Sharks, offered Sap! $600,000 to grow, but Salmon and Smith turned it down mainly because Herjavec wanted 30 percent ownership. Salmon and Smith want to grow the company in their own way.
Also, Smith explained, Sap! already has sources for capital; accepting Herjavec’s offer would have diluted their equity in the business.
“We didn’t need the money, because we are growing methodically,” Smith said. “We only would have taken a deal if it was perfect, and it wasn’t perfect. This is not just a beverage company to us.”
Smith and Salmon are Vermont natives, third cousins and 28 years old. Salmon grew up in the sugar woods of his parents’ 12,000-tap operation, and Smith’s family had always experimented with maple-flavored beverages at home.
When other maple beverages emerged on the market about five years ago, Smith and Salmon combined their experiences to produce a new one, but theirs would have a twist that was an arguable no-brainer: add carbonation.
Today, Sap! sources its maple from four producers in Vermont and makes and distributes its product from the Woodchuck Cider plant in Middlebury. Sap! employs four full-time people and many part-timers.
“We have a good team, and we’re still learning every day,” Salmon said.
Sap! sells its drinks throughout several retail outlets in the Northeast and on the Web, which is where “Shark Tank” made a difference.
Smith and Salmon thought “it was a joke” when someone connected with them late last summer via the Sap! Web site, claiming to be a producer for “Shark Tank.” They brushed it off. Then they fielded a phone call. This was no joke. Te producer liked the idea of a small startup in the Northeast, with intentions to grow methodically, going up agains the deep-pocketed — and sometimes brutal — Sharks.
Early last September, three weeks from the producer’s phone call, Smith and Salmon were on a Sony Pictures set in Los Angeles, prepping for their episode of “Shark Tank.”
“I think we knew it was going to be intense,” Salmon said. “And we had to wear make-up. And the way they edit these shows is something else. We were in front of the Sharks for 90 minutes. They got it down to a six-minute segment. So we wondered how we would appear.”
Shark Barbara Corchoran had a negative taste reaction to the soda. And Shark star Mark Cuban said Sap! had the same flavor as Aunt Jemima Original Syrup, which is made from corn syrup.
“That was the only thing that really bummed me out from the whole experience,” Salmon said.
He got it over, however, after their show aired in January, and online sales started pouring in like sap in early March. Sap! had not focused much on e-commerce sales prior to the co-owners’ appearance on “Shark Tank,” so they used it to enhance online sales — and it worked.
“Our e-commerce expanded quickly — so fast — and to all 50 states,” Smith said. “We’ve been surprised by the reaction.”
Smith and Salmon also wanted to use their appearance on “Shark Tank” to further educate the public about the health benefits of pure maple. The products naturally contain antioxidants, electrolytes, minerals, vitamins, and other trace nutrients.
Sap! was also included in Whole Foods Market’s Top 10 Food Trends 2018 list with an appearance in the “Say Cheers to the Other Bubbly” trend, which acknowledges the growing popularity of the plant-derived sparking beverage industry.
“We wanted to build healthy soft drinks, and that’s still what we’re doing today,” Smith said.