When videos of people consuming your product start popping up on YouTube, it may not always be a sure sign of success, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. Such is the case for Big Easy Blends, a New Orleans-based company that makes pre-mixed frozen cocktails (in flavors such as Mar-Go-Rita, Daiq-Go-Ri, and Pino-Go-Lada) in flexible, portable pouches. Think Capri Sun for adults. The libations, conceived of by three friends in 2007, two years post-Katrina, are now distributed in national chains such at Wal-Mart, Winn Dixie, Dollar General, Walgreens, and Duane Reade.
Credit for the original idea belongs to Antonio LaMartina, who partnered with his older brother, Sal, and high school friend Craig Cordes, to start the company. “We tasted all the margaritas we could, hired a chemist to make a formula, tweaked it, and came up with a delicious drink that’s agave-wine based,” says Cordes. “We hired a designer for the packaging and paid him with a little equity.”
In the company’s early days, Cordes was working full-time in Houston to help finance the start-up, but drove home to New Orleans every weekend. He’d pull into town by 11 p.m., fill pouches with a semi-manual piston filler until 3 a.m., then spend all Saturday and Sunday doing the same, before driving back to Houston. “It was absolutely miserable,” he says. “But you do what you gotta do.” Within their first seven months, they had filled and capped 100,000 units by hand, but distribution was largely local.
The company got its first big break when it was accepted into Idea Village, a local not-for-profit that supports entrepreneurs and sponsors New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, which culminates in an idea pitch competition called the Coulter Challenge. Silicon Valley venture capitalist Jim Coulter is a supporter. Big Easy Blends won that competition in 2010, putting them on the radar screens of big distributors and resulting in a 350% revenue spike over 2009. The company also landed $350,000 in angel capital. Since then, it’s been a whirlwind for Big Easy and its brand, Cordina Frozen Cocktails, named after its three founders. The products are distributed mainly in grocery and convenience stores.
Big Easy is now housed in a 55,000-square-foot warehouse, employs 126 people and will produce 1.2 million cases this year, racking up a projected $27 million in revenue, compared to $4.6 million last year, Cordes says. That growth is being driven mostly by chains such as Publix, Winn-Dixie, Food Lion, and Dollar General which, says Antonio LaMartina, is actually a “major player in the alcohol beverage market.” Even Duane Reade, a drug store chain ubiquitous in Manhattan, is now carrying Cordina.
But big success often attracts the attention of big competitors. “We feel that we were the first in the ready-to-drink pouch market,” says LaMartina, “but now large companies are trying to duplicate that.” With a recent multi-million dollar capital infusion from a private West Coast investor, the partners hope to stave off the big guns. But they’re well aware that those competitors may ultimately view Big Easy as an attractive acquisition.