The supply chain issues businesses have faced since the onset of the pandemic didn’t skip over Cooloo, an alcoholic ice pop manufacturer based in Lakewood. Rather than wait around, founder Yehuda Tomor found the ultimate workaround: He bought the machinery to manufacture the small plastic canisters Cooloo comes in, which had been its supply chain sore spot.
“We’re bringing packaging in house to keep production smooth so that we don’t have to be reliant on delayed vessels,” he said.
Tomor is no stranger to manufacturing, nor is he a stranger to small business. His brother runs T.O. Collection, a Lakewood-based manufacturer of children’s suits, which grew out of the small retail clothing shop their parents used to run.
For years Tomor worked alongside his family. Having a family of his own served as the impetus for Cooloo.
“When I got married and we had a little boy, we couldn’t go out to the bars anymore … Your son comes into life, he’s God’s gift, he’s amazing,” But, Tomor said, life changes.
Ready-to-drink cocktails, or RTDs, are a relative newcomer on the boozy beverage scene, at least in their current form. According to the IWSR, the leading market analysis company for alcoholic beverages, formerly known as the International Wine and Spirits Record, RTDs “first enjoyed notable success in the 1990s and early 2000s, offering approachable – but often highly sweetened – flavors to consumers who saw traditional spirits and mixers as unapproachable.”
By the time Tomor first considered creating a RTD product in 2016, the public had cooled on RTD options, and his interest was in part sparked by the lack of availability of such products. Well-distributed RTD frozen pouch drink Daily’s always seemed to have dust on it at the store, he said.
“If you look at the RTD market, it wasn’t existing in 2016 and all of a sudden we saw a big boom. Hard seltzers came out about that time and focused on [providing] a more healthy [option],” Tomor said.
The RTDs of today are a better-for-you version of those of yesterday, less sugary sweet and more focused on premium flavor profiles.
“We did a study in 2016 [in which we asked] ‘why do people not drink RTDs?’ We found people wanted a fresh cocktail. They want to go to the bar, they want something fresh and exciting. You’re experiencing more in a cocktail than just the flavors of a cocktail,” Tomor said. “That’s why we went to frozen, because it’s a little more exciting, it’s youth-like.”
An industry shift to more premium offerings has paid off with consumers. Market researcher Nielsen found that sales of RTDs grew 40% from 2018 to 2019 and in September 2021 they were up 162% for the previous 17 weeks compared to the same weeks in 2020.
Cooloo ice pops, which can also be thawed and served like a frozen drink, began production in June 2019. The company expanded from a 3,000-square-foot facility to 10,000 square feet in under three years. Despite the growth of the category, Tomor doesn’t see RTDs stepping on any toes.
“People say this market is taking over the beer industry. What we’re seeing is that’s not the case. People who do not like beer may go and start drinking now because they have a [non-beer] product out there. People want to feel part of drinking because it’s social, they want to hang out with their friends. They can join the environment now,” he said.
“There’s always going to be overlaps. There’s only so much a person can drink in a day. But you’re attracting people who wouldn’t drink before,” he said, mentioning the health-conscious community. “Until now, there was never an option out there. You’re watching TV and you want something good and nice and refreshing. Everyone else is drinking a beer, you want something, you grab an ice pop,” he said.
Tomor sees Cooloo as a fit to get refreshed and catch a buzz on beach days, park days, and pool days. But, he admits, the profit margin isn’t as appealing to bars as pouring a liquor drink would be. Enter Cooloo bar machines, launching exclusively in New York and New Jersey in May: they serve up slushies that taste just like Cooloo ice pops. The company will give a bar a Cooloo machine if it buys the syrups, which are made by I. Rice & Co. in Philadelphia, the maker of Rita’s Italian Ice syrups, out of “very very simple” ingredients, said Tomor.
Meanwhile, distribution of the pops themselves has moved beyond the tri-state area and into the Washington, D.C. metro and New England, as well as in hotter climes like Texas, Florida, and California. Cooloo pops will enter South Carolina and Georgia markets in spring or summer. Tomor is picky about who gets to sell his product.
“If I wanted distribution wherever I wanted, I could find distribution. The biggest problem is finding someone who really respects the category,” he said. “A lot of liquor distributors care about their tequila, and when it comes to a novelty item like an ice pop it’s like something that’s not important to them. They don’t give attention; they don’t respect it. And some liquor stores also don’t respect the category, of the people who want it.”