By Hanah Cho The Dallas Morning News.
Within a year of launching, the founders of Texas-based Skimpy Mixers took their line of low-calorie cocktail mixers into Wal-Mart and H-E-B stores.
While such a feat is a major accomplishment for any startup, co-founder and CEO Megan Toole-Hall says it's just the beginning.
"We've come so far so fast," Toole-Hall said. "We can't relish it but need to keep on going."
Skimpy Mixers started four years ago when Toole-Hall and business partner Krista LaMothe got hooked on a drink at a pool party: a frozen orange dreamsicle cocktail.
The women tried to find a mix to replicate the drink at home but came up empty.
Toole-Hall and LaMothe decided to make their own recipe but discovered that such fruity cocktails were high in sugar and could have as much as 800 calories per drink.
Toole-Hall and LaMothe saw an opportunity to create a low-calorie, low-sugar mixer that would "skimp on the calories, not on the taste," as the Skimpy Mixer tagline suggests.
Toole-Hall was already running a successful insurance agency, but she couldn't pass up this new venture. "I didn't want to have regret," she said. (Toole-Hall still owns the insurance business, which provides a steady paycheck for her family.)
The two women recruited Summer Lamons, a registered dietitian and Toole-Hall's oldest friend, and pooled their money to launch Skimpy Mixers.
The brand hit the market at a time when there's growing interest among consumers, especially women, for low-calorie cocktails and new flavors, says one food industry analyst.
Everyone from liquor companies to chain restaurants is trying to capitalize on the demand for low-sugar and low-calorie alcoholic beverages.
"Anytime you're on trend with new flavors and hitting that other hot button with low calorie, at least in today's environment, that's potentially a winning formula," said David Henkes, vice president at Chicago-based research firm Technomic Inc.
Lamons helped concoct the Skimpy Mixer recipes based on real fruit juice and Splenda as a sweetener.
It took countless tests and various formulations in Toole-Hall's Lewisville kitchen to find the right mix that would not taste like a diet drink.
Skimpy Mixers developed a line of six flavors, orange, berry lemonade, pineapple, sweet n' sour, Skimpy Margarita and cherry limeade.
The latter was developed in partnership with Torrei Hart, the ex-wife of comedian Kevin Hart, who's starring in VH1's Atlanta Exes.
A 32-ounce bottle retails for $4.98.
Just as they developed recipes from scratch, the women learned as they went as they navigated the beverage industry.
The process was a mix of trial and error, luck and timing. For instance, Toole-Hall found Skimpy Mixers' first bottling company through her insurance contacts.
That bottling company, however, fell through quickly. Six months into the contract, the women got a phone call while they were out at lunch. They were told they had 30 minutes to pick up packaging boxes and other materials from the bottling warehouse, which was closing.
They quickly headed there with a U-Haul truck and took what they could. Unable to operate a forklift, the ladies enticed the just-laid-off workers with cash to help them.
"At the beginning, you don't know if you're going to make it," Toole-Hall said.
MARKETING AND RESEARCH
What they may have lacked in industry knowledge, the women made up in marketing savvy. Toole-Hall and LaMothe both have marketing degrees and used that to develop the brand's logo, color scheme and zebra print packaging.
They also scoped out their competitors and quickly found that many brands catered to men.
They used their marketing research when meeting with a Wal-Mart buyer, where the women made their case about offering more choices in the mixer aisle.
The retailer began carrying Skimpy Mixers in about 650 stores in December. In February, Wal-Mart extended distribution to another 715 locations, bringing the total to more than 1,300 stores in 48 states.
Skimpy Mixers are also carried in 120 H-E-B stores in Texas and other regional grocery chains as well as liquor store chains. Instead of bars and restaurants, the company is focusing on retail distribution.
Sales in the first 12 months since its launch in February 2013 hit $2 million. Over the next year, the founders would like to double Skimpy Mixers' revenue.
Besides expanding its distribution channels nationwide, the company wants to branch out beyond cocktail mixers, which could mean developing other types of mixes such as protein powder.
"It's about creating a brand," Toole-Hall said.