We’ve Got the BAI

By Ilene Dube

Photography by Andrew Wilkinson

GOT RELIGION? Bai beverage founder Ben Weiss treats his brand like one. A shrine to Bai brand illuminates a niche just outside Weiss’s office. Encased in glass is the Book of Bai, “containing company secrets,” he says, “and a cryptic code for the civet cat.” Every year, the company elects its top five people. Five flags featuring their faces hang from the ceiling. “It’s all about the process of inspiring greatness in other people,” says Weiss, named Entrepreneur of the Year in 2013 by the Princeton Chamber of Commerce. The five qualities the five possess: “They are audacious, authentic, tenacious, obsessive and great.”

WHY FIVE?

The company was started by five people—enthusiastic employees now number more than 200—and the main brand is Bai5, with only five calories per serving.

The product has made Teen Vogue’s “5 Drinks Every Beauty Girl Needs to Stock in Her Mini Fridge,” and the number is multiplying. Bai made Prevention Magazine’s 15 Best Foods You Can Buy at a Gas Station. Now distributed by Dr. Pepper, Bai brands is expected to reach $50 million in sales this year, says Weiss. It can be found on the shelves of such major retailers as Costco, Sam’s Club, Target, Whole Foods and BJs. On the day I visited, a group of sales people were whooping it up as Costco’s Texas region was added.

It’s a family affair. Ben’s wife, Danna, cofounded the company and is involved in marketing, social media, and developing a line of wearables the brand has just launched. She has helped to create flavors and labels, and to design the continually evolving office space. There are no cubicles or desktops, but black concrete floors, black leather sofas and laptops. There’s even a café. “We call the space coffee house casual,” says Ben, who dresses in faded jeans, sport coats, and shirts open at the neck. “I never wear a tie. I’m proud to say I have no idea how to tie one.”

Ben and Danna came to Princeton in 2005 to be closer to his parents, who live in Skillman. Pat and Ray Schlaefer recently retired from working at Bai, although his mother says she can’t stay away and takes care of community affairs. During the initial growth spurt, Pat and Ray helped to hire staff and start the human resources department. “Those who helped Ben grow the company have become our extended family,” says his mother. “He’s raising us well.”

The Weiss’s middle school aged daughter is a taste tester (Jamaica Blood Orange is her favorite) and Bai sponsors Bai5 Basketball—the team her older brother plays on.

The drinks are flowing. When offered my pick from the refrigerated cases, I select Molokai Coconut, the most popular. It tastes like coconut water, only sweeter. The more I sip, the more I want.

Bai—the name means “pure” in Mandarin—is sweetened with stevia, an herb in the sunflower family, and erythritol, a sweetener discovered in the mid 1800s that comes from plants such as beets and corn cob. The goal is for the two to balance each other for a flavor that doesn’t taste artificial and isn’t too sweet, according to marketing materials.

What makes Bai Bai is its key ingredient, the fruit of the coffee plant. The coffee bean is actually the seed of the red fruit. The “cherry” surrounding the seed is a font of antioxidants. One reason the fruit hasn’t been marketed in the past is because it is highly perishable, but Weiss realized it could be sun dried and extruded into powder—a technology used to make ginger powder—for a healthy and flavorful beverage. And it’s all about flavor, the self-styled taste expert stresses again and again.

“Taste is subjective,” says Weiss, “so we’re trying to achieve flavor. We want simple authentic flavors that feel exotic.” Bai’s flavors are named for the coffee producing regions of the world.

The coffee fruit comes from Aceh province in Indonesia. Before its use as a beverage, the fruit was used in cosmetics. The surplus would be composted, fed to goats or discarded in rivers, where in large quantities it could cause pollution. By finding a use for the coffee fruit, Bai has created sustainable jobs and new economic opportunities, according to its website.

Ben says most of what he learned about coffee was on the streets of New York. “Indonesia has volcanic soil which is best for coffee and coffee fruit.” Why is it that, in all the hundreds of years civilization has been producing coffee, no one ever though to use the fruit? “I’m a persistent guy,” says Weiss. He attributes the 300 percent growth each year over the past five years to good business instincts. “I have a vision and am an innovator and can lead and inspire. I surround myself with people who are smart and passionate about what we do.”

One day, while setting up a display at Whole Foods in West Windsor, Ben met a Bai drinker who would become his and Danna’s personal trainer. Now the trainer works with the whole team—Bai employee compensation includes fitness training, part of the overall healthy body philosophy. “We all love working here,” says Carolynn Caruso, Weiss’s executive assistant.

One day, while setting up a display at Whole Foods in West Windsor, Ben met a Bai drinker who would become his and Danna’s personal trainer. Now the trainer works with the whole team—Bai employee compensation includes fitness training, part of the overall healthy body philosophy. “We all love working here,” says Carolynn Caruso, Weiss’s executive assistant.

Ben’s office is enclosed in glass walls. A large, coffee-table height stone-topped table sits in the center, with a fig tree and a large monitor in corners. Periodically, NJ Transit and Amtrak trains whiz by.

Both Weisses begin their day with a cup of Joe, then switch to Bai. Sitting on one of the gray sofas, Weiss has three bottles open. He is simultaneously drinking Indonesian Nashi Pear, Bolivia Black Cherry and Jamaica Blood Orange—all three are Bai Bubbles, a newer carbonated drink. “We have 10 flavors of Bai5 and seven of Bai Bubbles, for a total of 17 choices,” says Ben. Bai falls into the flavored water category of the beverage industry. “There are no artificial ingredients and only one gram of sugar.”

When the company started in 2009, the beverage packed 70 calories. After taste testings, it was learned “everyone loved the taste but not the sugar,” and the stevia-erythritol combo became the sweetener. Bai is intended to appeal to health-conscious consumers, rather than diet drinkers, with the bonus of being low in calories.

Sales of diet drinks are down, as theories proliferate about artificial sweeteners causing spikes in blood sugar and otherwise stimulating the appetite or the need for sweets. “Diet drinks have artificial empty calories—they offer no nutritional value and may be bad for you,” says Weiss, who’s drunk his own Koolaid. “Bai offers the benefits of antioxidants.

In addition to coffee fruit, sweeteners, flavoring agents and essences, Bai contains a modicum of white tea for a slight caffeine boost (there’s no caffeine in coffee fruit) and additional antioxidants. “It makes you more alert than hyper,” says Weiss, “and adds to the taste, blocking the off notes of stevia, which can be hypersweet and taste artificial.”

A SUIT DIDN’T SUIT HIM

In addition to coffee fruit, sweeteners, flavoring agents and essences, Bai contains a modicum of white tea for a slight caffeine boost (there’s no caffeine in coffee fruit) and additional antioxidants. “It makes you more alert than hyper,” says Weiss, “and adds to the taste, blocking the off notes of stevia, which can be hypersweet and taste artificial.”

Weiss, who grew up on Staten Island, became interested in coffee in the early ‘90s, when Starbucks and other coffee shops began spreading their caffeinated wings. After getting a degree in finance from Boston University, he worked at a bank for a year before deciding it didn’t suit him. He packed his bags and set off for Europe, exploring the world of coffee houses. “I was always entrepreneurial and thought about running a coffee shop. That didn’t work out, but I fell in love with the industry and spent 20 years creating and innovating.”

He worked for Godiva, helping to develop the product Chocolixir, a frozen coffee beverage. Chocolixir enabled Godiva to sell chocolate during the summer, a slow time for chocolate sales.

Ben and Danna first met in college—she was studying graphic design—and they reunited later in New York where she was working as director of visual imaging for Calvin Klein.

THE BIG ONE

“Chocolates were a good ride,” says Ben, “but then I realized it was time for the next thing.” In 2009, he came up with the idea for Bai in his basement. At first it seemed like another of his many ideas—“I think all my ideas are billion dollar ideas”—but Danna says she knew “this was the one.”

The initial beverage, with its 70 calories, came in three flavors: Tanzania Strawberry, Jamaica Blueberry and Mango Kauai. Weiss and his father started knocking on doors: the Blawenburg Market, Olives, D’Angelos. Local stores were interested in the local startup. “They’re still great customers,” says Weiss, whose beverage can be found in markets up and down Nassau Street. From there he went to Whole Foods, Publix, and big box retailers. “The brand’s on fire!”

“Ben feels passionate about the local companies for the opportunities it gave him,” says his mother. “That’s why Bai contributes product to and sponsors Princeton schools, sports teams and organizations such as the Princeton Education Foundation and Princeton Public Library, where we’ve been bronze and silver sponsors. We also support the Friends of the Library at the annual October fundraiser and help with the book sale. It’s important because Ben’s kids go to public school in Princeton and the library is the center of their community.” Bai also supports Jewish Family Services in Princeton.

Coffee used to be bad for you, now it’s good for you and recent studies show that drinking three glasses of milk a day can lead to bone fractures and death. People who drink whole milk have fewer weight problems than those who drink low fat. Woody Allen’s prognostications in Sleeper that everything we know about healthy eating will be reversed in the future has come true. Fluctuations such as these can play havoc on the beverage industry, and one study can have the effect of the Dean scream. Is Weiss prepared for a potential scientific study showing that drinking dried coffee fruit powder causes, say, dementia? (Note: As of this writing, a Google search of harmful effects of coffee fruit shows nothing.)

“I got the Bai,” says Weiss. “The Bai will never change. I’m very confident of what’s in that drink.”