Look up “flexibility” in the dictionary — entrepreneur Yanni Hufnagel’s picture should be there. The Founder and CEO of The Lemon Perfect Company embraces change when necessary — even if it’s painful.
In 2017, Hufnagel hatched the idea to create a new product, a flavored lemon water that would disrupt a beverage ecosystem dominated by high-calorie, high-sugar options. The name Lemon Perfect popped into his head during a family vacation to Paris as he stood on a bustling street corner. He registered the website domain then and there.
During an appearance on Bevnet’s “Taste Radio” podcast, Hufnagel shared the origin story of his unique venture in the beverage biz.
“The question, ‘Can we take organic lemon water and give it the flavor profile of Bai?’ then occurred to me,” said the former college basketball assistant coach in an interview on local-hoops.com. “That was the seed of the journey. The idea of great flavor that is also good for you has been the bedrock of Lemon Perfect from day one.”
When formulating Lemon Perfect with a California beverage producer, Hufnagel focused on taste first. The drink had to be zero sugar and low-calorie — those were his nonnegotiables.
Yanni Hufnagel had coached college basketball at top universities for 10 years, watching basketball players drinks the enhanced water Bai in the locker room. Even though Hufnagel’s morning health ritual was a glass of pure water infused with the juice of half a squeezed lemon, he knew natural flavors and plant-based sweeteners were necessary to create a healthy beverage with widespread appeal.
Hufnagel exercised flexibility early on with two significant decisions. First, he nixed the original packaging after the bottles were produced (more on that later). Second, he changed Lemon Perfect’s original formulation from refrigerated to shelf-stable. Given the super-competitive nature of the enhanced water category, he knew he couldn’t afford to make mistakes that might jeopardize the brand’s future.
“The enhanced water category is a street fight,” he says. “Our category includes Vitaminwater, Bai, Hint, and Vita Coco. Except for Hint, those brands are run by ‘Big Soda’.”
In 2007, The Coca-Cola Company bought Glacéau, the maker of Vitaminwater, for $4.2 billion. In 2016, Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc. purchased Bai Brands for $1.7 billion. Dr Pepper Snapple Group and Keurig Green Mountain combined in a 2018 megamerger to create Keurig Dr Pepper (KDP), a conglomerate with $11 billion in revenue (Bai and coconut water maker Vita Coco came with the deal).
While it’s rare for a beverage brand — especially an entrepreneurial brand like Lemon Perfect — to achieve a billion dollars in annual revenue, Yanni Hufnagel envisions a billion-dollar future of his own. After all, before Lemon Perfect arrived in stores, The Lemon Perfect Company, based in Atlanta, raised more than a million dollars.
“I was thinking about how to find liquidity before I even came up with a name,” Hufnagel says. “I knew we were going to have to take dollars from investors. So my number one job every day is to drive this thing to a liquidity event.”
In April 2022, the company closed a $31 million Series A funding round fueled by celebrity investors, including music icon Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. The cash influx brought Lemon Perfect’s total funding to $42.2 million and valuation to over $100 million.
Yanni Hufnagel’s First Major Move
Yanni Hufnagel’s optimism isn’t unfounded — the enhanced water market is growing. Customers increasingly prefer flavored beverages over carbonated ones loaded with sugar and additives. Lemon Perfect’s drinks are certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and they contain zero sugar and no artificial flavors or sweeteners. The drinks are enhanced with a blend of plant-based sweeteners, contain electrolytes from potassium, are packed with vitamin C, and contain only 5 calories per 12-ounce bottle.
Lemon Perfect comes in brightly colored bottles with modern typography. The first bottle design, however, was a disappointment. Holding the first version of the bottle, Hufnagel realized it looked significantly different in three-dimensional form than in the two-dimensional design he had seen in print.
“When the first bottles came off the line, I looked at the packaging and said, ‘My God, this doesn’t work — this looks like a medicine bottle!’” he says. “I’ll never forget it. I knew right then we would have to pivot.”
Telling the investors to hold on a bit longer was brutal. But Hufnagel knew the bottle had to draw customers in through the brand’s aesthetic.
“I called all 40 investors and said, ‘We’re not going to launch the product until I figure out the packaging,’” he says. “There’s nothing more important than what [your product] look[s] like. And now — fast-forward — our bottles allow our consumers to be a walking billboard for the brand.”
Yanni Hufnagel’s Second Major Move
Turning the beverage from a refrigerated to a shelf-stable one was Yanni Hufnagel’s second big decision. His team had formulated Lemon Perfect as a “keep refrigerated” item for the initial launch. Still, Hufnagel soon realized cold distribution was fraught with problems for a company that wanted to scale.
“That was a mistake,” Hufnagel says. “We were selling the product to produce buyers.”
A brand must maintain display space on every retailer’s floor to win in the beverage business. Hufnagel knew that since his initial product lived in a refrigerator, there wasn’t an option to build displays to garner awareness.
After deciding to reformulate Lemon Perfect, Hufnagel told his team, “We’re not coming out of our cave until we figure out how to go shelf stable. And whatever we come up with will be as good or better than the original product.”
Today, Lemon Perfect comes in seven shelf-stable flavors infused with real fruit: Just Lemon, Dragon Fruit Mango, Peach Raspberry, Kiwi Star Fruit, Blueberry Açai, Strawberry Passion Fruit, and Pineapple Coconut. And they come in bottles that captivate the eye.
The Future Looks Bright
Getting to this point wasn’t easy, Hufnagel admits: “I lived in incredible darkness for the first couple of years. Incredible darkness. I’m only starting to see some light around the corner because we’ve put together such an incredible team.”
But Hufnagel’s difficult decisions have apparently paid off. The Lemon Perfect Company anticipates more than $60 million in sales and a retail footprint of over 40,000 doors by the end of 2022. The brand is available nationwide at Publix, Kroger, Whole Foods, and Ralphs. It is expanding into Costco, CVS, Walmart, and Target.
Hufnagel is happy with the results. As he tells Ray Latif on the Taste Radio Podcast, “I wake up every day, and I get to coach our team and build a story that I think can be as good as food and beverage has ever seen — and truly impact the health of the American consumer.”
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