By Tina Irgang
When Luis Solis was an MBA student in Virginia, he had an ambitious idea: to connect poor farmers in his native Dominican Republic, who were struggling to sell their fruit abroad, with the massive U.S. market. Along with classmate Cristian Robiou, Solis started Caribé Juice, selling the product at farmers’ markets and a few stores in Charlottesville, VA. Today, Caribé juices are available at Whole Foods and other high-profile retailers in multiple states. The company operates out of Washington and Miami, and has grown its network of farmers to more than a dozen. Those farmers receive 20 percent on each bottle of juice sold.
Why did you start Caribé?
Solis: I have always been interested in making an impact in the world, and being from the Dominican Republic and living in the U.S., I saw a lot of differences between the two countries in terms of development and the opportunities people had. I was looking for ways that I could leverage both countries and create some sort of bridge to create opportunities for Dominicans, by doing something in the U.S. After exploring a bunch of different options, we came across juice. One of my classmates at the time — I was getting my MBA in Virginia — he came with me to the Dominican Republic and tried the juices there. We were just chatting and relaxing, and my mom made us some homemade passion fruit juice. He tried it and fell in love with it — “can I get this in the U.S.? It’s so delicious and different.” My mind immediately went to how I couldn’t find passion fruit juice when I first moved to the U.S. I thought this was something that could be really great in the U.S. — not only Americans would like it, but I knew there were a lot of immigrants like myself who grew up with passion fruit, but also other fruits you can’t get here.
After that, we started doing more research about the juice market and also the fruit market in the Dominican Republic and learned quickly that a lot of small farmers in the Dominican Republic are throwing away their production because they don’t have a big enough market to sell it to. Especially these particular fruits that are exotic to other countries, they don’t really have a market. So once we found that out, … we saw a great opportunity to not only bring a taste to the U.S. that doesn’t exist, but also to help the small farmers and create that bridge. That’s how the social mission started.
How did you build your network of farmers?
Solis: We just started with this broker that we knew in the Dominican Republic, and he knew a lot of small farmers. We would buy the fruit from the broker and he would buy it from the farmers. Then, after months of doing that, we started growing and we started demanding more and more fruit. We got to the point where we decided to hire kind of a relationship manger in the Dominican Republic who would actually go directly to farmers. By hiring this person, having him visit all those different small farms, [we could] look for good quality, good people that we could help who are honest and pretty much could help us grow and provide the quality we strive to provide. He started just going to different towns and meeting different farmers and building our network.
How did you get stores here in the U.S. interested in carrying your juices?
Solis: That was a little tougher. We started very small. We wanted to prove the concept because we knew we had a good idea on paper, but then the question was, how do we prove it in the market? We started just selling in Charlottesville, VA, where I was getting my masters degree. It was a perfect city to start — 50,000 people, and they loved food and trying new things. We got great reception in some stores and farmers’ markets. They just thought it was a really cool idea. They gave us an opportunity to start selling. We started in three stores. Then we approached Whole Foods, and they loved the idea and gave us an opportunity. Then we started getting really good feedback from customers. From there, we leveraged the brand association with Whole Foods and other stores to get more accounts.
What’s your favorite memory of running Caribé so far?
Solis: I remember one time, right when we had the idea and before we started selling, I was in the Dominican Republic and went to this mango plantation. I saw this person who was selling his mangos, because mangos are one of the fruits that we grow over there that are popular in the U.S. He was selling them for 2 cents a mango, which is really low compared to what they go for here in the U.S. Just seeing that and being able to talk to him, tell him, this is what we’re doing, what do you think about it? Seeing how we could help people like that, who are just trying to provide for their family, trying to generate some income to be able to afford taking their kids to university. For me, that was such an important memory, because that really made me passionate about the company and starting it. It kind of made me take everything so seriously, because I knew I wasn’t just starting a business for myself or to prove something to myself — I was starting a business to help other people. That made it way more special.
What’s been the most challenging part of running the business?
Solis: The most challenging part has been building the distribution network here in the U.S., just because there’s a lot of competition. There’s a lot of other companies that are not exactly trying to do what we’re doing, but they’re selling drinks and you have to compete with them. Just dealing with that and also dealing with the obstacles of getting new accounts and getting new distribution, because a lot of this industry is dominated by relationships, and that’s something we didn’t have to start. We started on our own. We’d never been in the industry before. My background was finance and my co-founder’s background was law, so it’s been a learning experience. It’s been a long road just to be able to build all the relationships that we have built today, and we’re continuing that. We’re at the point where we realize we need help, and we’re trying to get investment to be able to hire people that could take us to the next level. It’s just an industry that’s very crowded, so that’s tough.
If you could shoot for any goal, where do you see Caribé in 10 years?
Solis: I would like to see sales grow to tens of millions of dollars, and not because of the numbers, but because when we grow that, we’re growing the amount of fruit that we’re buying from the farmers. And once we reach that point, we know we’ve proved that our business concept is valid, and there’s a market for it. That’s why I’m very focused, not on bottom line, but on top-line numbers — just because it will prove that we do have a strong idea and that there is a way to connect the poor with a market like this. There is a way to give back, and in a way where it’s not just charity; it’s sustainable, it’s something that can keep growing and that we can replicate with other products and other countries. That’s why I say top-line revenue. It sounds shallow, but I see that as the driver of everything else.
Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about the numbers, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email email@example.com.