Tohi Ventures is on a quest to save the planet — one rare-berry infused beverage at a time.
“I was literally doing Google research on unique ingredients, specialty crops … these one-ingredient wonders,” explained Shari Coulter Ford, CEO and co-founder of Tohi Ventures — maker of Tohi, an antioxidant-rich beverage available in four, all-natural flavors.
“Where did coconut water come from? Pomegranate, acai … ” she asked, posing questions that reflected the path of her research, detailing her quest to find the next big thing and wrap it in a healthy, mass-marketable package.
As the journey continued, Coulter Ford stumbled across a piece published by National Public Radio (NPR) in the Midwest, introducing her to the aronia berry and changing the course of her entrepreneurial journey, she recalled.
“I went down a rabbit hole of research around, ‘What are these things?’ and once you start that, it’s kind of magical,” Coulter Ford said, noting clinical research that revealed properties that aid cardiovascular health, cognitive ability, and the immune system.
Largely grown in the Midwest, aronia berries — which have existed for centuries — have a heavy presence in northern Missouri, she added, noting they mostly existed in the wild and are now being commercially grown and brought to consumers.
“There’s significant research in all of those areas in terms of the benefits,” she said. “It tests higher for it’s nutritional profile and antioxidant levels than any other berry, fruit, grain. It really is an incredible core ingredient.”
Creating a product that’s good for the environment was a secondary challenge for Coulter Ford and her team — which includes Dr. Elma Hawkins, co-founder and longtime friend of Coulter Ford — she said, emphasizing the beverage company’s commitment to the environment and use of recyclable packaging.
“It’s interesting for a premium product like ours that is based on a perishable crop,” she said in explanation of how Tohi differs from sparkling beverages like LaCroix.
“It makes it a lot more complex than other products. … We don’t single source from one big farm. We work with multiple growers in [multiple] states. We understand their growing practices — in addition to trying to optimize the supply chain and the logistics part of this.”
First canned in 2016, disruption of Tohi has already seen massive success, Coulter Ford said.
Customers can stock up at Cosentino’s-owned Price Chopper stores, select locations of Hen House and Hy-Vee, and as a non-alcoholic option in several liquor stores.
Tohi is also available online. Click here to buy a 12-pack on Amazon.
“There is complexity in getting consumer products on the shelf. You’ve got to broker relationships with wholesale distributors, there’s lots of pieces and things to navigate,” Coulter Ford said of the distribution process — which has been made easier on Tohi thanks to a strong relationship with Associated Wholesale Grocers (AWG) and the general climate of Kansas City and its environment for relationship building.
Tohi has also partnered with Sporting Kansas City — thanks in large part to a solid relationship with Price Chopper, Coulter Ford said.
As the company expands — recently settling into a new space at WeWork Lightwell — Tohi looks to secure key endorsements from local athletes in an effort to continue raising the profile of the aronia berry and its powers, in addition to the profile of Kansa City-owned businesses.
“There’s great interest in people wanting to support local companies, especially when it comes to consumer goods, initiatives around consumer goods,” Coulter Ford said. “We’d like to be able to drive consumers into Price Choppers and Hen Houses, which are also local, Kansas City owned and operated stores.”
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This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.