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The Taika Playbook: Designing Custom R&D Engines

Adrian Alfieri

Adrian Alfieri

Kal Freese is a co-founder of Taika, the beverage brand responsible for the first perfectly calibrated coffee and matcha, which are plant-based, keto-friendly, and adaptogen-infused.

He’s also a food scientist who placed ninth in the 2015 World Barista Championships. We sat down with Kal to dive into his experience of rewriting the CPG playbook, diving deep on:

  1. Designing CPG products by owning your value chain
  2. How to scale customer hospitality and white-glove support
  3. Fostering community at the intersection of CPG, F&B, and web3

“We’ve grown our capacities to the point where we can iterate and improve very quickly. Now, we’re evolving Taika so it becomes synonymous with powering creativity, without the crashes of legacy coffee and energy drink brands.”


Vertical integration: owning every step of your value chain

As Kal recounts, he realized early on that a significant number of CPG brands, particularly in F&B, are primarily marketing and sales engines, rather than actual product developers.

Most of those processes are instead outsourced, resulting in slow, costly workflows.

In response, the founding team leaned into their product-driven backgrounds to invest heavily in owning every step of the process, from R&D to testing to manufacturing. Rather than a traditional CPG, they emerged with an approach much closer to that of a lean startup’s ethos.

They started by hiring a full-time food scientist and head of product development from Mattson, one of the world’s leading F&B product dev agencies, which kickstarted a series of decisions that laid the groundwork for every Taika product to come.

Developing IP around product formulations

While researching user preferences, they found macadamia milk had become the best-selling ingredient in Taika’s product range. They doubled down on that insight, developing their own oat and macadamia milk in order to ensure the future quality of development of their core ingredients.

This also resulted in full ownership of that product IP, meaning any future product creation would be straightforward, needing only a few adjustments to existing components.

To highlight this point, in September 2021, Taika officially received its first patent for a novel process they’re actively utilizing to streamline and ramp product production.

Building custom R&D and manufacturing

The method of retorting in food processing, as Kal explains, is critical for producing shelf-stable, non-perishable goods since this is where cans are pressure cooked to eliminate any bacteria.

However, a retort set typically costs over $100,000.

Rather than biting the bullet, the Taika team was able to step back, research, and build their own retort setup for less than $200 with roughly 95% of the efficiency of a typical market set.

Leveraging in-house testing capabilities

As Kal tells it, the average product dev process for an F&B CPG takes roughly four months of formulating a recipe with an agency.

This doesn’t include several tasting trials, which require thousands of cans of wasted product and hundreds of thousands of dollars — for a total year-long process to develop a few SKUs.

In response, the team built out a process that allowed for daily iterations, minimum sample waste, and next-day taste tests.

It enabled Taika to power through hundreds of iterations, arriving at a final production-ready and shelf-stable formula within six months.


Taika’s secret sauce: vertically integrated R&D

Following the official launch of Taika in 2021, the brand has elevated its DTC channel from local delivery to a larger 3PL, while also growing its SKU range alongside their distribution.

For instance, Taika’s macadamia-milk-based matcha latte was a new SKU that quickly became their most popular product, due to most competing matchas being water-based. The first seasonal Taika product was a pumpkin spice latte, with more seasonal drops on the horizon.

The team’s upfront investment of time, research, and capital into an end-to-end, Taika-owned R&D engine allowed for a consistent release of new product SKUs without any loss of quality.

“We decided to heavily invest in product development on our own terms. It just makes sense to me. And now it’s quickly paying off since we’re developing superior products at such fast paces.”


How to scale hospitality and white-glove support

At the very start of Taika, Kal designed each can label to display a version number as well as his personal phone number, which early users could text to send feedback or further orders.

After all, his founder journey had actually begun as the founder of a cafe and hospitality space.

And once he transitioned to pure CPGs, he realized a lack of access for customers looking to connect with the individuals behind a brand.

As such, although phone numbers or hotlines on product packaging might traditionally be considered a channel for negative feedback, Kal and the branding agency behind Taika decided to flip that notion.

Taika cans prominently display a number on their front, inviting drinkers to send a text which, in the early days, would be directly answered by live team members themselves — rather than the scripted, robotic flows people have come to expect.

As Taika scaled, the team eventually built out a tech stack to handle responses with light automation and human supervision, an idea they’ve dubbed scalable hospitality.

“My co-founder thought of brand hotlines as a last resort, like something you’d call if the product gave you food poisoning. So we wanted to turn that upside down, to invite people to text us for a fun, human-to-human conversation.”


How Taika is bridging CPG, F&B, and web3

Looking toward the future of Taika, Kal admits the team is eager to continue innovating and breaking the mold as a company sitting at the intersection of CPG and food & beverage.

In his words, the general company ethos — one founded on seeking out a balanced approach to fueling yourself for work and creativity through balanced caffeine products — has resonated strongly with younger generations.

A key driver to continue connecting with these audiences, he explains, is collaborations with forward-thinking creative communities, whose built-in audiences can also be leveraged by Taika.

On the Web3 front, the brand will be launching a collaboration with Friends with Benefits, a crypto-powered cultural community.

As Kal puts it, while Web3 is generally considered a dense topic for mainstream audiences to try to break down, CPG brands are actually an efficient tool for onboarding users to the concept, since they’re products and entities with which people interact every day.

For instance, Taika’s co-branded release with FWB will be a premium, Web3-inspired take on Club-Mate, a popular yerba mate in Europe that’s also the most common rave drink in Berlin.

The product will entail two phases of FWB community member participation.


Phase one: co-creating with community

In Kal’s words, the model of CPG brands of Web 2.0 (much like the platforms of Web 2.0) is based around extracting value from customer communities.

For instance, users who participate in referrals or create UGC receive little recompense, and a company’s billion-dollar acquisition does not benefit their existing customers in any way.

As such, if Web3 platforms are built to be owned by their users, why should CPG brands not function in a similar fashion?

Why not allow customers to partially own or benefit from the success of a brand?

In the spirit of this aspiration of communal collaboration between “owners” and “users,” Taika will ship various versions of their recipe to FWB members, who’ll vote on which formulations should be put into production.


Phase two: launching an NFT collection

As for the most well-known element of the web3 ecosystem, the second phase will see Taika and FWB releasing an NFT, while purchase comes with the chance to claim product drops.

NFT holders will be able to taste and vote for one recipe to become the official Taika product release.

While the collision of CPG, F&B, and web3 is still in its early innings, there’s no doubt in Kal’s mind that this movement will fundamentally reshape how customers interact with brands for the next handful of decades to come.

“This is the kind of innovation we’re striving for now. We want to connect with great brands to test new ideas, step into new audiences, and really just have some fun while still centering our ethos of fueling creativity.”

Adrian Alfieri

Adrian Alfieri

Y Combinator
Liquid IV
Bev
Bev
Muddy Bites
MatchaBar
Remedy Organics
Facetheory
Krave Beauty
Stryx
One Blade
Doe Lashes
Barukas
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Gooey.
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Sunsoil
Ugmonk.
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Simulate
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Backbone
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Uprising
Zox
Huron
XCJ
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Culture Pop
Bubs Naturals
Summer Water
Strong Coffee
Ritual Zero Proof
Wellnesse
Heights
Taika
Immi
Fly By Jing
Y Combinator
Liquid IV
Bev
Bev
Muddy Bites
MatchaBar
Remedy Organics
Facetheory
Krave Beauty
Stryx
One Blade
Doe Lashes
Barukas
Red Bay Coffee
Gooey.
Siete Foods
Sunsoil
Ugmonk.
Munkpack
Simulate
Everyday Dose
Backbone
ZBiotics
Semaine Health
Somos
Magic Mind
Uprising
Zox
Huron
XCJ
BelliWelli
Culture Pop
Bubs Naturals
Summer Water
Strong Coffee
Ritual Zero Proof
Wellnesse
Heights
Taika
Immi
Fly By Jing
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