The buzz on Phocus: Two Louisville entrepreneurs have put caffeine in sparkling water, and it’s all good

Phocus is a sparkling water that contains caffeine and electrolytes. | Courtesy of Phocus

Many of us reach for that extra cup of coffee or a can of Red Bull because we’re in search of that magic substance that’ll help put a pep in our step. However, with sugary sodas and energy drinks come calories, chemical preservatives and more caffeine than one person should consume in a day.

Louisville entrepreneurs Tom O’Grady and John Mittel wanted to find a healthier way to consume caffeine and still keep the crisp, bubbly sensation that makes carbonated beverages so fun and refreshing to drink. Last year, they launched Phocus, a line of sparkling water that has been infused with electrolytes and caffeine from natural green tea.

John Mittel and Tom O’Grady are the team behind Phocus. | Photo by Sara Havens

The drinks contain no calories, no sugar, no carbs, no artificial preservatives, no sweeteners, no sodium and are vegan, gluten-free and kosher — basically, as the product’s tagline suggests: “Nothing bad so you can Phocus on the good.”

It comes in five flavors — regular, blood orange, grapefruit, cucumber and yuzu & lime — made from plant-based oil extracts (as to avoid calories and artificial sweeteners).

So far, Phocus is available in Louisville at coffee shops including Heine Brothers, gourmet grocery stores like Paul’s Fruit Market, Fresh Thyme, Lucky’s Market and Rainbow Blossom, area fitness centers and even at some bars, like Red Herring.

It’s also available on Amazon and has been rolled out to a handful of other states. (On Amazon, a 12-pack retails for $19.99, and at Heine Bros. and other local outlets, you can purchase single cans for about $2.)

And O’Grady and Mittel are just getting started.

Insider caught up with the guys to find out more about this mystery drink that boasts a boost without a single calorie. Turns out their path to Phocus was paved by need.

O’Grady works in finance and investment, and he had recently tried to cut sodas from his diet. Not being much of a coffee drinker either, he wanted a healthier way to receive caffeine — and he wanted his bubbles, too.

Mittel, on the other hand, was in med school at UofL and found himself drinking a lot of Red Bulls and other energy drinks while working and studying around the clock. As a future physician, he knew of the not-so-healthy substances these contain, especially when consumed in mass quantities.

Mittel says the blood orange flavor is the best-seller. | Courtesy of Phocus

The two friends were discussing their common frustrations, and the idea for Phocus came into focus, so to speak.

“We really wanted to deliver something you could drink as little or as much as you wanted to,” said O’Grady. “Some of these drinks they’re putting out there these days, you’re getting way more caffeine than you need in one beverage.”

Each 11.5-ounce can of Phocus has 75mg of caffeine derived naturally from green tea. That’s about the equivalent of one cup of coffee or three cups of tea.

For comparison, an 8.4-ounce can of Red Bull has 80mg of caffeine and 110 calories. And often Red Bulls, along with other brands like Monster, are sold in much larger containers than the small 8.4-ounce can.

There are other caffeinated water products currently on the market, like Water Joe and Avitae, but none had incorporated sparkling water into the concept when O’Grady and Mittel began developing Phocus two years ago.

They partnered with London-based Harry Brompton’s London Ice Tea company to help develop the liquid and flavors, as O’Grady was already an investor in the company and had the connections.

After tweaking each recipe several times to get a light and pleasant taste — there’s a fine line between good and bitter when adding caffeine and electrolytes to water, said O’Grady — the guys have slowly introduced Phocus into the Louisville market and beyond.

“It’s on trend. It’s something people have wanted but could not get,” O’Grady said. “Louisville has been so great for us in regards to learning. Being local ourselves, most local stores have accepted us and are willing to try us, as are the customers.”

For Mittel, this endeavor might change the course of his future plans. In May, he’ll graduate from UofL’s med school, but he’s decided to give Phocus his attention before starting a residency program.

“Taking this chance is something I really want to do,” he says.

Phocus is used in cocktails as well. | Courtesy of Phocus

So far, sales of Phocus have exceeded O’Grady and Mittel’s expectations, and they plan to expand to many other markets in 2018. They currently have seven full-time employees and plan to hire several more this summer and fall.

While they could put more energy into expanding to bars and nightclubs, as the flavors of Phocus make great mixers (Red Herring has an entire line of Phocus cocktails), they’re content with first being known a water, and then going from there.

They’re also hoping to get into chain stores like Kroger.

“It’s a process, and we don’t expect to have success overnight,” says O’Grady. “It’s a game, like anything else — you have to get your product in front of the right people.”