The story of Casalú begins by the poolside. Last summer, Ricardo Sucre was spending a lot of time relaxing at the pool with his friends, and having a refreshing drink in hand quickly became a requirement. As someone with a distaste for beer, Sucre’s drink of choice was hard seltzers, but he couldn’t relate to any of the brands he was drinking. None resonated with his Latino roots or matched the vibe of the reggaeton music in the background.
At the same time, Sucre also tried the vodka-based seltzer High Noon and wondered why there wasn’t a rum-based seltzer, rum being the spirit of choice in Venezuela, where he grew up. It was then that Sucre decided to create a rum-based hard seltzer that matched the vibe of he and his friends and appealed to their Latino culture.
”I always felt like there was a huge disconnect between who I am and what the seltzers in the market portray, like there was no brand that made me feel Latino,” said Sucre, who graduated from NC State in 2018 with a degree in industrial engineering and now works for CBS Sports.
After buying a SodaStream last summer, Sucre spent a few months perfecting his rum-and-soda mixture and asked anyone who came over to taste-test it. One day Gabe Gonzalez, a longtime friend of Sucre’s who also went to NC State, came to try it and not only loved the taste, but loved the cultural aspect that Sucre envisioned for the brand as well.
Sucre and Gonzalez—who is the Program Manager at NC State’s Entrepreneurship Clinic—joined forces as co-CEOs of Casalú. They also brought on their friend Gustavo Darquea, who met Sucre while an industrial engineering major at NC State, as head of operations.
“We all complement each other really well,” Sucre said. “I’m super into culture and creating the next cool thing, Gabe is super knowledgeable about startups and Gustavo is the super disciplined one. The three of us coming together was like a great alignment of our Latino crew, and I’m super excited about what we’ve done in very few months.”
The team knew that branding and packaging would be key to the success of Casalú. So they brought in Lauren Childs, the founder of the design company Friend Of Studio, who joined Casalú as its creative director. Childs first met the trio at NC State, where she earned a degree in fashion textiles in 2017. She has worked with, among many others, local names like Trophy, Cultures for Health and, most recently, Shine Water.
And this is no surprise given all the Wolfpack connections: Casalú is participating in this summer’s Andrews Launch Accelerator at NC State.
The name Casalú is derived from the Spanish words casa, meaning “home,” and salud, meaning “cheers.” In a broader sense, because Casalú has been created by Latinos to be shared by all, the brand’s vibe is based on the Spanish phrase nuestra para todos, meaning “ours for all.”
“It’s our way to say this is an open door for everybody who wants to come home to their culture,” Sucre said. “Or for anybody to join in the vibe of Latino culture.”
Casalú is currently in the middle of their funding round and customers can pre-order the product on the company’s website. They are also deciding which city to launch in. The top two contenders are Miami and New York City, Sucre said.
Miami—nicknamed the “capital of Latin America”—has one of the highest concentrations of Latinos in the country and one the highest consumption rates of rum in the world. NYC has the second-highest Latino population in the U.S. While Los Angeles has the highest, NYC has a greater concentration of Caribbean Latinos, who align more closely with rum, Sucre said.
The team spent the month of July in Miami doing customer discovery—aka crashing parties with a Casalú-branded keg and offering free taste tests—and they are about to embark on a similar journey in NYC. Their trick to know if someone actually likes the drink? Offer the first one, but wait to see if they ask for another, Sucre said.
“Coca-Cola can replicate our formula, but they can’t replicate our vibe”
Sucre’s desire to resonate with the brand of the seltzer he was drinking underscores a larger trend in the direct-to-consumer world where a growing number of U.S. consumers are Gen Z and want to align with the values of the business they’re buying products from. With social media now providing multiple platforms to speak out on, brands can no longer easily separate themselves from the social issues that matter to consumers.
So whenever Sucre is asked, “How can Casalú compete with big brands?,” his response is: “Our formula is great, and it tastes amazing. But that’s something that Coca-Cola can try to replicate really quickly. Our brand and our vibe is something that big brands can’t replicate. When speaking about the vibe, it’s really hard to explain why we as humans revolve around brands that align with us, but we do. And strategically and monetarily speaking, big brands cannot can’t replicate that authenticity. Coca-Cola buying Topo Chico is one of many examples.”
Sucre’s dream is for Casalú to become “the Red Bull of Latino culture,” by building a brand like Red Bull’s that engages in culture-related aspects of their customers’ life like fashion, music and sports. Initiatives related to social issues that are important to Latinos, like immigration, will also be a core component of the Casalú business model, he said.
“None of the mainstream brands are meeting the needs of the growing Latino community in the U.S.,” Sucre said. “We believe we are the first option that authentically connects with every element of the Latino community.”
Cheers to that.