When Nick Graham, Nick Johnson and Matt Richardson sat in Berczy Park in Toronto in the summer of 2019 sipping on cans of ‘hard seltzer’ (a low-calorie alcoholic sparkling water drink) –  for the first time and questioning why the delicious and refreshing drink was not available in the UK, little did they know the journey they were about to embark on.

Over the next 18 months, the business they set up on their return ‘to avoid succumbing to the post-holiday blues’ would beat the likes of beverage giants Coca-Cola, Koppaberg, Diageo and Smirnoff to be one of the first to offer the drink in the UK. They have survived two national ‘lockdowns’ and, with a last-minute change in sales strategy due to the coronavirus pandemic, they have secured more than half a million pounds in funding and are set to expand into Europe and the US during 2021.

“Hard seltzer is still largely unknown in the UK,” Cranfield alumnus Nick Graham explains. “About 95% of British consumers don’t know what it is, and associate the name with alka seltzer. But, if you go over to the US or Canada, it is the complete opposite – it’s one of their largest drinks categories.

“My twin brother lives out in Toronto and it was him who introduced us to it. We sat in Berczy Park, which is this amazing oasis of quiet in the middle of a city full of noise and tall buildings, drinking this crazily delicious, refreshing, light drink that we had never heard of before. We couldn’t believe it wasn’t a thing in the UK, so we said, when we go back, instead of getting the post-holiday blues, let’s set up our own business selling this drink in the UK.”

Initially called NATRL, the ‘alcoholic sparkling water’ drinks brand Nick and his friends started in the summer of 2019 secured £75,000 funding from the Virgin start-up scheme and was renamed Berczy in honour of the location in which the idea was born.

“We were one of the first to market hard seltzer in the UK,” Nick says. “Since then Coca-Cola, Koppaberg, Diageo and Smirnoff have all launched their own hard seltzer brands, so we were right to see an opportunity, definitely.

“We launched at the height of the first coronavirus lockdown in 2020, which was interesting! We were all set to go in physical stores and were targeting supermarkets but, when lockdown hit, we had to very quickly go online and focus on selling through our own website and on Amazon. We initially launched two flavours, which are now selling through speciality online retailers as well as many convenience stores, farm shops and garden centres across the UK.”

“It’s very strange – all we’ve really known is coronavirus – but, while it has made things difficult, at the same time it has opened up opportunities,” he added.

For Nick, becoming his own boss was never the plan. When he embarked on the Logistics and Supply Chain Management MSc at Cranfield in 2014, he foresaw a long career working in supply chain.

“After my undergraduate degree, I joined a two-year graduate programme with a big supply chain company,” he said. “I spent the first year on a cosmetics contract running distribution schemes for the likes of Superdrug and Topshop, and the second in Canada, splitting my time between Toronto and Vancouver, where I managed projects for a cigarette retailer.”

After getting some hands-on experience, Nick enrolled on the Cranfield MSc to find out more about the topic and broaden his horizons.

“I knew Cranfield quite well as I was brought up in the Bedford/Milton Keynes area,” he explained. “But on a 150-person programme, I was the only person from the local area – it was such a diverse cohort.

“From my perspective, the MSc was the perfect blend of theoretical background, real world application and close ties to industry. One day, we would have PWC coming in and pitching supply chain practice, and the next GSK would do a piece on their graduate programme. We’d have ex-Cranfield alumni from big organisations like Tata Consulting and Tesco coming in, and it was clear how much they all valued the Cranfield course and wanted to attract its latest graduates.

“When you look at a lot of senior executives in supply chain, it’s amazing how many of them attended Cranfield. The course is the best in the country, in the top 10 in Europe and top 20 in the world, so from my perspective it was just perfect for what I wanted and needed.”

Fresh out of Cranfield, Nick was an early joiner at recipe box delivery giant HelloFresh. He spent three years with the company – which is now worth around £3 billion – helping to build the brand, develop the team and establish the supply chain for the business’s operations across the UK.

Looking to the future, Nick and his co-founders recently closed their latest round of fundraising, during which they secured a further £475,000 of outside investment to help grow the Berczy business.

Plans for 2021 including growing the business’s footprint in UK supermarkets, expanding into Europe and moving into the US market, as well as developing new flavours to add to their product offering, and expanding the team by hiring sales and marketing directors.

With everything the team has already achieved in such an extraordinary year, it’s hard to imagine these ambitious plans being anything other than equally successful.

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