COULD A MICROBUBBLE TRANSFORM AN INDUSTRY? TODD CARMICHAEL IS BETTING ON IT.
POSTED BY RAY LATIF | JANUARY 4, 2022 AT 5:15 PM
Todd Carmichael wants to add a bit more sparkle to your water. But not the kind you’re used to.
Nearly three decades after he co-founded pioneering third-wave coffee brand La Colombe, Carmichael is once again breaking new ground with the launch of innovative “shimmering water” brand Loftiwater. Launched in December, Loftiwater debuted a few weeks after Carmichael stepped down as CEO of La Colombe. In the months leading up to and following his departure, Carmichael, a serial innovator, spent dozens of hours in his basement lab attempting to find a way to create a different, better kind of sparkling water experience.
The result was Loftiwater, a new brand of sparkling – but importantly, not carbonated – water. Instead, the company uses a blend of gases to create what it describes as “a galaxy of sweet velvety microbubbles.” Packaged in 14 oz. plastic bottles and available in six flavors, the drinks contain no calories, sugars or preservatives, yet are “deceptively sweet,” according to the brand’s website.
In an interview featured in this episode, Carmichael spoke about the reasons behind his decision to leave La Colombe, how the pandemic influenced his mindset and inspired a fresh start, his ambitious vision for Loftiwater as a third option for restaurant diners and why the brand’s early start included a chartered plane to Venezuela.
IN THIS EPISODE
0:44: Todd Carmichael, Co-Founder, La Colombe & Loftiwater – Carmichael and Taste Radio editor Ray Latif began their conversation by riffing on the roller coaster that was 2021, their “dress down” business attire and why the La Colombe co-founder loves “The Matrix.” Carmichael also explained why he’s more driven by obsession than fear, why he believes that “if it’s easy to climb a mountain, you shouldn’t be climbing it,” how he landed on sparkling water as the basis for his next beverage brand and how he intends to drive trial for Loftiwater. Later, he spoke about why he describes Loftiwater as “The Third Water,” why he’s optimistic about the future of La Colombe despite his departure, why he chose to build a production facility rather than work with a co-manufacturer and the musical analogy for explaining why he decided to stay in the beverage business.
“If your brain sees what exists, it can figure out how to make that better, for sure. But to find a missing something is always very hard. Can you go into the grocery store and see the spot on the shelf where something new belongs?”
He and his team figured out the logistics, obviously, and the canned beverages transformed the business. And, in fact, kept the lights on during the pandemic, when brick-and-mortar cafes and bars everywhere were kicked in the soft place.
And now? After all that work and evolution and transformation and success and becoming a kind of Philly royalty himself?
Todd Carmichael is switching from coffee to sparkling water.
THE FIRST QUESTION when one hears such news is: Why?
Rumors run rampant when any big shakeup happens. Carmichael is happy to give his explanation for why he’s leaving La Colombe’s top job. But to really get it, you must first travel with him to Antarctica.
For all his Philly coffee-business adventures, Carmichael is also known for his other exploits, whether that’s trotting the globe looking for coffee for Dangerous Grounds, his Travel Channel show that ran from 2012 to 2014, or submerging himself in various African cultures, or setting off on foot through the Haitian backcountry to find that one treasured coffee bean. Carmichael has ultramarathoned on foot and done the ocean equivalent in a sailboat, but one of his most obsessive goals was to trek 700 miles from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole “and not die.”
Not only did he succeed in 2008; he set a world record: 39 days, seven hours, 49 minutes. (It’s tattooed on his right arm.) He’s told the story many times, and it involves breaking his skis eight miles into the trip and doing the final 692 miles in ski boots, uphill the whole way to 14,000 feet above sea level, working through 40-to-60-knot winds in 60-below temps, pulling a supply sleigh that started at 275 pounds, and racing against a severe body clock. “You’re eating 9,000 calories a day, but you’re burning 12,000,” he says. “So your body is getting smaller and smaller by the minute. And there comes a point where your body can’t heat itself if it’s too thin. So you gotta get there before that happens.”
And he did. He touched the South Pole. As in the literal pole, which — no joke — looks like a barber pole with a crystal ball on top.
Now think back to what Carmichael learned previously: Once he achieves something he wants, the thing itself changes in a fundamental way. That feeling was never more intense than after he tapped that pole.
“When you get the goal, it’s the most depressing thing that ever happens to you,” he says. “I killed it. I literally cried because I killed it. I lived with this work and the dream for four years, it was a beautiful four years, and it was over. When you have an unmet goal, you have something. Let’s go into a waiting room at the dentist. You may have the magazines to read, but I have some beautiful thing to think about, this little life running in my brain. You’ll never get bored. Even when you’re sitting motionless, even when you’re driving to Toronto and your kid’s snoring in the back seat, you’re stoked because you can think about your dream. It gives your life so much meaning.”
Then he chuckles. “But when you touch the pole, it just goes away.”
He was in a literal state of grief while recovering at the main South Pole science facility. That is, until he was on the cargo carrier on the way back home and halfway over the southern seas had an epiphany: Set a record in the coldest place, set one in the hottest place. Two words turned his frown upside down: Death Valley.
That’s Carmichael’s brain in a nutshell.
J.P. IBERTI AND CARMICHAEL have been best friends since the ’80s and business partners for nearly 30 years. “If you use a mountain-climbing analogy, we’re basically perfect climbing partners,” Iberti says. That streak will continue, as Iberti has joined his friend’s new venture, concurrent with what they both call an amicable transition within the company they started.
Years ago, as La Colombe grew, the co-founders linked up with some big money from private equity firm Goode Partners. They also became friendly with Hamdi Ulukaya, the CEO of Chobani, when the exec appeared on an episode of Dangerous Grounds. Ulukaya eventually bought out Goode Partners in 2015 and became the majority owner of La Colombe.
Today, Carmichael and Iberti are no longer involved in the day-to-day operations at La Colombe, with Iberti taking a reduced role in the cafe side of the biz and Carmichael working on innovation and quality. Ulukaya remains, as chairman of the board. According to the two co-founders, the company is a mature one that needs executives to run it, not innovators. “You could almost say we were in the way,” says Iberti. “It was just time.”
For Carmichael, it boils down to this: With regards to La Colombe, he’d tapped the pole a long time ago and hadn’t accepted it. “I’m still involved,” he says. “But I’m finished being the CEO of that company, because I don’t want to be an administrator anymore. I want to take my ideas and climb again. I want to create again.”
He’s been experiencing a period of mourning similar to the one in Antarctica. “I know this is the right thing,” he tells me. “I just don’t like the feeling it gives me. You can’t spend 28 years giving every single atom to that place and then feel like, ‘Oh, that’s good. I’m moving on.’ No, no, no. I can even say a year ago I wasn’t capable of it, until COVID.”
The pandemic brought tragedy to many people, and for Carmichael, it was a one-two punch. First, the virus took his mother: “It’s like the music stopped. The carousel. The whole world went quiet.” Then, right before Christmas last year, he was infected. It was bad — not hospitalization-bad, but enough that he thought his life was in danger. He quarantined in his home office for the duration and had nothing but time to feel like crap and think. And he thought: I’m 57. I still have bullets left. La Colombe will be fine without its founders, and I’m simply not doing what I was born to do anymore.
Being CEO, he says, was “like living in a frosting dream — everything’s sweet and lovely. Everyone thinks you’re funny and your ideas are brilliant. It’s so artificially weird, but it’s very addictive. I realized I was drinking from that. And I went, I gotta stop. This is not what we came here for.”
He remembers emerging from his study on Christmas Day — day 11 of his illness — and watching the kids open their gifts. “It was like, This guy’s gonna make it, you know? And by New Year’s Day, I knew what I was going to do. I’m going to live my real life.”
TO FIND CARMICHAEL’S new facility, Rebel Beverage Labs, I had to travel into the middle of nowhere in the middle of everything. The Schuylkill River is a useful landmark, and you’d recognize some nearby route numbers, but you won’t find this place unless you know where you’re going. RBL itself is just a medium-size unit in an industrial park. No signage. No Wonka-esque veil of mystique or gatekeeping. It’s a world of pure imagination, however, because at the time of my visit this past August, the joint was mostly empty. RBL was truly in its infancy, and I had to picture what it will become.
The physical layout has three layers. First, a carpeted office and reception area, mostly unfurnished except for a coffee table and some chairs as well as a trophy case against the far wall. The second layer is Carmichael’s lab. It’s a medium-size room and doesn’t look much different from any industrial workspace. The only clues to what he’s doing there are a bunch of clear plastic bottles waiting to be filled and the centerpiece of the lab, a machine he built himself: a four-nozzle bottling station that allows him to experiment with whatever crosses his mind, water-wise. The machine looks like a really hard-core soft-serve ice-cream dispenser.
The third layer is the production area in the rear, a few thousand square feet of concrete floor with a high ceiling. Again, mostly empty except for a true jalopy of a bottling machine that he “had to have” when he saw it. He’ll retrofit it for RBL’s four needs: rinse the bottle, fill the bottle, dose it with whatever ingredients are needed, cap the bottle.