When July rolls around, many people around the world participate in the alcohol-free campaign, Dry July. But for entrepreneur Lisa King, every month is alcohol-free and her company, AF Drinks is making it easier for those doing the same.
AF Drinks was first created by entrepreneur Lisa King in 2020, right off the press from setting up popular social enterprise, Eat My Lunch.
King took this as an opportunity to dive deeper into the world of alcohol-free drinks and immediately identified what she believed to be a gap in the market that she could disrupt.
Her instincts were correct. What first started off as an online business quickly grew to opening its very own and New Zealand’s first brick-and-mortar alcohol-free liquor store in late 2022, and is now making waves in the US.
AF Drinks has quickly expanded its range from being exclusively available to New Zealand to now being available in the US, both online and in stores, with plans to further expand.
But how did King and AF Drinks do this?
The alcohol-free industry has quickly grown to become a mainstream lifestyle not only in New Zealand but in the US as well, so King saw this as an opportunity to make use of the emerging category to break into the northern hemisphere giant.
“It’s not really a trend anymore, it’s actually become normal. And so, to see that on such a big scale, we’re just like, there’s just so much opportunity here for us,” she says.
In states such as California, King says people are not willing to compromise their lifestyle for alcohol and so consumers have quickly embraced that alcohol-free lifestyle with no questions asked.
And though it is a lifestyle consumers have embraced, it is only now retailers, grocery and supermarket chains are catching on, which is the perfect time for King to be introducing AF Drinks to the market.
“[With] consumers looking for all of these products because they couldn’t find them in stores, so they are buying them online. And so, platforms like Amazon, we were quick to jump on and we are doing so well,” says King.
On Amazon, AF Drinks is ranked at number 37 in the categories for soft drinks (which King is unsure how they got on that category).
With the exposure of being online, King decided to use the momentum and head into stores, especially when “we need to just make sure we’re always there”.
Having first started in New Zealand, King says there are many learnings they can take when they hit US stores, especially when “they’re just catching up”.
“[To] be able to come and say, we’ve had that experience now for two years, and know what best practice is and show them, that’s been a big advantage for us,” adds King.
“Taking the success story from New Zealand and going ‘You know, we were one of the first brands and help to really establish that category, we want to do the same in the US’, that gives us a lot of credibility, and it makes those conversations a lot easier.”
Their entrance to the US market was timely, with retailers being extremely open to stocking AF Drinks.
AF Drinks is already stocked in over 20 states across the country, thanks to the wholesale retailer, Sprouts, and is available nationwide thanks to Amazon.
“I think for a New Zealand company to get a ranging in a national retailer pretty much straight off has been amazing,” she says.
But there are still challenges when heading to a completely different market, with King saying it is so much more expensive and structured with layers of costs.
“Because the market’s so big, even things that we would go to produce, the minimum quantity is like three, four times what we would be making in New Zealand,” explains King.
They also had to change their brand name to “Free AF” because they were unable to get it trademarked and they also had to change their product name of “Grapefruit Margarita” to “Paloma”.
King also adds that each state is different, which has forced her to figure out the local nuances of each state.
Looking at her success in New Zealand and being able to open the very first non-alcoholic liquor store, King is hoping to replicate this and open an AF Drinks pop-up in the US.
“There are quite a few more alcohol-free bottle shops over there, but none that have kind of done it in a really experiential concept way that I think we were able to deliver that,” she adds.
“We are looking to take on more, and really, kind of grow our presence in the US, but potentially, also look at some other markets.”
When it comes to other start-ups planning to go global, King says they need to know they are going global from the outset, and she says every decision AF Drinks has ever made is around that business model.
“Having that intention from the start, I think it’s really helped.”