DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - When Arnold Ventura first came Downtown in 2001, he was an architect working on loft conversions for the well-known firm Killefer Flammang. Later, he became a financial advisor, helping people manage their money.
Things are a bit different now.
These days, he works out of a 600-square-foot office at 117 W. Fifth St., though he spends an ample amount of time peddling drinks, sometimes hand delivering them to vendors, touting the flavor and freshness in the hopes of making a sale. It's all part of Cobá, a natural fruit drink company inspired by aguas frescas (or fresh waters), a traditional Latin beverage whose roots go back to pre-Columbian times.
"They're juice waters," said the 32-year-old. "They're not as heavy as a juice concentrate and not as light as an enhanced water. They're something in between and they have a little bit of pulp."
It's a nascent business, with $50,000 in sales in 2010 that Ventura hopes to increase to $500,000 this year. The company, with four full-time and seven part-time employees, has its goods in about 500 spots. Those include Downtown Los Angeles establishments such as the Bunker Hill Market and Deli, Downtown Car Wash, a 7-Eleven and the Historic Core's Stray Cat Café.
"We had some regulars try it and it was a great hit," said David McGrath, the owner of Stray Cat, who has been carrying the products for about five months. "I thought it was delicious."
Ventura decided to locate his company in Downtown because of his familiarity with the neighborhood and the renaissance that has occurred.
"I like what is happening here," he said. "I thought it would be cool to inject ourselves into the neighborhood.
Aguas frescas are popular in Mexican and other Latin restaurants and can often be seen in huge, unmarked, barrel-shaped glass containers. In some Latin American countries they are also referred to as frescos or aguas de fruta (fruit water), but they're all based on three ingredients: fruit, water and a sweetener.
Raised in a Mexican-American family in San Diego, Ventura grew up drinking aguas frescas made by his mother. Today, his Cobá versions come in four flavors: guayaba, jamaica (hibiscus), mango and tamarind. Each bottle includes only agave nectar, water and one of the flavors.
"It's the less-is-more approach," he said. "For me it's also about the sweetener. We use organic agave as our sweetener, which is healthier."
The idea for Cobá started when Ventura and his wife were students in Berkeley. They would go to the same restaurant again and again not for the mediocre food, but for the aguas frescas.
The idea didn't become a business until he went to Stanford. In 2007, he and fellow student Jose Domene founded the company (Ventura said Domene now has a part-time role), financing the launch with credit cards. They started with about 80 bottles, printing labels in the Stanford computer lab and passing out samples to friends. They called their drink Bonadea.
"The initial feedback was good, so we did a small run and tried to sell the stuff," he said.
That involved Ventura showing up on the doorsteps of small retailers in Northern California with a box of drinks and an offer of a helping hand.
"The way I got one of my first accounts was by showing up at five in the morning when they're putting up the drinks on the shelf," he recalled. "I introduced myself, started helping him, and as I'm putting other drinks on the shelf I was telling him why he should be selling my drink."
That hands-on approach continues in Downtown. Ventura stopped by Chris Zuber's Sixth Street restaurant Ocho Grill when it was still under construction.
"He stopped by before we even opened, introduced himself, brought some samples and from the get-go I liked him and I liked the drinks," Zuber said.
After giving a few free samples to customers, Cobá is now one of the most popular drinks on the menu, Zuber said.
This year, the young company went through some changes.
In May the drink was renamed Cobá, after a region in the Yucatan peninsula rich with Mayan ruins. The bottle was changed from a smooth glass container with a white label to one that resembles a miniature barrel. The label is now a light ocean blue, with bright images of fruit prominently displayed.
"Since we made the change it's been like night and day," Ventura said. "The product we moved through in the last four months already far exceeds anything we did in the previous 14 months with Bonadea."
Ventura said that since the re-branding, their retail spots have increased from about 200 to 500. Independent grocers, natural food stores and restaurants carry the drink.
While it's a strong start, competition looms. In May, Nestlé launched a drink called Aguas Frescas with tamarind, jamaica and horchata flavors. Although the food giant has extensive resources, Ventura said he couldn't help but smile.
"It's validation that this product should exist, so that was a little comforting," he said
Then again, in Downtown at least, Cobá may have an advantage over the food giant. After all, it's unlikely Nestlé's CEO will stop by a local store with a box of drinks anytime soon.
Contact Richard Guzmán at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©Los Angeles Downtown News.