Rahul Panchal (’04), president and CEO of Prometheus Springs Elixirs, says he was just playing around when he created the prototype for his spicy-sweet elixirs from a jar of tap water and spices left to steep on the window sill of his room in Bruce Hall.
“I wasn’t even planning on really drinking it,” he says.
As a freshman in 2000, Panchal found himself craving his parents’ fiery Indian food. His mother sent him Indian spices, but without a kitchen, Panchal was frustrated.
“I wanted a way to get more spices in my diet without cooking a whole new meal,” he says.
So he experimented. First, he loaded the spices into a salt shaker and sprinkled them on his cafeteria food. When that didn’t work, he did some research and decided to steep them to extract their nutrients. He made a rustic tea out of a jar of water mixed with spices and left in the sun.
“I was just doing it to see what would happen,” Panchal says. “Over time, I noticed the spices releasing vibrant colors into the water, and when I tried it, it was surprisingly good. I realized if I could find a way to balance the pungent flavors, this could be huge.”
Tired of waiting
Panchal continued to brew the tea for himself and friends as he earned his degree in communication design and went on to work at top advertising agencies for brands including Coca-Cola and Burger King. In 2006, he came across market research that showed spicy food sales were spiking in the U.S. One report showed that hot sauce sales were growing at a rate between 30 and 40 percent a year. Spicy chips outsold regular chips. Spicy gum trumped mint gum.
Panchal realized that, besides a version of V8 and a handful of spiced beers, no one made a spicy drink. That was the catalyst for launching Prometheus Springs Capsaicin Spiced Elixirs.
“It took so long to launch this drink because I was hoping someone else would do it. But no one was doing it, so I just got tired of waiting and got tired of making it at home all the time,” he says.
In 2007, Panchal tweaked his tea and pitched it to one Whole Foods store. The store buyer suggested he find a distributor.
“I couldn’t deliver the tea myself,” Panchal recalls. “I had to scramble, meet with distributors, try to find someone to carry us. It was a lot of hustling at first just to learn how the system worked.”
Initially, the drinks were sold as a “nutritional supplement” because of the health benefits from the added capsaicin, a chili pepper extract. But the product is now marketed simply as a “refreshing spicy beverage.” Panchal encourages consumers to research the health benefits of capsaicin online.
“We’ve seen a lot of companies get squished by the FDA, and we didn’t want to fight a fight we couldn’t win,” he says. “So now we’re just making sure people know it’s spicy and it tastes great.”
So great that the tea is sold in 45 states by more than 1,000 stores nationwide. It is available in Texas at Central Market and Whole Foods.
The company is based in New York and currently offers six flavors: pomegranate black pepper, lychee wasabi, lemon ginger, citrus cayenne, spicy pear and mango chili. All of the drinks are spiked with capsaicin and all are organic and gluten-free.
Panchal used his communication design skills to create the company’s label and website and also designs the flavors. His degree taught him “to always experiment and create many iterations of the same idea.”
“The professors constantly pushed us to create versions and versions and critique what we made to hone in on something really strong,” he says. “That same teaching flows into how we run product design at Prometheus Springs now. For each of our flavors on the shelf, several were made in the lab.”
While obtaining his degree, Panchal never planned on becoming an entrepreneur. But he says his experience in design created a natural evolution into business.
“I really loved all of my communication design professors,” Panchal says, adding that they never inhibited his personality or imagination.
“My professors always encouraged me,” he says. “A big part of being an entrepreneur is breaking the rules.”