Our team is dedicated to finding and telling you more about the web’s best products. If you purchase through our links, we may receive a commission. Our editorial team is independent and only endorses products we believe in.
Welcome to The Quality Makers, an interview series highlighting pioneers in the direct-to-consumer space. Join us as we get an inside look at the world of digital shopping through the eyes of the individuals shaping it…
In the last few years, the “alternative beverage” aisle at every grocery store, co-op and supermarket has grown exponentially. From “mylks” made from nuts, seeds, and grains, to nootropic and adaptogen-spiked sparkling delights, it’s a world you can get lost in — both as a consumer and a fledgling brand. So it takes a special touch (and taste) to make a splash in that space. Ruby, known for its tart, pure, and singularly refreshing Hibiscus Water, has that je ne sais quoi in spades. I caught up with Noah Wunsch, the man behind the rising star that is Ruby, to talk all things hibiscus, from coaxing consumers away from artificial sweeteners to carving out a niche in such a competitive category. Sit back, crack open a Sparkling Hibiscus, and listen in.
We don't like
I’d love to begin by learning more about your personal background, and how that led to the beginnings of Ruby.
My background is a bit all over the place, and I like to say that it’s all somewhat infused into Ruby and the Rubyverse. Just prior to Ruby I worked at Sotheby’s Auction House where I ran global e-commerce. It was while I was at Sotheby’s that I became more cognizant of “what I was putting into my body,” particularly what I was drinking. All of the better-for-you beverages on the market — kombucha and coconut water — while they have functional benefits, are slammed with sugar. I wanted to find a beverage that had a big, full flavor but without all of the sugar, which is exactly how I found hibiscus. I started making it at home and quickly became hooked on it.
I’m a major beverage geek — one of my greatest joys is what I call “dissociating in the alternative beverage section” at any grocery store (of course, it’s most fun at Erewhon). With a new adaptogenic or nootropic-spiked concoction launching what feels like every week, did launching Ruby feel daunting? Did you have initial trepidation about differentiating yourself in such a crowded market?
It wasn’t daunting so much as terrifying (I’m kind of kidding). I don’t think I fully recognized what I was up against until I had my first finished product in hand and I went to Whole Foods (before we launched) and put it up on the shelf just to see how it would look compared to everything else. THAT was a moment of sheer terror and “what the hell have I done?” But then you default back to your insanity and delusion and tell yourself that “you’ve got this.” But very sincerely, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Beverage is the most competitive category; it can be very, very scary. It’s not something you can fully understand or process until you do it. People warned me, I’ve warned people, but you just kind of have to close your eyes and do it, and then ask yourself “what did I do” after the fact.
On a similar note: what do you think is so singular about Ruby? I’m sure anyone who has tasted the original, wildly refreshing hibiscus drink can speak to that, myself included. But I’m curious to hear this answer from your perspective, especially over time, as you’re expanding into sparkling and lightly sweetened iterations of your classic hero product.
The biggest thing for me always has been putting out a product that has integrity. If you look at our ingredient panel, there are very few (if any) beverages like Ruby. We’re a juicy organic functional soda, without any artificial additives or added sweeteners. That’s crazy! Or maybe it’s even crazier that it is crazy. Look at any other beverage in the fridge and everything has stevia, monk fruit, tons of sugar, or preservatives. We just have organic hibiscus, an organic juice or two, and water. That’s it. So it excites me that we’re putting a “better for you” beverage on the shelf that is true to the aphorism. And then there’s the whole brand universe we’ve built, but that’s a whole ‘nother answer.
Another thing I love about Ruby, and about your approach, is how much you rely on direct consumer feedback to develop new products. I read that you personally joined over 200 consumer demos across the country to ideate these new sparkling flavors. Can you share any interesting takeaways from your time in the DTC field? What do you think people really want from their beverages at this cultural moment?
That’s a great question. Very sincerely I think a lot of people say they don’t want sugar or sweetness and then they try something that is tart and their true feelings come out. I can’t tell you how many people have acted skeptical when we tell them that we don’t have sugar or sweeteners in our product, then they try it and they’re like “oh my god that is NOT sweet!” So that certainly informed the release of new flavors — we needed them to be more accessible. But we wanted to make sure we were doing that in a way that maintained our product integrity, so organic juices were a no-brainer. Our hope is still that people might start with a sweeter flavor like Fuji Apple, and slowly wean their way down to Berry Cherry, then Concord Grape, then Blood Orange, and finally to the Original with zero sugar contact. Getting off sugar is really, really difficult, but we’re hoping that people can think of Ruby as a way to slowly work their way down.
We don't like
Berry Cherry Sparkling
We don't like
Fuji Apple Sparkling
We don't like
Concord Grape Sparkling
We don't like
Blood Orange Sparkling
We don't like
It’s nice to read about Ruby’s ethical sourcing process, and it’s no secret that hibiscus is a pretty powerful ingredient not just for its flavor profile, but also for its long-standing health benefits. There are plenty of things for consumers to love about Ruby. But I’m curious to know: what are you most proud of, or excited about, when reflecting on the brand?
I don’t mean to sound like a broken record, but I’m really proud of how clean of a product we’ve been able to produce and how quickly we’ve been able to innovate and accelerate R+D based on real-time consumer feedback.
Conversely, what have been the greatest challenges as you’ve launched and grown Ruby?
EVERYTHING! Beverage truly is the most competitive category, period. It is so hard. Especially as a retail-first brand, you are out there fighting for shelf space every day with brands that have more flavors and way more money than you do. It can be an absolute beating. But, then you see someone buying your product out in the wild and it gives you the little boost you need to go out and do it again.
Are there any upcoming launches or longer-term visions for Ruby you can share with us? Any plans to go beyond beverages and into other aisles of the hallowed grocery store?
We have some fun collaborations in the works, that’s all I can say about that. But, no, we have our hands full in one category, as is, so we just want to continue to put out fantastic organic products — that’s the focus. I’m sure we’ll have some new flavors coming your way in 2024 ;)
As a founder, how do you take care of yourself and prevent burnout? Do you have any self-care products or practices that are an essential part of your day or week?
I read. Reading mellows me out. But I also happen to be married to the greatest human on planet earth, so just spending time with her goes a long way.
Can you share any DTC brands or smaller companies you love? Can we get an inside look at your own grocery list, at least as it pertains to other DTC brands?
There’s an amazing better-for-you snack called Nufs that I'm obsessed with. It’s founded by two sisters in Texas who are so awesome, but the product tastes delicious and is good for you. Other than that I’m super lame. I love raw pistachio kernels and I love frozen blueberries. Oh man, I sound like a very weird kind of grandpa.
And of course: what’s your favorite Ruby product?
I drink the Original Sparkling Hibiscus every single day, and usually like 3-5 cans a day. But I do think we’ve created something very special with our Hibiscus Fuji Apple. That’s a really special drink.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity. Have a founder you’d like us to interview next? Let us know at email@example.com.