How Sandro Roco Founded Sanzo Sparkling Water
In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Sandro Roco.
Sandro Roco is not your typical consumer packaged goods creator. Born in Queens and raised in Central Jersey by Filipino immigrant parents, Roco became a nuclear engineer and worked in both finance and tech before a newfound connection to his Asian American identity inspired him to start his own company. This circuitous path to entrepreneurship, however, is what he credits for his success, as each experience prepared him to chart a unique path into the beverage world.
In the saturated market of seltzers and sparkling waters, Roco’s brand Sanzo stands out for its distinct mission to increase AAPI representation in grocery stores around the country. And it’s on-point pastel design, too. “What we’re attempting to do, and having a bit of success in, is shaping the way folks think about this country and think about representation,” says Roco of Sanzo’s calamansi, yuzu, mango, and lychee flavors. “These flavors had not yet been represented on mainstream shelves or were relegated to a certain aisle of the store. We’re having conversations that are changing that dynamic.”
Now, almost four years into the founder-CEO journey with 18 employees on his team, Roco’s product is sold in every Whole Foods in the country, is on shelves at several hundred Targets, and at over a thousand Panda Express locations. As Sanzo looks forward to even more expansion next year, Roco shares the details of his roundabout career trajectory, the biggest challenges of entering the beverage industry, and how he’s changing the way Americans shop for drinks. “The grocery shopping experience is common to literally everyone,” he says. “Doesn’t matter your income level, doesn’t matter where you come from — everyone’s got to eat. And so the grocery store, to me, is America.”
Eater: What did you originally want to do when you started your career?
Sandro Roco: Growing up, I thought I wanted to cure cancer.
What was your first job? What did it involve?
One of my first jobs in high school was as a delivery boy for my then-girlfriend’s family’s deli, where most of the clientele was dentists offices and construction companies ordering gourmet sandwiches and salads and soups. That was definitely my introduction to the food industry, which I just loved. I grew a very deep appreciation for folks who work in and own restaurants. It was also my introduction to a family-owned business, which I just fell in love with. I saw both the love and the spirit of running a business like that, but also the challenges.
My first job out of college was as a nuclear engineer at a power plant in southeast Pennsylvania. Since you can’t put nuclear power plants close to major metropolitan areas, I lived a pretty suburban — even rural — lifestyle for my first three years after graduation. It wasn’t the right fit. While I learned a lot, I didn’t enjoy it. But coming out of the financial crisis, engineering jobs were really the most stable ones. And I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do, so it provided a bit of stability and was a good environment.
How did you get into the beverage industry?
I had two more detours between nuclear engineering and Sanzo. I worked in investment banking for two years, then did five years at an apparel startup. That was my first time seeing what the entrepreneurial path could look like. It was the early days of Facebook and Instagram advertising, so I was learning about the world of digital marketing when it was a completely new practice. And just seeing the magic of how you could build a brand, an audience, a business just online was utterly fascinating to me.
I had the original idea for Sanzo in 2018. I was still working at the apparel startup, but was noticing a couple things both about myself and the broader world. By virtue of having been in New York City for a bit and finding other pockets of Asian Americans, I grew to appreciate my own identity as an Asian American. It was never a big thing that I ever really wanted to focus on, but then I was seeing the rise of Asian-inspired creative goods and restaurants really deep diving into Filipino, Vietnamese, and regional Chinese cuisine.
Crazy Rich Asians became the No. 1 film at the box office that year. BTS, the K-pop group, was going on a nationwide tour where they were literally selling out football stadiums. That really opened my eyes up to the idea of like, Oh, could I have something to contribute to this conversation?
At the same time, 2018 was the summer of LaCroix. My office at that apparel startup had a huge fridge with free snacks and such. We were previously a Diet Coke office and then that summer everything started flipping to LaCroix and Bubly. There would be five different brands, but all the same lemon-lime and grapefruit flavors. I just felt like, Is there not room for more depth here than just these standard flavors? And that’s how the journey got started.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?
I didn’t know anything about this industry. A lot of folks who come in as a consumer goods entrepreneur either worked at Procter & Gamble or Coca-Cola or Unilever, even for a year just to have a sense of what’s going on in this world. I had none of that. My entire experience with the grocery world was simply as a consumer, just walking aisles and shopping whatever was there. So getting into the industry was a bit of a process.
The way that I started picking up tools of the trade was I would go into specialty and natural food stores in New York City, like Foragers in Chelsea and the Greene Grape in Fort Greene, and look at the other independently owned and smaller brands and just cold-Instagram DM or cold-LinkedIn message the founders. Oftentimes the people behind the Instagram accounts were literally the founders.
What I found early on was that this world is actually quite collaborative. I was able to piece together bits of information, like where to manufacture products and which distributors to work with. Over the course of 18 months, I built up an initial knowledge set as I was developing the underlying thesis for the brand. It was very much a gradual process of just trying to learn things and keep moving every day.
The beverage industry is not a cheap one to get into. It is actually quite capital-intensive, in my experience. You either have to have the capital or you have to have the network. And in the beginning, I had neither. You might’ve thought that coming from the world of investment banking and technology would’ve helped. And I thought that would’ve helped also. But it was very difficult for me to get out at the gate. I poured a pretty high percentage of my life savings into the business. And it was a risk. There are definitely a lot of barriers to scaling up in this industry.
When was the first time you felt successful?
During the pandemic, we saw a massive uptick in interest in the brand from folks being at home and just not having a real path to getting groceries. We definitely were a beneficiary of them wanting to discover new products. Seeing the community rally around the brand was the first major breakthrough. Shortly thereafter, we launched in Whole Foods stores in New York City. That’s when things started getting pretty interesting for us.
What were the most important skills that got you there?
As an entrepreneur in this space, you need to develop some level of real grit. Especially in the earliest days — unless you get insanely lucky, and most people don’t — you need the ability to absorb several “nos” and keep moving forward. You have to will your product into existence. And in this game of creating brands, particularly throughout COVID and the supply chain crisis, I think it’s required to understand both the operations and the brand-building components of the business.
Looking back, is there anything that you would have done differently in your career?
Right now, I feel as if everything I’ve done to this point has been good in that it had an impact on where I am now. But what I’m absolutely confident in is that decades from now, when Sanzo’s fate is sealed in whatever way, the future me will wish that me right now got to slow down a little bit and enjoy the journey more. I’m actively working on it, but it’s also tough, with everything that’s been happening in the business.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Morgan Goldberg is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.