CEO and Founder Tom Zummo says the first mover in the cactus water beverage category is on track for 70 percent growth year-over-year.

They say inspiration can strike anywhere, and for Zummo, that place was Arizona’s McDowell Mountains while on a trail run.

“I saw prickly pear in bloom and fruiting,” Zummo recalls, “and I thought it was interesting that it was growing in the middle of the desert without any water source other than natural. As I left that run, I began to realize that the prickly pear was all over the place. It was growing in the medians. It was growing wildly. It was even imprinted on the side of our freeways on the 101.”

When Zummo arrived home that evening, he decided to research prickly pear benefits online. He quickly discovered that this tenacious member of the cactus family is the only known plant on Earth with all 24 known betalains — valuable antioxidants with anti-inflammatory properties.

“After that, I started searching prickly pear drinks,” Zummo continues. “But the only things that came up were margaritas. There was not a ready-to-drink prickly pear beverage on the market [at that time.]”

Though coconut water was in its heyday, Zummo had tried several brands and didn’t care for the taste. He also didn’t enjoy the excess sugar and calories that were common in the packaged coconut waters that were available. “I realized I could do it better,” he says. “And that’s when True Nopal cactus water was born.”

Zummo launched his product at Expo West in Anaheim, California, in 2014 — essentially creating the cactus water beverage category. The company has grown exponentially since, and its three SKUs — True Nopal Original, True Nopal Original Plus Lime, and True Nopal Original Plus Pineapple — are now available in Sprouts Farmers Market and Walmart stores across the nation as well as six regions of Whole Foods, H-E-B in Texas, and Wegmans Food Markets on the East Coast. Consumers can also find True Nopal cactus water in multiple countries around the globe.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March of 2020, Zummo and his team made a quick pivot to towards online sales. “Our online sales grew probably 300 percent in 2020,” he says, “thanks to new forms of online buying that were opened up such as Instacart. Obviously, Amazon has been great for us along with other avenues that helped fill some voids and get our product out to people who weren’t able to get it in stores.”

Zummo notes that “Everything’s back on shelf and moving fantastically,” now that the pandemic seems to be waning. “Our store counts have grown significantly since then,” he adds. “2021 was a really good year for us, too.”

True Nopal Ventures sources the prickly pear used in its cactus water from several locations. “Prickly pear grows all over the Sonoran Desert,” Zummo says. “We source the prickly pear for our organic and Non-GMO Project
verified products differently. So, it’s either organic or wild harvested. We source out of Europe as well. Fortunately, prickly pear grows just about everywhere and is one of the most sustainable plants in the world, growing in the harshest environments with little to no water.”

The company utilizes co-packers throughout the Midwest chosen for their centralized location and ability to package True Nopal cactus water in Tetra Paks. “These are fully sustainable paperboard packs from a very environmentally conscious company,” Zummo explains. “They’re very recyclable as well. But there are a limited number of co-packers that package in the particular Tetra Pak that we are in, which is the Tetra Pak Prisma.”

Photos courtesy True Nopal Ventures LLC

He adds that though they have talked about expanding with their own manufacturing facility, using co-packers makes sense for True Nopal Ventures because “we don’t take on the overhead. We don’t take on the employees and space. It’s working for us. And there’s definitely room for us to scale with these companies.”

Challenges: Inflation and gas prices are big challenges for Zummo’s company. “Our transportation and logistics costs are just outrageous,” he says. “We’ve really just kind of taken it on the chin and tried to absorb as much as we could. But we’re shipping water, a liquid that is very heavy.”

Raw material costs have increased for the company as well. “We’re doing everything we can to bring those costs down,” Zummo continues. “The food and beverage industry is one of the toughest industries for profitability. A lot of founders only see profitability upon exit. We’re very fortunate to be a profitable company. And we’re changing and modifying every day in order to maintain that and to continue growing with profit.”

Opportunities: Zummo says the company is on track for 70 percent growth over last year. “We’re very excited about the future,” he adds. “We have some new innovation coming about, which was put on hold because of the pandemic. But we’re excited to bring that out as well as increase our footprints and new SKUs in our existing stores. Things like that are very promising, and we’re looking forward to those opportunities.”

Needs: “I think it changes on a daily basis,” Zummo says when asked about his company’s needs. “But we have just about everything we need. I really think the biggest thing is further awareness. Even though we created this category several years ago, there are still a lot of people who are unaware of cactus water and its benefits.”