How Two Friends Turned The Simple Coconut Into A Successful Startup

By Daisy Alioto |
Coco & Co.

© Max Schwartz

The idea seems to belong in the Caribbean, but it was conceived, oddly enough, during a hurricane in New York. Sitting in a basement during the torrential weather of Hurricane Sandy, friends Yair Tygiel and Luke McKenna decided to go into business together. The coconut business. 

Both had dabbled in selling store-bought coconuts. When McKenna moved from his native Australia to Toronto, he opened a ‘slapdash coconut stand’ to make friends. Tygiel used to host all-day ‘coconut hangs’ in Brooklyn parks. Professionalizing these operations seemed like a natural next step and so CoCo & Co was born.

The CoCo & Co founders built a cart that they could bike around the city, or park at strategic locations. The attached tiki torches guaranteed their sales weren’t limited to daylight hours.

‘We never wanted to do the food truck thing, we liked the novelty of the coconut bike,’ McKenna explains.

By the end of summer 2013, CoCo & Co was being booked for events and selling out at music festivals like Gov Ball.

But it wasn’t all Vampire Weekend and bike rides on the Brooklyn Bridge. McKenna and Tygiel also made a long-term investment in the crop that makes their business go.

Related: HOW PLATED'S FOUNDER WENT FROM CLUELESS IN THE KITCHEN TO THE TOP OF THE FOOD STARTUP WORLD

CoCo & Co is currently rejuvenating a coconut plantation in Northern Sri Lanka, a part of the country decimated by the country’s decades-long Civil War. Though the plantation is starting over with saplings, in 3-5 years it could supply all the coconuts for McKenna and Tygiel’s business. In addition to helping to rehabilitate the land, CoCo & Co is trying to increase equality, ensuring all of the plantation’s workers are paid the same. In Sri Lanka, war widows often receive lower wages than their male counterparts.

‘There’s not a lot of transparency,’ McKenna says of the coconut trade, which was another incentive for the company to build up their own source. CoCo & Co currently imports coconuts from Thailand.

Last winter, McKenna and Tygiel expanded to Los Angeles and pivoted from street vending to ‘tropical marketing’ with branded coconuts for special events– often adding vodka or rum to make coconut cocktails.

CoCo & Co also sells coconut oil spread spiced with cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and honey that makes a delicious addition to coffee and smoothies.

Tygiel and McKenna have traded their bikes for a warehouse in Williamsburg and pop-ups wherever coconut lovers can be found. And so, the idea hatched during a superstorm is now spreading sunshine everywhere it goes.

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