F&W Game Changers: Sanzo

The cans shaking up the seltzer industry with Asian-inspired flavors.

Photo: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Melissa Gray / Prop Styling by Christine Keely

Sandro Roco, a trained chemical engineer and founder of the seltzer brand Sanzo, says making seltzer isn't rocket science. (Having once worked in nuclear engineering, he's in a better position to make that claim than most.) But the story of how he brought a new perspective and flavor set to the saturated American seltzer sector is a testament to both Roco's ingenuity and the genius of Sanzo itself.

READ MORE: Food & Wine Game Changers: 16 People and Companies Changing the Way We Eat and Drink

Roco left nuclear engineering and finance to work in fashion at Bombfell, a menswear subscription service where he honed his entrepreneurial skills. In 2018, he noticed a gap in flavor representation in the growing seltzer industry, so he channeled his knack for business and started developing a sparkling water of his own, experimenting at home with Canada Dry and fruit purees. In 2019, he founded Sanzo, the first beverage company to unlock the potential of Asian fruit flavors in the American marketplace. (The soda's name, Roco says, is a mashup of his first and middle names, Alessandro and Lorenzo)

"We take our [flavor] inspiration from the hemisphere of the world that we feel has not been adequately represented on grocery store shelves," Roco says. Through four flavors–lychee, calamansi, mango, and yuzu with ginger–Sanzo also finds inspiration in, while at the same time making a deliberate departure from, the sugar-laden sodas in which these flavors are most commonly found. By using real fruit juice with no added sugar, Sanzo's seltzers are unabashedly fruity with flavors that ring true to the tastes and aromas of the whole fruits.

Born in Flushing, New York, to Filipino immigrants, Roco sees how products like Sanzo can fill a void for people searching for these kinds of familiar flavors. "My parents were among the first immigrants in the Asian diaspora to live in the part of New Jersey where we moved. They wanted goods like this," Roco said. "I feel like Sanzo can be a vessel to tell these immigrant stories to broader populations." Key to Sanzo's pursuit is to educate folks outside of the major metropolitan areas where Asian fruits and flavors can be more readily found.

In the early days, Roco would go out in the morning with a cooler on his back, carrying cases of his seltzer through the streets of New York. He'd walk around the city, mostly in Queens, and visited nearly 100 grocery stores to get a sense of where Asian immigrant communities shopped. Roco studied the backs of product packaging to understand the web of distribution and suppliers, cold-called brands he saw in health food stores to ask how they got there, and met face-to-face with as many people as he could to make business connections. "One of the most interesting things I learned in the early stage was to get off email, to get off my screen, and walk into places," Roco said. "The food and beverage industry is so personal."

Our mission here is to bridge cultures.

One key breakthrough came about when Roco met Lucas Sin, chef of Nice Day and Junzi Kitchen in New York (and a 2021 F&W Best New Chef). After bonding over a shared case of Alphonso mangoes that Roco snagged off a truck at Patel Brothers, Sin decided to give Sanzo a try. Though Sin fell in love with Sanzo's Calamansi flavor instantly, before deciding to carry it, he hosted a blind seltzer taste test with his staff. "We had all the big names," Sin said. "Spindrift, La Croix, but Sanzo was number one." Sin became one of the first chefs to carry Sanzo in a restaurant.

Today, Sanzo is sold in more than 2,000 restaurants, cafes, and shops around the country, and nationwide at Whole Foods Market. Sales have increased five-fold year over year since 2020, and in February 2022, the company raised $10 million in funding, which Roco plans to spend on the business's core functions, like marketing and sales. Sanzo's community impact has grown, too; they've partnered with Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Pixar's Turning Red to amplify Asian storytelling in the media. The company wants to be a connector in more ways than one, Roco says. "Our mission here is to bridge cultures, and, on another level, bridge continents."

Meet the 2022 Food & Wine Game Changers

Alexis Nikole Nelson | Bento Box | Chintan Pandya and Roni Mazumdar | Dwyane Wade | Ghetto Gastro | Jenny Dorsey | Momofuku Packaged Goods | No & Low | OXO | Prime Roots | Patagonia Provisions | Sanzo | Stephen Satterfield | World Central Kitchen | Yannick Benjamin

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