“When life gives you lemons, make…agua fresca.” It’s the mantra that united founders Erin PonTell and Kayla Castañeda, who launched their non-alcoholic, canned agua frescas company, Agua Bonita, last July in the midst of the pandemic.
“Agua fresca is a staple of our culture. Being able to do this at this commercial scale and as a full-fledged business, it feels like just a really beautiful homage.”
PonTell and Castañeda utilized their experience in the beverage industry (PonTell was CMO of beverage startup Good Use and Castañeda did marketing for Coca Cola before joining the team at Good Use, where the two eventually met) to launch their company. When the pandemic forced Good Use to shut down—ultimately resulting in the two losing their jobs—Castañeda and PonTell seized the opportunity to align on a new concept, Agua Bonita, which not only merged their professional strengths but also highlighted their common heritage.
“This was an opportunity to create something that we’ve always wanted to create,” says Castañeda. “Agua fresca is a staple of our culture. Being able to do this at this commercial scale and as a full-fledged business, it feels like just a really beautiful homage.”
Castañeda, who identifies as Afro-Latina, was inspired by memories of her grandfather creating homemade agua frescas from the fruit he brought home. For PonTell, launching Agua Bonita inspired a successful search for some of her biological paternal family in Mexico (where her father was adopted from as a child). “It’s been a crazy journey, from a family perspective as well,” says PonTell.
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“We are unabashedly culture forward. We’re taking creative approaches, and also taking inspiration from the [Latina American] diaspora at large.”
The duo, who have only met in person once, has reached groundbreaking milestones in the short time since they launched a year ago. With the unfortunate reality that less than 1% of Latinx women receive venture capital funding, these are accomplishments that many still struggle to achieve. To date, these founders have raised $2 million from investors including Pernod-Ricard, Cedar Capital, Gaingels and Supply Change Capital, and have been recipients of grant competitions including the New Voices Fund x Target Accelerators Grant and the Black Girl Ventures x NIKE Grant. They also received the 2021 Best New Beverage award by BevNET and Coca Cola.
Castañeda and PonTell believe that what sets them apart from other products in the highly competitive beverage industry is how well the brand stays true to its roots. “We are unabashedly culture forward,” says Castañeda. “We’re taking creative approaches, and also taking inspiration from the [Latina American] diaspora at large.”
Agua Bonita’s current flavors (pineapple cucumber and watermelon chile) contain no added sugar and are bottled in cans that are inspired by Mexican tiles—“cultural patterns that you may not expect to see in food and beverage,” says PonTell.
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“Just from the first view of our product on the shelf, we tried really hard to make it culturally authentic,” says Pontell, adding that their goal is to market the brand “in an elevated way that does justice to our culture from both inside and out.”
These two entrepreneurs say they not only want the brand to represent their cultural identity, but also want Agua Bonita’s influence to extend beyond quality products. Currently, 1% of the company’s proceeds goes to nonprofits with missions to support migrant farm workers and their families. “I am a product of migrant farm workers,” shares Castañeda, “And so I know the direct impact of giving resources to migrant farm laborers, what that lays a foundation for the generations to come. And realistically, the food that we have would not get to where it’s going without that workforce.”
To help combat food waste (30% of produce goes directly to landfills for being either too big, too small or excess), Castañeda and PonTell use as much rescued produce as possible to make their agua frescas. The majority of the company’s produce is also sourced from family-operated farms in California. The team says they are working to save 14 million pounds of produce by the end of 2023.
“My dream is for us to become the go-to, better-for-you brand for Hispanic beverages,”
In addition to online sales, Agua Bonita products are featured in a few brick-and-mortar stores in California and Texas—and will be on Sprouts shelves in January of 2022. And PonTell and Castañeda aren’t stopping at agua frescas—their plan is to continue expanding Agua Bonita to include other beverages like coconut horchata.
“My dream is for us to become the go-to, better-for-you brand for Hispanic beverages,” says PonTell. “There are just so many beverages that haven’t been tapped into, and I think this is a big overlooked market. There’s a huge opportunity for somebody to dive in and really present it in an authentic and healthy way for consumers.”