June 2010

The Main Squeeze

By: David Gadd
Photos by: Lee Cherry

Alex Carlton is a man on a mission. As he sits poolside at Skybar at swanky hotel Mondrian Los Angeles, laptop booted up and cellphone abuzz with incoming messages, his eyes gaze into the hazy Los Angeles distance, as if he's thinking of yet another way to nurture his unique creation: Funkin, a line of fruit purées and cocktail mixers that is re-energizing the craft of the cocktail.

Carlton was born in London but is no stranger to Los Angeles, where he previously spent time as an actor and where he recently moved permanently with his young family. We ask whether he ever wanted to play James Bond. "Who doesn't?" he shoots back. But now, Carlton has an assignment that for him is every bit as challenging and action-packed as anything 007 ever tackled: conquering the U.S. market.

Alex Carlton (right), founder and CEO of Funkin, at Skybar in Los Angeles with GM Kendra Cole.
From Smart to Smarter

Funkin's story goes back to Carlton's earlier London days, when he began a business selling fresh fruit smoothies to business offices in Soho out of his minuscule Smart car.
Funkin-based cocktails make a colorful statement on the bar beside the brand's signature foil pouches. 
With his innate entrepreneurial sense, he soon realized there was a huge untapped market purveying these same fresh fruit juices and purées to bars and restaurants. Carlton seized the opportunity.

"I started pumping out fresh orange juice, lemon juice and lime juice," he recalls. He gave up the office rounds to develop the bar trade and soon after, in 1999, developed Funkin. "It was a time when cocktail culture was exploding in London," Carlton continues. "We not only created the purées, but also created the demand for this kind of product, seeding the brand with top mixologists." Today, Funkin is found in 15 countries worldwide.

The name-an inventive anagram for Fresh from the UNited KINgdom-was chosen for its "punchy, catchy and fun" sound, according to Carlton. Not only does it ooze cool, it also readily lends itself to naming signature cocktails; just think of the daring possibilities, for example, when Funkin is paired with Effen vodka, from Carlton's new U.S. distribution partner, Beam Global. The name contrasts strikingly with the product's ultra-professional high-tech packaging and labeling.

High-Margin Profitability
Working the U.S. market account by account with the Southern Wine & Spirits sales force, Carlton has already placed Funkin at major chains such as Morton's The Steakhouse, The Cheesecake Factory, Il Fornaio and P. F. Chang's, not to mention top Las Vegas casinos and trend-setting bars in L.A. and beyond. And the list is growing, thanks to support from major influencers such as mixologist Francesco Lafranconi of SWS.

"Funkin offers high-margin profitability to the bar," says Carlton. "The best way to think about Funkin is to compare home cooks who use store-bought tomato sauce with those who make pasta sauce from scratch using a tomato purée." With its purity of flavor, ease of use and professional-grade packaging, Funkin is geared for high-end cocktail programs in busy mainstream bars. Proving its dedication to the art of the properly mixed drink, the brand provides three-piece shakers to bars for making Funkin-based cocktails and also provides jiggers for accurate measuring. 
Topped with Prosecco or any other sparkling wine, Funkin White Peach purée makes quick work of the Bellini, a summery classic.

A Wide World of Flavor

The purées are made at Funkin's facility in France from fruit grown globally—strawberries from Spain, cherries from Serbia, bananas and passion fruit from Ecuador, lychees from China, mango and pomegranate from India . . . and the list goes on-all of it naturally grown under the sun, never in hothouses. Funkin purées are 100 percent natural; 90 percent fruit and 10 percent cane sugar, with no high-fructose corn sugar or artificial colors, they appeal to today's interest in pure, authentic ingredients.

Twenty flavors of Funkin purées are available on-premise. They come in visually arresting 2.2 lb. "Funkin Pro" foil vacuum pouches and sell for $15 to $17 each; assuming an average one-ounce dose of Funkin per cocktail, each pouch can make up to 40 drinks. The packaging features a closeable cap to ensure freshness, giving the product a shelf life of eight days after opening when kept refrigerated. Unopened pouches are stable for 12 months at room temperature—but after sampling these eye-opening flavors, we seriously doubt Funkin purées would be around anywhere near that long without winding up in a delicious cocktail.

Beyond the Bar

Kendra Cole, the genial GM of Skybar at Mondrian Los Angeles on L.A.'s chic Sunset Strip, was a Funkin fan from day one. Skybar's clientele—which skews young, affluent and socially aware—appreciate the true-to-fruit taste of Funkin products, which are used in several mixed drinks at the outdoor poolside bar.

   "People that work with Funkin love the convenience and the quality," notes Carlton. But Funkin isn't just for mixologists. "I feed the purée to my 18-month-old daughter," says the CEO, "and she absolutely loves it." The entrepreneur's smoothie-making background also informs his business model: "There's a massive opportunity on-premise in using our purées to make smoothies," he predicts. And another segment of the market Carlton has tackled is restaurant kitchens, where chefs are already using Funkin purées for plate decoration, in desserts and even in sauces.

So far, there are no immediate plans for savory expressions of Funkin, although Bloody Mary fans are keeping their fingers crossed for a tomato—make that tomahto—version. But with a man like Carlton in charge, don't rule anything out. The next flavors he has in mind? "Prickly pear and agave," he says with Bond-like aplomb.


"The 10 Second Cocktail"

While the on-premise flavors took off immediately, Carlton found that only one Funkin flavor really made it off-premise: White Peach. "That's because consumers cannot—or don't want to—make their own drinks besides a Bellini," remarks Carlton, referring to the chic peach purée and sparkling wine cocktail.

So two years ago, Carlton developed a nifty line extension in the form of Funkin Cocktail Mixers that contain not only fruit purée but extra cocktail ingredients. Shipped in single-serving 4.5-ounce pouches, they make a quick, easy cocktail when combined with a favorite spirit (an appropriate one is suggested on each package) and ice.

Flavors range from exotics such as Passion Fruit Margarita, Classic and Raspberry Mojitos and (our favorite) Piña Colada, to standards like Appletini, Cosmopolitan and, of course, Peach Bellini. Currently available on United Airlines in the U.S. and at Hyatt Place bars, look for Funkin Cocktail Mixers to launch nationwide later this year.

Funkin at Skybar

At Skybar at celebrity-studded Mondrian Los Angeles, General Manager Kendra Cole uses Funkin purées extensively in her cocktail program. "We use Funkin for everything," enthuses Cole. "It's such an amazing product; you can really taste the difference!" Skybar's cocktail special this month is the June Gloom, a drink that reflects L.A.'s foggy early summer weather.

June Gloom

1¾ oz. Svedka Clementine vodka
1 oz. Funkin Mango purée
2 dashes of bitters
¾ oz. simple syrup
4 limes squeezed into shaker

Shake and serve in a Martini glass.  



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