Originating in 2018, Quokka Brew has exploded across California's college campuses due to its promise and delivery of delicious jitter-less coffee. We sat down with Quokka Brew founders George Passantino and Ofek Arush to learn more about their experiences, what they've learned, and their favorite memories over the last few years of running their company.
How did you learn all of the skills needed to run your own company?
Ofek: “When we first started we were taking on more than we really knew how. What we started doing was that every night for an hour we read books, and every time we learn something new, we write it down in our notebook. We know we’re not perfect, but we’re working on it every night.”
George: “We came in virtually having no experience from the leadership side, a little business experience from past adventures, but it was a lot of just trying things, seeing what worked, and really just focusing on learning from it. Like Ofek said with our learning notebooks, we take that very seriously. It's like our Bible in a sense, filled with all the important things we have learned.”
How would you describe the Quokka Brew company dynamic, and what do you hope for it to be?
Ofek: “A crazy family. We’re working, but it doesn’t feel like it, because we’re such close friends. I like this quote: “99% of startups think they die by murder, but actually 99% of them die by suicide”. It's because they don’t know how to manage themselves and really work together, and that’s something we do perfectly. As far as the future, we want to keep our culture the same. It’s gonna be tough as we expand further out, but that’s why we travel down to San Luis Obispo and UC Santa Barbara, to truly maintain the culture we have here at Berkeley.”
George: “I would say the dynamic is, in the most cliche way as possible, really work hard play hard. We’re a really close group of people, we have a lot of fun together, but we work harder than virtually anyone else. There are very few people that could consistently do seventeen, eighteen hour days six, seven days week after week, month after month. We’ve been putting in a ridiculous amount of work into this, and it’s only because we believe in the product, and because we are surrounded by a team of like-minded individuals on the same shared pursuit of revolutionizing the [coffee] space.”
What are your favorite things to do in your free time outside of Quokka Brew?
George: “That’s a difficult question, outside of Quokka I don’t have much free time. I do enjoy reading fairly often. I’m reading Never Split the Difference and You Win First in the Locker Room. When I do have time, I like hiking and working out too.”
Ofek: “To build upon George’s comments, there isn’t a ton of free time for us. That being said, Quokka is our free time. Our shared favorite activity is going to places like Lake Anza or the beach and relaxing, thinking creatively, and brainstorming things to pursue in the future. Aside from that, I love pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, whether it’s small things day to day or bigger things, such as skydiving.”
How do you think Berkeley has assisted your individual, as well as your company's growth?
George: “Berkeley as a school hasn’t taught us an insane amount. What it has taught me to do is work hard; you have to grind at this school to succeed in your classes. It also showed me the value in my peers, I mean, what makes Quokka great is both the product and the team. The team is very intelligent and hardworking, and that’s possible because of Berkeley.”
Ofek: “Everything I’ve learned has come from outside of the class. The value of Berkeley is from the people you meet, the networking you do, and the people you’re surrounded by. When I came here as a freshman, I was not nearly as driven as I am now. Berkeley threw me into the real world; you think you’re all this and that, but when you see what you’re up against, you have to fight for what you want. Also, as George said, it’s about the peers. We wouldn’t be able to build this company to what it is now without the people, and our people would be different if they weren’t Berkeley students. The last thing is professors from Haas. I’ve gotten really close to certain professors like Cort Worthington, Mark Wittenberg and Stephen Torres, and they have helped me develop a lot.”
Where do you see your company 5-10 years in the future?
Ofek: “One of the biggest, if not the biggest player in the coffee industry. There’s going to be so many problems along the line, but we know we’re going to be able to handle them. That’s what we’ve been doing, that’s what we’re ready to keep on doing. We want to revolutionize the coffee space as we know it, and you know what one day be as big as, if not even bigger than Starbucks.”
George: “The whole goal behind this is to truly revolutionize the beverage and coffee space, to transition the way people look at health contents, sugar, and what they’re putting in their body. Our whole thing is to make a change that pushes people to be better, happier, and healthier.”
Ofek: “That’s our mission, to create a coffee that limits the negative side effects of caffeine so you can become your happiest, best self— like a Quokka, the happiest animal in the world. Above just making great coffee for people to enjoy and eliminating the negative side-effects of coffee, it’s also about pushing this notion that you really could become the best version of yourself. You can push yourself outside your comfort zone and become your happiest, best self and that’s what Quokka stands for as a brand above everything else.”
Where did the idea behind Quokka Brew originate from?
Ofek: “We were studying for finals, it was fall 2018, we were in Main Stacks first floor and we were studying for finals, drinking a lot of coffee, getting really jittery and anxious from all of it”
George: “I’m a total health freak, so I started to look at these ingredients inside our coffee and realize I’m putting this drink with 30 grams of sugar, 300 calories, and ingredients that I can’t pronounce inside my body. We kind of looked at each other and said let’s improve this. So it basically started then. We put all of our school work down, procrastinated studying, and spent the next five months on Research and Development.”
Ofek: “Over winter break, since we’re from the same hometown, we grinded on that every day. It wasn’t just that—it was five months of that. Most people told us there was no such thing as jitter-less coffee, that if Starbucks didn’t come up with it until now, we won’t be able to do it. But that drove us even further. After we found a solution, we ran a survey on 150 people and found that with Quokka, 92 percent of people felt no negative side effects. When that happened we basically stopped going to school. You know, going full-in on Quokka.”
What was your proudest Quokka Brew moment so far?
Ofek: “The main one that we always talk about is the SF Coffee Festival. We were there with 98 of the best roasters in the United States, the biggest players in the industry, and we were there, just kids—but in two days we made over $2,000 in sales. By the end of it, a lot of big-name roasters came up to us and asked, ‘how did you guys do this? Congrats, we saw a line at your booth the entire time, we want to try this.’ For us, this was the moment where we realized—this is real. We understood that a lot of people wanted to buy it, and it wasn’t just students.”
George: “Following the SF Coffee Fest, we had an article written on us in the SF Gate. Going on the SF Gate website and seeing Quokka Brew on the headline and my mom sending me a screenshot of Siri recommending her the article was one of the coolest feelings for me. Overall, it’s hard to pinpoint it because the whole idea behind Quokka has been my proudest achievement. Starting an idea to now having over 100 ambassadors at four different college campuses, and really starting to do something that’s revolutionizing this space—that’s been the proudest moment for me. Creating this thing that both me and all my friends love—it’s a proud dad moment.”
Describe the differences between your life/Quokka Brew from one year ago versus now.
Ofek: “If I could summarize it in one word: purpose. Last year we would wake up whenever, live normal lives, have more fun, go out, actually have friends. But there was no purpose behind it. Now when we wake up in the mornings at 7 am—it’s tough. But there’s a purpose to it, and it’s incredible. That’s what drives us every day, to just go in, be present, and make this happen. We have the vision, we see where this is going to go in a few years from now. I feel like my life has purpose now.”
George: “For me, it’s the same concept--doing something that I wake up genuinely excited for. Every day is fundamentally shifting for Quokka in the most positive way ever. If you were to ask us two months ago, “Do you think you’ll be in 10 stores, with over 100 ambassadors, and very far along make a switch to cans?” No way, but every day brings new changes. I think my life has changed a lot, from doing virtually nothing all day to doing something that genuinely matters.”