Biz Buzz: Entrepreneurs find niches in business

Cal Poly students in the food and beverage industry are showing that they can not only start businesses, but also make them grow.


Two years ago, Cal Poly 2008 graduates Nicole Chamberlain and Andrew Macaluso traveled the state to test-market and sell their senior project invention — SanTasti, a palate-cleansing beverage.

It won first prize and $15,000 in Cal Poly’s 2008 Innovation Quest contest.

Since then, their company has produced 100,000 12-ounce bottles in two flavors — SanTasti Classic and Cucumber. While small for an average beverage company, Chamberlain said, that’s partly because the first year was a test-market.

Chamberlain declined to disclose annual revenues or profits but noted that the company has doubled sales every six months since 2009 and has more than 70 accounts, from winery tasting rooms to coffee shops. It also has hired a full-time intern and a sales and distribution coordinator in Napa, both Cal Poly graduates. Chamberlain, Macaluso and the intern work in San Luis Obispo. The corporate headquarters is in Encinitas.

The students didn’t start out in Cal Poly’s wine and viticulture program; rather Chamberlain was a biology major, and Macaluso was pursuing chemistry until they switched majors after two years.

They decided to create a palate cleanser after conducting research that found that palate fatigue played an important role in how a person evaluates wine quality.

“There was a lot of trial and error,” Chamberlain told The Tribune two years ago. “Basically we had done tons of research on what kinds of chemicals we should try, and we just bought them all and one by one tried different things.”

Within the next year, the company plans to introduce a new flavor and new packaging. The plans include selling the beverage in a second size — 750 ml. (25-ounce) bottles — and penetrating the fine restaurant scene.

SanTasti can be found at various wineries and tasting rooms locally, as well as elsewhere on the Central Coast, in Northern and Southern California and select other states.

Brandini Toffee

Cal Poly business major Leah Post easily grasps her classwork, as she has already put the theories she studies into practice operating a gourmet candy business: Brandini Toffee.

Post and longtime friend Brandon Weimer — an entrepreneurship major at Arizona State University — began the firm four years ago to pay for a class trip when they were 15. Now she handles business, public relations and marketing while Weimer is the chef who develops their expanding product line.

Both Post’s and Weimer’s parents — Maggie and Justin Post, and Angela and Brad Weimer — are also partners, and they help run the 5,200-square-foot Rancho Mirage manufacturing plant and gourmet candy shop while the students are in school, Maggie Post said.

While the parents paid startup costs for the business, Leah Post and Brandon Weimer have since paid them back and created a self-sustaining business. Declining to disclose annual revenues, Post said, “We’ve been operating in the green since we started.”

Revenue was up 37 percent in 2010 compared to 2009, and more than half of the company’s sales are online.

Brandini Toffee employs about two dozen people during peak candy sales season in the fall. It sells candy in its Rancho Mirage candy shop, 50 retail locations nationwide, Southern California Costco locations; it ships internationally through its online store.

Post and Weimer appeared on “The Martha Stewart Show” in 2008 and in July were featured on an episode of the Food Network’s “Chef vs. City.”

— Tribune staff report