Arizona Beverage Company has been a family affair for a quarter of a century. Back in 1992 Don Vultaggio, a former Long Island-based beverage distributor realized the popularity of Snapple and tried to give it go with his own beverage company, bringing iced tea to the masses in a can that sold for just 99 cents. His wife Ilene designed the now-iconic southwestern and cherry blossom labels for the 23-ounce can, and now his sons Spencer and Wesley are following in their father’s footsteps to take over the New York-based beverage company.
By Ann Binlot
To celebrate the company’s 25th anniversary, Arizona is having a pop-up shop in New York’s Soho district through May 21 called GB99 after Great Buy 99 that will sell Arizona merchandise inspired by the Great Buy 99-cent cans. Arizona fans can buy T-shirts, crewnecks, hoodies, button-downs, jackets, hats, bags, custom Zippo lighters, AriZona-scented air fresheners, and more. Each day will feature a new product release. I quizzed the brothers on growing up in the beverage business, their plans for Arizona’s future, and why they decided to celebrate with a pop-up shop filled with Arizona merch.
What is your first memory of Arizona?
Spencer: Being eight years old in Rockaway Queens trying original flavor samples for lemon and raspberry tea with my friends.
Wesley: My first memory is of our parents designing the first cans taking inspiration from our Santa Fe-inspired home in Rockaway, Queens. I remember my parents visiting me at summer camp and showing up with a trunk full of merch and all of the kids going crazy for it. That was the first time I saw the power of our brand.
Why was your father's business strategy successful?
Spencer: At the time, the product was radically different than its competitors. The strategy was to put it on the shelf with the competition and line price it even though ours was 24 oz vs their 16oz. Also, our southwestern motif made it stand out amongst other brands. My dad has always believed in making a product that tastes great, looks good and priced well.
Wesley: Also, our father has never believed in traditional advertising and instead opted to grow the brand organically letting the product and packaging speak for itself. In doing so, I believe he built a stronger brand with staying power.
How has the brand managed to stay relevant for 25 years?
Spencer: We are constantly coming out with new products that are innovative and taste great. Our classics have remained consumer favorites but with the introduction of different flavors, size packages and product lines we allow for the customer to always discover new products. We update graphics on a regular basis as well.
Wesley: We like to keep a pulse on what’s happening in the industry and because we are privately held and can react quickly, we are able to do things that most companies of our size wouldn’t be able to. Typically, from idea to fruition we can launch a product in less than 90 days.
What age were you when you became involved with the family business?
Spencer: I grew up working for the brand over holiday breaks and every summer. I’ve worked in the warehouse, in merchandising, in sales and in the office within different departments. I started as a full-time employee in 2007. At the store today, a salesman that I worked with when I was 15, Wendell, came in to deliver product and he couldn’t believe what he saw. Seeing the brand in such a different capacity and scale was really awe inspiring. I played mini gold with Shaq on the roof of our office and he kissed my aunt on the lips.
Wesley: I worked summers all through high school working with salespeople around the five boroughs learning the ropes, selling, merchandising coolers, and putting up POS. Another summer I worked with my two best friends in our headquarters learning the ins and outs of our different departments. During summers while in college I managed our energy drink team here in New York. Our board meetings have always revolved around our lunch table and sitting together every day as a family with collaborators, colleagues, and partners continues to foster our growth.
The company's graphic identity was basically conceived of by your mother. Does she have a design background? Can you tell me about her process?
Spencer: She does not have a design background but is an artist in her own right and has worked with a lot of different mediums throughout her life. At the time of Arizona’s inception, she had designed our house to be southwestern inspired and that helped inspire the design of the original lemon can. The green tea can was inspired by a coloring book I had when I was a child.
How has the company evolved in the last 25 years?
Spencer: The company has matured and has survived in a competitive market for a long time through innovation and efficiencies that allow us to remain competitive. My brother and I have evolved the company when we came on board with the launch of our website and social media marketing. Now a big focus is beer products, expanding our company internationally, as well as the creation of snacks and jerky.
How many varieties of Arizona are there? Can you tell us about the lesser-known products?
Spencer: There are over 400 skus made up by many flavors and package sizes. Our good brew line, which is relatively new, is a blend of hand selected teas from three countries with higher tea notes, lightly sweetened with cane sugar.
Wesley: We also just launched a line of flavored sparkling mineral water called AriZona Sparkling that’s delicious and 0 calories.
Why did you choose to mark the 25th anniversary with a pop-up filled with fashion covered in Arizona designs?
Spencer: We wanted to celebrate our fans after 25 years of very little traditional marketing. We’ve been making merch for a long time so it seemed natural for us to create a wide breadth of products that our consumers could enjoy. We wanted a celebration that would allow our consumer base to not only be a part of if it, but to be able to enjoy it as well!
Wesley: We really wanted to capture the nostalgia of our brand and our early 90s Brooklyn roots. Our brand has become synonymous with ny street culture and we decided to honor that with a collection celebrating what our father created 25 years ago.
Who designed the products? How did you decide on the merchandising?
Spencer: My brother and I both did, many of which were inspired by items in our own closets and using our iconic designs that we’ve created in the past.
How is Arizona responding to consumers' tastes now that they aren't as into super sweet drinks as when the company started in the early '90s?
Spencer: We have drinks for everyone. A lot of people like some of our sweeter drinks but we also have more lightly sweetened drinks under the AriZona line and then no sugar drinks like our sparkling line and vapor water. Good brew, like I mentioned earlier, also comes in unsweetened flavor. We’ve been working hard developing all-natural alternative sweeteners like stevia to use in newly developed products.
What's next for Arizona?
Spencer: Continue International expansion, snack food items like all natural gummies, beef jerky and sour cotton candy and continue to stay relevant with innovation and activations. Taking over the world!