Angela Zeng laughs when she thinks back on the way health food industry leaders reacted when she told them she was launching her brand of wellness drinks, Karuna Beverages, in St. Louis.
“I had every industry expert when I started – and even into my second year – tell me I chose the wrong place to launch a healthy drink,” Zeng says. “They all told me that the Midwest doesn’t care about health. I remember thinking, ‘What do you think? We only care about eating ribs and drinking beer?’”
Despite the naysayers, Zeng never considered starting Karuna Beverages anywhere else than in her adopted hometown – the place she’s happily called home for half of her adult life. Originally from Shenzhen, China, Zeng came to St. Louis to pursue doctoral work in pathology at Saint Louis University. Though she admits the move from a large, bustling city in China to the Midwest was an adjustment, it took only about six months for her to fall in love with St. Louis and realize it was the place she wanted to settle.
– Angela Zen
Zeng did so, not as a health food entrepreneur, but in the pharmaceutical and medical research industries. Though she describes a longstanding passion for the link between diet and health – something that prompted her to go into her chosen field in the first place – she did not pursue that path professionally until she worked for a Chinese juice company that was looking to bring its products into the United States. While working there, she had an epiphany about the misleading health claims propagated by the beverage industry as a whole: Though the drinks seemed to be healthy, a peek under the hood revealed something entirely different – a single bottle could contain the equivalent of five Krispy Kreme doughnuts’ worth of sugar, and, as Zeng explains, even the initial quality ingredients were processed and had chemicals added to them, thus diluting their effects.
Zeng knew she could do better, so she drew upon her graduate work in pathology and biochemistry, together with her passion for traditional Chinese medicine, to found Karuna Beverages in 2016. Her goal was simple: to create a drink with actual health benefits that would improve the quality of life for those who consumed it.
“I believe you need to have compassion for your own health before you can have compassion for others,” Zeng says. “Eating junk food all day and then thinking that when you get sick, a doctor will take care of you – that’s not the right way to think. If you take care of your health, it doesn’t get to that point. That’s what I try to do with my drinks.”
Over the course of a year, Zeng developed eight different beverages that would go on to form the core of Karuna’s product line. Using ingredients like mung bean sprouts, turmeric, chestnuts, flaxseed and quinoa, Zeng focuses on creating drinks that are high in prebiotics, which fuel probiotics and boost the immune system. She’s proud to note that Karuna is the first maker of prebiotic beverages in the industry and is pleased that people are finally catching on to the health benefits of such a drink, especially in a time when the benefits of a healthy immune system are at the forefront of everyone’s minds. It’s a dramatic change from when she first launched her beverages at a wellness fair and was inundated with questions from curious consumers. She feels that consumer curiosity is something that made launching the products in St. Louis so vital to her success.
“St. Louis gives me a lot of advantages to try something new,” Zeng says. “People here are really open to new things. People love local suppliers here, and also St. Louis people are friendly so that if you want to explain something to them, they will take the time to be polite and listen, then maybe learn something. The culture here really is accepting of a novel and innovative product.”
Now four years into business, Zeng is finding success as a top seller on Amazon and at the St. Louis locations of Whole Foods Market, Straub’s and Dierbergs, and she is increasing her national presence as well. Late last year, the company added H-E-B, the largest grocery chain in Texas, to its growing list of retailers and has a presence in New York, San Diego, the Bay Area, Wisconsin and Hawaii. The company is also working with a major manufacturer in China to develop a product line tailored to the Chinese market.
With Karuna experiencing such growth, Zeng admits that there is pressure to sell her company to an investor. However, she is resistant because she is afraid of what will become of her products should her business get acquired by a large company whose main focus is on profit. Her desire for Karuna to remain a clean brand remains the driving force for what she does, and she believes that passion is what has allowed her to succeed, even when things get tough.
“I tell people who are looking to be entrepreneurs that they should think about if they are prepared to do this and if it is their true passion,” Zeng says. “I don’t care what people say. If you have a dream and work hard and smart, you have a chance to realize that dream.
I think St. Louis is a great place to realize that dream. If you truly believe you have something great and don’t give up, you can do a lot here.”