Meet the Entrepreneurs Making Delicious Canned Agua Fresca

Agua Bonita celebrates Mexican culture with flavorful aguas frescas made with ugly produce and no added sugars.

Agua Bonita co-founders Erin PonTell and Kayla Castañeda. | Design by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist
Agua Bonita co-founders Erin PonTell and Kayla Castañeda. | Design by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist
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When it comes to breaking into the beverage industry, it’s not easy to stand out, especially when you have massive competitors like Coca-Cola. That never stopped entrepreneurs Kayla Castañeda and Erin PonTell from taking on the challenge, though. Both spent years working with beverage companies before they met, which gave them all the tools they needed to finally launch Agua Bonita, an agua fresca made with produce that would otherwise go to waste, no added sugars, and packed conveniently in a can. Inspired by their Mexican background and shared interest in developing a more eco-friendly supply chain, they’ve managed to create a product that’s not only beautifully made but also delicious.

We spoke with the founders about their Mexican background, how they came up with the idea of producing aguas frescas, and some of their other favorite beverages (besides Agua Bonita).

Thrillist: What were your first memories with agua fresca?
Kayla Castañeda: I came from a family of migrant farm workers. My grandpa’s family migrated from Mexico to Texas and then the migrant farm labor brought them from Texas to California, and [that is] where we settled. [The farm was located] in the main valley of California where they grow 60% of the nation's produce. I'm very fortunate [to be] the first generation of my family that has not had to pick in the fields, but everyone else has. My grandpa was a very hardworking man, also very funny. He was really my first introduction to aguas frescas. He would make them at home with the fruit from the fields he brought home after work, stuff that was just going to go ripe, go bad, and go to waste. We'd either make aguas frescas or we would sprinkle them with Tajín. He would always say, “I'll give you a dollar if you eat this jalapeno,” and he knew it was going to be hot, but just for his own giggles—that's honestly how I got an appreciation for very spicy foods.

Erin PonTell: Love it. Yeah. So my journey that led me to this project is very different from Kayla's, but we arrived at the same place, which is great. Both of my parents were actually adopted and they both tracked down their biological families when they were adults. They met each other and were like, "Oh, you're adopted, me too." That's not how they met, but my dad's biological family is from Mexico. [Growing up,] we spent every summer in Mexico; my first aguas frescas were [during those] trips.

Design by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist

How did you guys meet and what was that aha moment that led you to create Agua Bonita?
Castañeda: It's funny because I was just telling some folks that in this last week I was looking back at messages from almost a year ago now because we've been fully dedicated to this for just about a year now. We knew that we wanted to do something that was going to allow us to continue to save produce, something that was different from what was out there. But then we knew that we wanted to bring our own flair to it and do something that was really reflective of ourselves. And so I think inspiration struck very quickly because even if you look at the text messages, it's like, "Yeah, well I've been thinking about aguas frescas the whole drive."

Aguas frescas is really a representation of ourselves and this is something that already has a community behind it. And this is something that we can be very innovative with and it speaks to our hearts.

PonTell: It also answered a lot of questions for the product we wanted to create. Kayla came from Coca-Cola and I came from a few years in beverage and, we combined, had 10,000 data points of what consumers wanted and what was missing from the market. So we decided on aguas frescas, but with what we knew people wanted: a low sugar and low calorie version.

For those who don’t know, what's the difference between aguas frescas and regular juice or natural juices?
PonTell: We're about 50% juice in our blends paired with that refreshing mouth feel of drinking light water. And we really wanted to be as true to tradition as possible in that way, which is also why we're not carbonated even though we're cans. That's something that we get asked by a lot of people expecting bubbles. But for us, that's just an eco-friendly play, and making sure that we can support the environment, but still being non carbonated because you don't go to la taquería and get carbonated agua fresca.

Castañeda: Yeah, traditional agua fresca is water, sugar and fruits. We cut out the sugar in our blends and that's really the big difference between us and traditional aguas frescas.

How did you decide on Agua Bonita as a name?
Castañeda: Well, partly because we are in such an American market, agua and bonita are obviously two of the most well-known Spanish words. So we really doubled down in that way that even if you don't speak Spanish, you would still understand what we're talking about in theory. But then also it was a little bit of play on words and nod to our past of rescuing ugly produce, but giving this produce a really beautiful new life. That was also a consideration when deciding on Bonita.

You guys mentioned that you were inspired by perfectly delicious fresh produce that would otherwise go two waste. Why is sustainability important to you and your brand?
Castañeda: For me, it was just always a practice in our family out of necessity. Now as an adult, it's really taking those same practices into my own home. Being able to mirror them in a professional capacity with the project that we're working on was very meaningful for us. Just knowing that the products that we're making are not just for consumerism, it's to actually help this overarching goal of making our food supply chain more eco-friendly and just better for everyone that's involved with it.

PonTell: 30% of produce grown is thrown directly away just because either there's too much of it or it's the wrong shape, size or color, which is horrifying. The more I dug into food waste and that problem over the past few years, the more it really spoke to me. I wanted to do something for sure that impacted that, no matter what my next journey [was].

Design by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist

Right now you have two different flavors, can you talk about how you came up with them and what that process is like?
Castañeda: They started in my kitchen! For the watermelon chile one in particular, I knew that I really wanted to do something spicy just because I love Tajín. I will literally put Tajín on everything. And so watermelon chile just felt very nostalgic for me and really just a part of our culture at large. The cucumber pineapple has gone through a couple of different iterations. We started knowing that we really wanted to bring these cultural flavors into it. At first we used coconut water to try to keep the sugar content down, but still have some natural sweetness, but that was very polarizing for folks. So we asked people what they would want and pineapple was a resounding suggestion. So we reformulated that one to be pineapple cucumber. I think it's a little bit of both taking inspiration from our own kitchens and things that we love in our culture and making them at a commercial scale and also listening to our customers and making sure that we're giving them something that they will really enjoy.

PonTell: We built this brand with a bunch of data points, but also we're very active on social media and engage with our consumers a lot. As Kayla mentioned, we went through a few iterations before we released our first batch. Actually, the watermelon chile one, we wanted it to be well liked so it wasn't super spicy in the beginning and across the board everybody said make it spicier, make it spicier. So we made it spicier. There's definitely a kick, but people love it.

Where do you see Agua Bonita in the future?
PonTell: We have a few new flavors that are coming out soon—[one of them is] a spicy mango. So yeah, a few more flavors and then wine extensions is the dream. And also I think just providing people with a fun non-alcoholic beverage experience, that's good for you. The aguas frescas you can get at Chipotle have 79 grams of sugar per serving, which is more than a soda and is just horrible for people. And I think sugar in general is a huge problem. So we're just trying to address that. Get a healthy option in people's hands and give people a drink they can feel good about, that's good for them and good for the planet because every can of our drink that people purchase is actually net positive for the planet since we're rescuing produce and offsetting carbon emissions.

Besides Agua Bonita, what are some of your favorite beverages—alcoholic or non-alcoholic?
PonTell: I am a huge beverage fan. I think probably 70% of my calories every day come from beverages not food. I'm a big coffee fan. Philz Coffee is my favorite brand if I had to choose, but just any iced coffee. Champagne is my favorite alcoholic drink. I could drink champagne every day if it would not be a problem, but I save it for special occasions. I actually am a big Spindrift fan. I like that they also use real fruit in their products. I'm a big fan of anybody who's using real anything and not chemicals.

Castañeda: I like coffee as well. I'm always a fan of craft batches and whatnot. When it comes to alcoholic drinks, pretty much anything with tequila or mezcal. I'm not a huge fan of carbonated drinks in general but I will say one seltzer, it's really the only seltzer that I've found that I actually really, really like, they're called Something and Nothing. They have some really great cucumber ones and they started in the UK and are now coming to the US a little bit more. So they're kind of a hard to find thing. But if you can find them, they're really great. Also, micheladas! Anything spicy is up my alley.

Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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