In 1895, entrepreneur C.W. Post was "a sick man," according to a 1913 issue of Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record.
In a revelation that is not unfamiliar to today's consumer, he found that his poor health stemmed from what he ate and drank. The primary culprit, he felt, was the caffeine in coffee — so he created a caffeine-free substitute made of roasted grain and molasses. Named Postum, it was the first blockbuster success for the company that became General Foods, which eventually became acquired by Kraft.
While Postum was a success in the early 20th century —- especially during World War II when coffee was rationed — its popularity waned as consumers became more interested in coffeehouses and other hot beverages. Kraft stopped making the drink in 2007 because demand was so low, company spokeswoman Rene Zahery told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2008.
But Postum's not dead. This September, June and Dayle Rust of Eliza's Quest Foods — the company they founded in 2012 for the sole purpose of bringing Postum back — manned a booth at Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore. And they heard the same refrain throughout the show.
"Oh my gosh! I used to drink this with my grandmother!" a man exclaimed, picking up a can of the drink mix. "I haven’t seen this in years!"
June Rust smiled and handed him a small cup of the hot beverage.
"Every day on Facebook, on Twitter, Instagram or on our website contact page, people are saying, 'I can't believe it's still here,'" she told Food Dive, recounting the story of a consumer who gave a jar to her father, which made him cry. "So many people still wanted it, and they didn't think they could get it anymore."
In about six years, nostalgia has turned into sales for the startup. June Rust said that the company has sold about $4 million since 2012. Each year, she said, sales have increased by about 20%.
The Rusts, who are educators from North Carolina, had no prior experience in the food business, but they loved drinking Postum. As Mormons, they do not drink caffeine and were scrambling for a substitute when the beverage was taken off the market. When Indulgent Foods, which had bought the beverage recipe from Kraft, decided to sell, June Rust founded her company, bought the manufacturing rights and was in business making Postum using the original recipe. Dayle Rust said they started selling the beverage mix online after making it in their garage and worked to scale up to mass production.
"It's just kind of a labor of love," Dayle Rust said. "We both grew up drinking Postum."
"Every day on Facebook, on Twitter, Instagram or on our website contact page, people are saying, 'I can't believe it's still here.' So many people still wanted it, and they didn't think they could get it anymore."
CEO, Eliza's Quest Foods
Since launching the company, the drink has taken off. The beverage mix, which comes in jars and single-serve packets, has three flavors: original, coffee and cocoa. It is currently sold at hundreds of grocery stores nationwide, including large chains like Kroger, Walmart, Albertsons, H-E-B, Ingles and Natural Grocers. It also is available on their website.
The Postum product lineup of today is larger than that available to consumers decades ago. The cocoa-flavored product was never on the market; June Rust created and added it when she heard that people were adding chocolate to the beverage. That's not the only innovation on tap for the brand. She said she hopes to add a premixed ready-to-drink variety to the lineup in the future.
The drink is especially popular among Mormons and Seventh-day Adventists, both of which believe caffeine is addictive and unhealthy. Marketing and retail for the product is heavily targeted toward those religious communities. Dayle Rust estimated that 15% to 20% of all sales come from Utah.
The rest, they said, come from throughout the nation. In-depth research into Google searches for the product and social media sentiment helped inform their digital branding campaign as the hot beverage with warm memories.
"It's always been marketed as healthy and good for you, but people forget that it tastes really good."
CEO, Eliza's Quest Foods
"Those are the words people actually use: 'Warm memories of when I was a child,'" June Rust said.
But what about the people who don't have warm memories of Postum? Is the brand just something that consumers associate with days in years past with older relatives? How can it grow — especially as millennials become a larger proportion of all consumers?
The Rusts say they aren't too concerned. The brand is active on social media, and they are working to make inroads with even the youngest consumers. One set of parents told the Rusts that their toddler starts out the morning by fetching the Postum jar. Millennials and Gen Zers in faith communities who don't drink caffeine are also fans.
"It's always been marketed as healthy and good for you, but people forget that it tastes really good," June Rust said.
And with so many consumers putting a priority on better-for-you food and drink nowadays, Postum has the distinct advantage of being one of the first items in that space.
To extend the better-for-you perception, June Rust said the product formulation was tweaked to make sure it could be Non-GMO Project verified. The original formulation used maltodextrin, which is currently genetically modified. June Rust said she worked with their manufacturers to replace it with a non-GMO wheat starch.
June Rust said she's been approached by other companies who are interested in buying the brand, but they've mostly been venture capitalist firms. There has been no M&A interest from Big Food — though plenty of people who worked with the brand back when it was with larger companies have told her they are excited to see Postum's return.
At some point, June Rust said she hopes to sell the company in order to keep Postum production going, especially because she thinks her adult children are not interested in the business. But a huge exit or interest from Big Food is not the end goal.
"My long-term goal is to be able to have Postum in all grocery stores in the U.S. and Canada, like it once was back in the day," she said.