Sanzo Founder Sandro Roco on Culture, Community, and Calamansi

Last Update: February 17, 2023

When Sandro Roco set out to create a beverage brand, he took inspiration from many places — some more surprising than others. Sanzo sparkling water is flavored with the Asian fruits Roco grew up eating, like calamansi and lychee. But the undeniably cool, colorful brand also takes cues from recent pop culture phenomena, like K-pop music, Squid Game, and actress Awkwafina (who stars in the new Marvel movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and lends her face to special-edition Sanzo cans).

Roco is excited about this particular moment in American history, when the interest in Asian-American brands, stories, and art is expanding like never before. Even the natural food and beverage industry is evolving to include more diverse products (and, more importantly, more diverse brand founders). “It would have been tough for someone not of this community to launch this brand,” he says.

Roco took the tried-and-true canned sparkling water concept and added pure fruit juice, using primarily fruits that are typically popular in Asian countries — the fruits Roco, a Filipino-American, grew up eating with his family — to create something wholly unique, yet aptly on-trend. 

“The simplicity of our brand offering is what I believe has resonated with folks,”Roco says. “Yes, we’re an Asian-inspired brand, but hopefully even if you’ve never heard of a calamansi or a lychee, you maybe pick it up because it’s a cool-looking can, but you like it and keep drinking it because it tastes really good, not just because it’s Asian. You can make your decision there if you want to enjoy it for what it is, or if you want to go further down the rabbit hole.”

The Sanzo Story

“Though the first Filipino immigrants arrived in the United States in 1587, Asian-American story in America is still quite young and new,” Roco says. The first significant modern wave of Filipino immigrants started arriving in America in the mid-1960s, and Roco’s own parents immigrated from the Philippines to the US in the mid-1980s.

Growing up, Roco and his family would often visit family in the Philippines, and it was there that he first experienced calamansi-infused beverages, most traditionally served as a type of limeade. “To me, it’s one of the best citrus fruits that exists.” Once he realized that many people weren’t familiar with the fruit (which he describes as “kind of a hybrid of an orange, a lime, and a tangerine”), the idea for a beverage brand started to blossom.

Roco himself did not come up in the food and beverage world; aside from working as a delivery driver in high school, he has virtually no experience in the industry. He describes his early career as “all over the map”, graduating college and working as a chemical engineer at a nuclear power plant, then in investment banking, then heading up growth at an apparel startup.

The idea for Sanzo came in 2018, and by the following March Roco left his job to pursue it full time. He spent that interim year learning about the “nitty gritty” of manufacturing a beverage, and the brand put out its first production run in the summer of 2019.

There was a nearly immediate buzz around Sanzo from day one, which Roco credits in large part to the demand for healthier, more natural products in the Asian food space. He references the rising popularity of brands like Fly by Jing and Siete Family Foods as a sort of case study for this new wave of hip, modern multicultural food brands (and an exciting demand for them). And so far, he’s seen the same type of excitement from consumers since launching Sanzo. “Being in the market for such a short period of time but seeing the sales velocity that we’re seeing, how the brand is resonating, suggests that there’s a bigger demand than we even thought — not just across Asian-American consumers, but the broader American populace as well.”

Asian-Inspired Flavors, Natural Ingredients

While Roco believes that there has always been a desire for simpler, organic products in Asian grocery stores, things like shelf life and cost were prohibitive, leading to products with long ingredient lists filled with artificial ingredients. There have been some systemic reasons why a brand like Sanzo hasn’t been on the market yet,” he muses. “The Asian/Asian-American population hadn’t reached critical mass and our status in this country as a silent “model” minority group has, in my opinion, kept us from being able to rise into positions of leadership, particularly in the food and beverage industry, where we can make these changes.

But we’re living through a sea change now, and with that sea change is now more opportunity for brands like Sanzo to not just exist but thrive.”

In Roco’s eyes, those cultural factors have just as much to do with popular culture as a whole as they do with food. The demand for Asian-American movies, music, and television play into the demand for Asian-inspired foods, and it all creates a larger opportunity for more diversity across the map. “I think of Sanzo as an evolution of what’s been happening in [pop] culture over the last couple of decades,” he says. “And especially to Asian or Asian-American culture in the last couple of years.”

Sanzo prioritizes short ingredient lists (in fact, there are just two ingredients in each can: sparkling water and fruit puree) in order to fill this gap in the market. For some — like Roco — the flavors may be familiar fruits that make you think of childhood. But for others, the flavors may be entirely unheard of, which is also quite exciting. 

“Our mission is to bridge cultures by connecting people with authentic flavors,” Sandro says of Sanzo. “There’s certainly a lot of value and virtue in being ‘for the community, by the community’, and it’s super important to have that support in an authentic way. But it’s equally important to our mission that we step outside of our comfort zone and meet people where they are.

Simple Sparkling Water Cocktails with Sanzo

“If you think about it, any can of Sanzo is already two thirds of the way to a cocktail,” Roco says. “You have the sparkling water and the real fruit juice in it, so you could just add the liquor and you’re good to go.” The uniquely juicy flavor of a can of Sanzo — thanks to real fruit juice instead of subtle, so-called natural flavoring — makes them the perfect all-in-one starter for a seriously tasty cocktail.

We asked Roco to share some quick and easy tips for pairing Sanzo sparking waters with your favorite libations.

Sanzo Calamansi + Tequila

“Being that it’s a lime varietal, anything that you would make with a lime would go really well. I would do something as simple as a tequila and soda, a margarita—just use this instead.”

Sanzo Lychee + Gin

“Lychee pairs well with gin and some kind of herbal. Try it with mint, or you could go a rosemary route.”

Sanzo Mango + Vodka or Tequila

“For the mango, you could make margaritas, mango mojitos, things like that.”

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Amy Roberts

Amy Roberts is Thrive Market's Senior Editorial Writer. She is based in Los Angeles via Pittsburgh, PA.

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