VALLEY CITY, N.D.—John Stearns figured he could improve on other products on the market.
Now, the coffee-based tobacco cessation line he and a friend launched this summer is catching on across the country.
Java Chews launched in June, a result of more than a year of brainstorming and preparations. It also took some time to find an American factory that could keep up with manufacturing the flavored pouches that people can use to replicate the sensation of chewing tobacco pouches without nicotine or tobacco.
Stearns said he and co-owner Ryan Botner were optimistic it could work, but the brand's growth has outpaced their wildest expectations.
Tins of 15 pouches that retail for $3.99 were in 10 states just a couple weeks after launch. Stearns said it's now sold at about 2,000 stores in 35 states.
The new brand is lining up deals with other companies, including a 550-store convenience store chain throughout the Upper Midwest. By the end of 2018, Stearns said Java Chews could sell 2 million cans and get its store count up to 20,000.
"I think we could do more than that, but my goal is 2 million cans," he said.
Stearns' background helped prepare him to make Java Chews widely available, but it also showed him a possible need for the product itself.
He's owned Valley City-based J&S Marketing for about 18 years, a company that distributes products to convenience stores and truck stops throughout North Dakota and South Dakota, as well as portions of Minnesota and Montana.
One of those lines was a coffee-based chewing tobacco alternative made in Denmark. Stearns, a chewer himself for more than 30 years, said it wasn't quite up to snuff.
"I thought we could do it a lot better," he said.
One of the big differentiators he had in mind was making the product in America.
Stearns, a Valley City native, pitched the idea to Botner, a longtime Fargo resident who he got to know years ago when Botner coached his son's baseball team. He said the two had talked about pursuing a business venture together, and Java Chews seemed like a good fit.
But they had to get through "serious roadblocks" first, especially trying to find an American factory that could keep up with production. They made an agreement with a facility in the southeastern U.S. in August 2016, and Java Chews was rolled out in June.
Things grew slowly at first, according to Stearns. He said the company has achieved some "big breakthroughs" in the past month that could help it make its ambitious 2018 goals.
Stearns said he's learned to focus on weekly quotas rather than a yearly goal to keep things in perspective. To get from 2,000 stores to 20,000, he'll have to add 300 stores each week next year, and he'll need to sell 38,000 cans per week to reach 2 million sold.
He said Java Chews is catching on in Alabama and Georgia where more than 400 stores now carry the product. The brand is also big in Wisconsin, he said, and it's available at retailers across the Dakotas and Minnesota.
The product is sold at several stores in Fargo-Moorhead, including Don's Car Washes in Fargo, Red Carpet in Fargo and West Fargo, Petro Travel Center in Fargo, M&H and Orton's in Moorhead and RJ's Tesoro & Truck Stop in West Fargo. Bottle Barn and Happy Harry's Bottle Shop locations also stock cans.
While the product mostly appeals to current or former chewing tobacco users, Stearns said some smokers and coffee drinkers have also started using it. With about the same amount of caffeine per pouch as a quarter cup of coffee, some truckers have told him they prefer Java Chews instead of chugging coffee.
There are four flavors now—caramel, mocha, French vanilla and wintergreen—and two more will launch next year.
Stearns said he'd like to get Java Chews into every store that also sells cigarettes or chewing tobacco.
"We're going to need the sales to stay strong enough on it to warrant the shelf space," he said.
What: Java Chews
Where: 1025 Four Bottle Drive, Valley City, N.D. (headquarters and distribution center)
Phone: (701) 490-3600