When Patrick Whitner and Rany Bochi met at age 11 at an IMG Academy summer camp in 2001 and then later became IMG roommates, they never envisioned they’d become business partners. But five years ago, the pair started Sunny Culture, a company that makes a probiotic drink from water kefir that’s now sold at Whole Foods Market and at farmers markets.
Whitner and Bochi were tennis players at IMG and then both went to different colleges after graduating. Bochi took an interest in health and entered chiropractic holistic medical school. Whitner returned to Florida to run his family’s real estate business.
Bochi had always dealt with personal digestive issues like acid reflux and IBS, and his dad suffered from a brain deterioration that doctors misdiagnosed as dementia, so he began to research the connection between gut and brain health. The benefits of probiotics in digestive and brain health were prominent. So Bochi began to experiment by fermenting his own drink made with water kefir, which is filled with probiotics, and began drinking the concoction daily. “My stomach issues went away,” he says.
Whitner tried the light, tangy drink and also felt less bloated and sluggish after meals. He even went gluten and dairy free as a result. This is great, they thought. Why not make it and sell it?
The pair started Healthy Licking Foods LLC in 2016 with $500 and began to manufacture the Sunny Culture probiotic drink. They rented space in a commercial kitchen for a few hundred dollars a month and then started selling their drinks, wearing their trademark yellow sun suits, at farmers markets in the Tampa Bay area. At their first market, which Whitner and Bochi admit they weren’t prepared for (“We didn’t even have cups,” says Bochi) they sold out of products.
Like kombucha, water kefir begins as good bacteria in a jar. Kombucha’s bacteria, called the “mother,” feed off green or black tea and sugar to create the fermented drink. Water kefir’s bacteria, commonly called grains, feed off sugar and water, making the drink naturally caffeine-free and without the vinegar bite kombucha has. It’s also dairy-free, plant-based and contains 15 different probiotic strains and millions of active bacteria per bottle. Studies say they are beneficial to the gut, boosting immunity, digestion and mental clarity.
Unlike kombucha, which is so acidic it can only be enjoyed in one four- to eight-ounce serving per day, Sunny Culture’s probiotic drinks can be enjoyed multiple times per day. The company’s 16-ounce bottle is “like taking a probiotic capsule every day,” Bochi says.
Sunny Culture produces organic, small batches of water kefir two to three times a week to keep the drink fresh. The company also sells its product at Sarasota Whole Foods locations in the refrigerated tea and water sections. Flavors include hibiscus, lavender, ginger, elderberry and turmeric.
The partners can sound a little “woo woo” about Sunny Culture, but their cheery enthusiasm matches their yellow suits. “The true mission behind selling this drink is stimulating the culture, letting humanity shine through, stepping up and being a movement louder than the negative things going on in our world,” says Whitner. “We want to simplify and bring joy to the wellness journey for people.”