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Former Titan Living the Sweet Life

Alumni Johnny Wang transitions from tennis to entrepreneurship with new venture.

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Johnny Wang's new business features sugar cane in its products.

Johnny Wang's new business features sugar cane in its products.

Juliana Judge

Juliana Judge

Johnny Wang's new business features sugar cane in its products.

Juliana Judge, Reporter

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The machine sits up against the glass partition on the front counter, its inner workings clearly visible to customers through its clear housing. Employees push long stalks of peeled sugarcane into the machine’s turning wheels, which then emerge as dry, pressed flat fibers from one end, and the cloudy and sweet sugarcane juice trickling steadily out of a different spout.

The setup is the perfect demonstration of this new business’ emphasis on transparency.

The business is San Marino High School graduate Johnny Wang’s brand-new enterprise, KoJuice. Wang graduated from San Marino High School in 2011.

“Ko actually means sugarcane in Hawaiian,” Wang says, “and it’s got a little story behind it. Today most sugar is made from sugar beets, and the last sugarcane plantation in Hawaii closed down about two years ago. So we’re kind of carrying that on.”

Along with his partners Brendon Wong (also a fellow Titan alumni) and Steven Kwon, Wang opened his shop in Old Town Pasadena last month, and already the business has seen brisk foot traffic.

Wang credits Wong for the idea of opening a shop that features products that have sugar cane juice as an ingredient.

Wong first tasted the ingredient as a child when his grandmother would use juice from cane stalks she grew in her backyard in a soup she would make, Wong said. But the first time he tasted it as a sweetener was a game changer, he added.

“I was 14 years old, and I was in Hong Kong,” Wong said. “It was amazing.”

Wong then pitched the idea to “westernize” the product, he said.

The team hopes to create a franchise and means to open up a new shop in 4-6 months.

When asked if that kind of quick expansion is typical, Wang laughs.

“It is not,” he confesses.  “But if you do the expected thing, you get the expected result.”

Pasadena has a lot of good foot traffic, and that’s why the three entrepreneurs chose the location for his enterprise, Wang said. Foot traffic isn’t his only advantage in a market that is already drenched with juice and tea shops. Sugarcane juices are popular in Southeast Asia, but there are only a few stores currently open on the West Coast.

“The market isn’t saturated yet,” Wang says, “and I wanted to open something focused on healthy choices. That’s always been important to me because I was a college athlete.”

Modestly, Wang understates his achievements.

After lettering four years in tennis as a Titan, Johnny was good enough to play for the University of Southern California, which boasted one of the the top tennis programs in the nation when he was on the squad.

In 2012 and 2014, USC won The National Championship. By his senior year, Wang was ranked in the top ten of all collegiate tennis players in the nation.

“I definitely learned a lot from tennis,” he says. “Even when it got hard, I had to keep going. Every time you make a shot you have to make a decision based on the circumstances. And that’s definitely something that has helped me in business.”

After college, Wang played professionally for just half a year before changing his career.

“It was just different without the team aspect,” he admitted.

Aided by his degree in business, he worked in real estate for two years.

“My parents did real estate,” he explained. “So it’s very familiar to me.”

During those two years, he met Kwon who was also a real estate agent. Both of them teamed up with Wong, the Titan alumni, and the three came up with the idea of opening up the business.

Wang was once again part of a team.

In addition to coming up with the idea to feature sugar cane juice, Wong, Wang’s friend since middle school, is the graphic designer responsible for the bright, modern, and natural atmosphere in KoJuice.

For a year, the trio figured out how to procure organic sugarcane (a plantation in Mexico), extract the juice (using wheels to crush the stalks), and get the extraction machines certified (with great difficulty).

“We do a lot of a taste tests,” Wang says, gesturing at a neat and attractive menu on the wall–some more work from Wong. “We’re continuously experimenting [with ingredients].”

Right now, the menu subsists of mainly fruity juices and smoothies, a matcha drink, and a coffee, all sweetened with sugarcane juice. In the works are adding more healthy snacks to the menu, and drink toppings like grass jelly and basil seeds. Not only is the trio always looking for new drink possibilities, but they also plan to release some specials, like hot chocolate or other seasonal drinks.

An oversaturated juice-shop market will not be a deterrent of success for Wang, said his former English teacher (now retired), Mrs. Patricia Smith, who taught Wang when he was a junior.

“I realize the competition is stiff these days,” Smith said, “but Johnny loves a challenge, puts in long hours to accomplish his goals, and is extremely reliable about getting work done, and on time. I saw this in his English assignments, which were consistently well done and always on time.”

Wang considered taking this unconventional path for a while.

“I always kind of wanted to start my own business,” he says, and then he offers some advice to current Titans who are considering starting their own business in the future.

“Make something new,” he says. “Just be innovative. Don’t try to copy someone else. If you do copy something,” he adds jokingly, “make it much better.”

 

 

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