Pzaz's Jonah Reider
Chef and culinary entrepreneur Jonah Reider talks about switching gears from cooking, relishing the small wins, and keeping a sense of optimism.
If there's one thing Jonah Reider loves more than food, it's a new project. Over the past decade, Reider has worked as a chef and culinary expert across food spaces—from cooking pop-ups to a column for Food & Wine to his intimate Pith Supper Club, which he expanded on with a line of jams, spices, and pantry staples during the pandemic. The lockdown also allowed Reider to hit reset and, like many others, consider what's next. "When I started cooking and doing culinary work professionally, I was studying economics in school. I've always struggled to reconcile those two interests of mine," says the 28-year-old, who eventually took a leap of faith in an unexpected direction for his latest venture.
This summer, Reider launched Pzaz, an energy mist in the form of flavored breath sprays concocted using plant-based caffeine, electrolytes, and vitamins. Designed to energize without the crash that comes with normal caffeine, Pzaz is adding to the mix of energy drinks and products found in New York bodegas and, as of this week, 130 Urban Outfitters stores across the country. Here, Reider lets us in on finding new momentum outside of food and building a business unlike anything he has done before.
Q. Cooking and food has been your career focus up until now, and Pzaz is a total 180. What prompted that?
A. A lot of what I like about food and beverage is how a really good meal is something you have to just be there for. It's so experiential, it's so ephemeral, and that's what makes it very satisfying. I was struggling to reconcile this passion with a desire to cut my teeth on a scalable business venture… to build something that could sell to a lot of people and impact people's lives. And so this project came to be after constantly thinking about this and watching a lot of people I respect and admire start to do that and commercialize an interest in food and beverage in their own way. I started to get excited about applying some of the things I've learned about flavor and brand and experience. I was looking at a lot of bodegas in New York. I was also thinking about growing up in the suburbs and how frequently we would stop at a gas station to pick up drinks and snacks and gum, and how much it was in my day-to-day life, going after school or before a party with friends. And then that kind of led me to this obsession with the energy category.
Q. Pzaz is a unique product in what you’ve called a non-competitive industry. What’s the biggest challenge for you right now?
A. Energy in general is a huge industry and growing. But I became increasingly excited about the opportunity in what I would call instant and portable energy. Outside of, you know, coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, what have you. How and where are people, including myself, powering up in moments throughout their day? That's where I saw a huge opportunity with very few other players in the space—and those that were being 20 years old and not very resonant brands or products. But in terms of challenges right now… there’s a lot around educating consumers and retailers on this new form factor: Why a breath spray, why do we need a breath spray that has caffeine, why a functional breath spray, how do I use it, when do I use it, why do I use it? Of which there are many obvious answers for once you've tried the product and have it in your pocket or your purse. But that's certainly a challenge for us.
Q. It’s often one step forward, two steps back with any new business. How do you deal with setbacks?
A. I do have this super persistent sense of optimism about what I'm building where, even when the formula tasted absolutely terrible and we would make a small improvement, I would be super excited. I’d go out and tell people to see if it tastes 10 times better than before. They’d taste it and say, “It still tastes pretty bad to me.” And I would go back and go through the process again. It’s a devastating amount of work to build a formulation. And every run, redo improves, and I guess that's what kept me going. So I think part of it is celebrating really small wins and feeling good about small improvements and constantly looking towards the next optimization, the next improvement. Formulation was an extraordinary challenge, and in the last couple of weeks, I’m finally feeling amazingly good about it.
Q. What have been some recent small wins?
A. We launched at Urban Outfitters so that's been a huge win for me. It’s absolutely dope to see the whole country getting that stuff across all of these stores. It's also going to be a first exciting opportunity to see how people will engage with this and what feedback we can collect and how this will do. It feels like a really meaningful win for the whole team that's been working on this so hard, and it lays the groundwork for everything to come, which is bringing this to nearly every retailer.
Q. You’ve turned several passions into businesses. What’s been key to making that happen for you?
A. A ludicrous amount of the sort of borderline delusional self-confidence that anyone must have to push forward an idea they have into reality. It's funny because all of my cooking stuff are things I've been doing my whole life that just kind of turned into outward facing projects. The home goods, I have been doing it for years, but it was during the pandemic when my wife and I started selling all this stuff in our pantry that we already cooked with every day.
Q. What’s the big lesson so far?
A. It's incredibly hard to bring a product to life—to develop it, have it made, and get people excited about buying and selling it. The people who succeed in it have an enduring sense of focus and optimism around what they're doing and a deep conviction in the value of what they're making—that the world needs what they're making.
"It's celebrating really small wins and feeling good about small improvements and constantly looking towards the next optimization, the next improvement."
Interview and photography by The Malin Journal