On the first day of the fall 2009 semester, dozens of University of Virginia students trickled into a lecture hall for a Calculus III course, dividing their focus between partial derivatives and multiple integrals. Among them were freshmen Sean Ro and Kevin Wong, who would soon become best friends, and a decade later, the cofounders of Lunar Hard Seltzer.
“Not much good came out of that class,” Ro, 33, recently told Fortune. “But we did meet each other.”
In 2021, the pair launched Lunar, a local craft hard seltzer made with real fruit from Asia, designed to be “sweet, but not too sweet.” What began in 2019 as a home-brewing project in a 400-square-foot studio apartment in New York’s East Village neighborhood is now a multimillion-dollar business. Lunar’s four flavors—lychee, yuzu, plum, and passionfruit—are sold at retailers including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Target throughout New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and California.
Within three years, Lunar has generated lifetime revenue of over $1 million—but it took a stint at JPMorgan, a close call with mercury poisoning, and a mother’s approval to get there.
After graduating from UVA in 2013, Ro pursued a master’s degree in Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon University. “I wasn’t quite ready to be an adult just yet,” he says. He then relocated to New York and began working at startups, most recently making a yearly salary of $130,000 as a product manager at Prescriptive Data. Wong, 32, kicked off his career as an investment banker at JPMorgan, then pivoted to the tech industry. In his most recent role outside Lunar, he served as the director of Corporate Strategy at Yext, making over $200,000 per year.
On one fateful evening in February 2019, over a dinner of fried chicken in New York’s Koreatown, Ro and Wong were discussing the recent boom in Asian American representation in pop culture—from the film Crazy Rich Asians to the record label 88rising. They began discussing other industries in which they would love to see representation.
“As we were about to order our next drink on the beer menu, we saw that gap between the foreign imports and the domestic White Claws, Trulys, and beers,” Ro said, describing their light-bulb moment. “That’s when we knew exactly where we wanted to be.”
In 2019, months before the great White Claw shortage, Ro and Wong began home-brewing out of their apartments—following the sage wisdom of Reddit threads and YouTube tutorials.
“Our landlords definitely did not know that we were making ‘moonshine,’ or home-brewing alcohol,” Ro says. “But I believe it’s not illegal to make for your own consumption, as long as you’re not selling it out of your apartment.”
While brainstorming flavors they wanted to share with the world, the pair naturally drew inspiration from their childhoods—for Ro, yuzu and plum were familiar flavors in his Korean family, and for Wong, lychee and passionfruit were representative of the summers he’d spent visiting his grandparents in Taiwan.
To find the perfect flavors, they would buy fruit and juice from local grocery stores, as well as bringing them back from their trips to Asia—cutting the fruit up to disguise them as airplane snacks and sidestep customs declarations.
Their brews would take two to three weeks at a time, culminating in two years of research and development. Ro recalls one incident where he used a hydrometer to stir the seltzer—but did so too aggressively. The hydrometer shattered, filling the brew with glass and mercury beads. “Kevin was like, ‘Yo, what did you do in there?’” Ro recalled.
With the mercurial brew down the drain, Ro and Wong began hosting tasting parties with close friends, colleagues, and friends of friends at their apartments, serving the hard seltzer out of kegs “in a very non-shady way,” Ro insists. They asked their guests to fill out surveys: Can you guess what this flavor is? How do you like it? What would you rate it on a scale of one to five? What would you change about it?
After hosting about 100 people across several tasting parties, Ro and Wong were able to narrow down the four final flavors. They then taste tested hundreds of slightly different formulations, and to avoid hangovers, would slosh the concoctions around their mouths before spitting them out—the sommelier way.
However, the partners needed extra help to nail down the final Korean plum formulation, so they called in reinforcements: Ro’s mother. During a trip home to Northern Virginia over the Christmas holiday in 2020, Ro laid out five slightly different variations of Lunar’s Korean plum flavor. “Mom, I need your help to figure out which one’s the one,” he said.
She went down the line and tested each formulation. “She was very critical, as an Asian mother would be,” Ro said, but she settled on her favorite.
“The one she chose was the one that we went with,” Ro says. “And that’s still our formulation today.”
The initial batches of Lunar sold out immediately and went viral on social media. “We thought that was enough of a signal from the market to be like, okay, we’re really onto something,” Ro says. “I think it’s time to kick things up a notch.”
They bootstrapped the business with more than $100,000 of their own savings, then kicked off a friends and family funding round and several pre-seed rounds. In 2021, after two years of spending their mornings, nights, and weekends crafting the perfect brews while still working at their 9-to-5s, Ro and Wong decided to quit their jobs to go all-in on their seltzer brand.
They began “pounding pavement here in New York,” Ro says. He and Wong would carry samples in their backpacks and visit potential customers throughout the city, starting with local Asian-American restaurants and grocery stores.
“It’s really just building the relationship,” Ro says. “Because you’re not the first new brand to come up to them to say, ‘Hey, I have this amazing thing that’s the best thing since sliced bread.’ And you certainly won’t be the last.”
Trading with Joe
Call it fate, call it well-timed eavesdropping. Wong was shopping at the Trader Joe’s in Long Island City in 2022 when he overheard staff members raving about Lunar. After checking out, Everything But the Bagel seasoning in hand, he went over and introduced himself as the cofounder behind the brand.
The staff members yanked the store’s manager over and urged him to carry the product in store. About three weeks later, in March 2022, Lunar was on shelves at every Trader Joe’s location in New York City. “[Our distributors] say it was the fastest they had ever seen from first contact to the shelf for a major retailer,” Ro says. (Trader Joe’s declined to comment on specific sales data.)
“We were selling multiple pallets at our peak per store in a given month,” Ro says. “We were quite literally flying off the shelves.”
Lunar then flew onto the shelves of even more retailers in New York—it entered Whole Foods and BJ’s Wholesale Club in 2022, and Costco, 99 Ranch, and Target in 2023.
Lunar is now available in four states and has sold over one million cans, but it’s only a three-employee operation—the cofounders included—with a rotation of contractors. They’ve since upgraded from brewing in their apartments.
“We have long been producing our product in a licensed professional food safety graded facility in upstate New York, made with the Hudson Valley’s freshest waters,” Ro says. They source fruit from across Asia—yuzu from Japan, lychee from Thailand, and plum from South Korea. Ro says they are currently laboring in the Lunar lab, working on a line of boozy fruit teas inspired by boba culture.
Named New York’s second-fastest growing hard seltzer brand by Nielsen in 2023, Lunar is on the rise—but don’t count on Ro and Wong to celebrate with their own supply.
“I drink far less than I used to since starting this business, but I think it’s because I started a business, period.”