Story by STACIE STUKIN Photographs by JONAS JUNGBLUT Grooming by EMILY MOSES
High up in the hills of the Beverly Hills enclave called Trousdale Estates, two stark, white multi-million-dollar compounds sit side by side. One is the home of GT Dave, 41, the founder of GT’s Living Foods brand, the other he calls his “playhouse.” As I enter, I’m instructed about the house no-shoe policy and I watch the staff scurry about wearing medical-grade booties as they scrub non-existent dirt off gleaming white floors and surfaces.
I slip on my own booties, marvel at the rare, panoramic view of the City of Angels, and name check a couple of the big-name, museum-quality artists, like Ed Ruscha and Donald Judd, exhibited in his gallery-style home. The sense of order and non-adornment that surrounds me renders the adjective minimal inadequate. Dave (the GT stands for George Thomas), has not yet appeared but once he does, it’s even more clear that probiotic, living foods are a profitable endeavor that has afforded Dave luxuries like white patent leather, silver-studded Christian Louboutin dress shoes, a wardrobe comprised mostly of Alexander McQueen, and hands that are only graced with Cartier jewelry (today’s selection is platinum with diamonds) and Rolex watches.
But once I meet Dave, despite the military precision of his rolled-up sleeves, his perfectly coifed hair, and his sculpted biceps, he is open and amiable, like a book that piques your curiosity. He will tell you the story of his conception (it involves his mother in the Lotus pose), that as a gay teenager he felt like an outsider, that he’s getting married in Kauai and he and his partner have already chosen the egg donor (they met her in a yoga class) for their future baby. He is also unabashedly confident, an attribute that is both infectious (you can’t help but root for his continued success) and the gift that kombucha gave him.
The story of GT’s Living Foods is also the story of Dave’s family. His parents are seekers who raised their children as vegetarians and follow the teachings of guru Sathya Sai Baba. They took their kids to Baba’s ashram in India, taught them about meditation, karma, gratitude, and the importance of doing things with intention. They also took them to church and enrolled them in Catholic Sunday school. That duality instilled a pan-spirituality that Dave continues to rely on for grounding and inspiration.
“It was urine colored, smelled like vinegar, and had something floating in it, but I figured wecould be weird together.“
But it was their discovery of kombucha in the early 1990s that changed everything for Dave and his family. The story goes like this: Dave’s mom Laraine got diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer; Dave’s dad had been making kombucha at home using a starter acquired from a Buddhist nun who brought it from the Himalayas; Laraine drank lots of it and its immune boosting qualities helped her during her recovery.
“I must say, I think everything happens for a reason,” Dave says. “For the first 15 years of my life I tried to hide who I was and tried to be like everyone else. And that didn’t get me very far. In fact, it got me ridiculed, bullied, and pushed out. But when I found kombucha and decided to start selling it, it was a weird product in a world that was full of Snapple and Vitamin Water. It was urine colored, smelled like vinegar, and had something floating in it, but I figured we could be weird together.”
He started making small batches of kombucha at home—tending to them like children. Then he bottled his creations, took samples to local health food stores, and it moved off the shelves, quickly. “It gave me the confidence I needed,” Dave says. “It allowed me to find my purpose. It gave my life meaning, a reason to get up in the morning, and I really felt like I was helping people.”
Dave was just a teenager and in spite of the naysayers who told him he should give up and go back to high school, he pursued the business with zeal. “I severed ties with that negativity,” he says, “and put my heart, soul, and every fiber of my being into it.”
His passion play has made him a major competitor in the beverage industry. The kombucha category in the United States is projected to be a $900-million-plus market in 2019 and globally it’s expected to grow annually at a rate of 25 percent. Industry insiders estimate GT’s Living Foods accounts for over half of those sales and surmise he personally may net $40 million annually. While Dave says he has no plans to sell the company, one industry observer says if he ever did, it could garner upwards of $1 billion.
Mark Rampolla, who founded ZICO coconut water and is currently a managing partner at the growth equity fund PowerPlant Ventures, says of Dave: “He launched the kombucha category and he did it at the age of 16. It’s extraordinarily rare that someone identifies this opportunity and is successful, especially at that age.”
In a market where sales of nonalcoholic carbonated beverages like soft drinks are lackluster, Rampolla points out that kombucha has become the healthy substitute. “It has probiotic and gut-health benefits, and for many people it’s a daily habit. Dave has done a brilliant job of creating an aura around the product. And from a business perspective, he’s been very disciplined and focused. He figured out how to do one thing very well.”
Dave will tell you his competitive edge is his manufacturing process. While his manufacturing facilities are strictly off-limits to anyone outside the company, Dave still makes his kombucha the way he did in his parent’s home—nursing the live, hand-crafted fermented tea in five-gallon containers where he can tinker with, and innovate, flavors like Lavendar Love and Watermelon Wonder.
“Not to disparage my competitive friends,” he says, “but the way these com- panies start is that they want to get rich. That’s what we do in this country. But as soon as they start to make money, things start to change. They get obsessed with scale, the efficiency, cost—and that translates into pasteurized kombucha, kombucha with cheap concentrate and sparkling water that’s just a bastardization.”
“I am intense. I am driven. But I don’t consider it work. It’s a joy. It’s a journey. It’s a creative expression.“
Dave’s obsessive personality means he’s also obsessed with making a quality product and while he says he never started his company to get rich, he does enjoy the luxury that business affords— like the $150,000 Mercedes AMG GTR in which he zips to and from the office. But he also works, a lot. Some days he’s at the office well past 2 a.m.
“My life is 90 percent work because it’s an extension of me,” he says sitting behind his long white desk that’s free of paper, computers, and writing implements. He conducts most of his business using his handheld device—a Blackberry— and while he now has seven facilities and employs over 1,400 people, the imprint of those early years, where he was a one-man show brewing kombucha in his parent’s home, still informs his work ethic.
So does his perfectionism. “I am intense. I am driven,” he admits, “But I don’t consider it work. It’s a joy. It’s a journey. It’s a creative expression.”
Good To Know:
To this day, GT Dave ferments authentic kombucha using heirloom SCOBYs, descendants of the original Himalayan Mother SCOBY gifted to the Dave family in the 1990s.
In order to maintain a peaceful environment for the living cultures, Dave plays serene music in the fermentation rooms where the kombucha is brewed.
You can make your own kombucha by using a GT’s Original bottle as a starter.
Die-hard consumers drink their GT’s kombucha closer to the bottle’s expiration date, because this allows for more fermentation time and results in the flavor having more of a tangy bite.
GT’s kombucha was first packaged in a glass bottle, intended for salad dressing.
Dave is, and has always been, a vegetarian.
Dave drinks up to a gallon of kombucha a day, especially on days where taste-testing is needed to ensure the highest quality batches.
Dave has a pet bunny: Madonna, named after his favorite musical artist.
17 -Age Dave started the company
1995 -Year Dave started the company
8-12 -Number of bottles Dave drinks a day
42 -Number of kombucha flavors
1200+ -Number of employees
1998 -Year product launched at Whole Foods
600 -Number of bottles filled per minute
50,000+ -Number of stores that carry GT Living
0 -Number of exposed cords in his house
$1 Billion -Potential value of brand