Ari Tolwin took his Numilk’s mini-mill idea to Shark Tank, a TV show where entrepreneurs can secure business deals.
Ari Tolwin always wanted to be an entrepreneur. When the now 39-year-old based in Brooklyn, N.Y., was growing up in a Southfield yeshivah family, he spent his days coming up with creative business ventures. At age 12, Tolwin was selling CDs to his classmates in school.
“I bought $400 of CD inventory using bar mitzvah money,” recalls Tolwin, who recently received a $2 million deal through Shark Tank for his plant-based Numilk line, which allows customers to make dairy-free milks with the push of a button. By selling CDs as a child, though, he got some of his first lessons in making money and finding buyers. Next, he moved on to selling baseball cards. Even when playing with Legos, Tolwin says he turned every game into a competition.
“I didn’t have commercial success,” he says with a laugh, “but that was my first entrepreneurial-like thing.”
Tolwin, son of Rabbi Alon Tolwin, founder of Aish HaTorah Detroit, which is now led by his brother, Rabbi Simcha Tolwin, has come a long way from selling CDs and baseball cards in school. Now, he’s on track to scale Numilk nationally, with dreams of one day taking the plant-based line international. But it wasn’t an easy road to Shark Tank success, which saw Tolwin and co-founder Joe Savino close the deal with billionaire investor Mark Cuban earlier this year.
“I always wanted to do something in business,” Tolwin says of his ambitions. He was also a history buff, reading about entrepreneurs like steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, which helped him realize that business opportunities were always possible.
Tolwin pursued an undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Pennsylvania and then followed the business path with an M.B.A. from Duke University. By doing so, he combined his love for entrepreneurship with his passion for history and education.
His early career saw him working for McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm. Yet, when his older brother Chaim, who lived in upstate New York, invited him out to see how he made maple syrup from his maple trees, Tolwin had an idea for something different.
“I’m at his house and we’re making maple syrup,” Tolwin recalls, “and he’s explaining to me that water comes out of the tree. So, I tried the water and thought it was fantastic.”
This water — known as maple water — was the inspiration for Tolwin’s 2014 line, Happytree Maple Water, where he served as co-founder and CEO. But it didn’t give Tolwin the success he was looking for. “Maple was awesome, but ultimately the dynamics of the industry were too difficult,” he says. “So, at a certain point, with a friend of mine, we had the idea for Numilk.”
Building a Brand
As an adult, Ari Tolwin followed a primarily plant-based diet. “When it comes to dairy-like products, we’ve always sort of bemoaned the fact that plant-based milks just aren’t that great,” he explains. “They’re filled with gums; they don’t have a ton of nutrient value; and they have the same antiquated supply chain that produces dairy.”
Tolwin started to brainstorm how he could alleviate those challenges and create a plant-based milk that was healthy, tasty and, above all, scalable to grocery stores across the country. One feature he always loved at Whole Foods was a peanut butter grinder that allowed shoppers to make fresh peanut butter onsite. He wondered if the same could be done for milk.
“We could make plant-based milk that could be better for the environment and more delicious,” Tolwin says of Numilk, launched in 2018. “And we could do it in a way that was differentiated [by in-store shopping] to allow people to make fresh plant-based milks on location.”
Yet, in order to make almond milk specifically, Tolwin would need a special mill to process the almonds. Because a mill is generally a large piece of equipment that’s expensive to operate, his goal was to create a mini-mill that could easily sit within a grocery store like Whole Foods. Tolwin found a German company that made miniature mills and enlisted its help as a vendor.
The first prototype for Numilk’s mini-mill was created and set for launch within a New Jersey Whole Foods location. But then things changed.
“We were about one or two months out from completion of the machine when Whole Foods was purchased by Amazon,” Tolwin recalls. His Whole Foods contact left the company, leaving Tolwin and Numilk without any connections.
Regardless, he decided to complete the mini-mill and managed to get it inside the same local Whole Foods. “We rushed the machine in the store as quickly as we could,” he remembers. “We hoped to sell 100 bottles of Numilk a week. On our first day, we sold 130 bottles.”
A Need to Pivot
It was clear that Numilk was a hit. By Day 2, Tolwin saw 170 bottles being sold. In comparison, he says, Whole Foods generally sells 10 bottles of any juice or milk product a week — making Numilk’s sales a landslide success. Yet over the next six months, the mini-mill required constant attention. Without much testing, it was frequently breaking down. By the time it was fixed and ready for scaling to other stores, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and business came to a halt.
“It was the right size at the right price with the right function,” Tolwin says of Numilk. But the pandemic saw the machine being turned off, along with anything else inside Whole Foods that customers could touch. “We knew we had a real problem.”
At the same time, Tolwin says customers turned to Amazon Prime, which offers home delivery from Whole Foods for its members. “We didn’t just have a short-term COVID problem,” he continues, “but we also had a long-term problem and that was that our machine works best when you’re in a store.”
Tolwin began to consider how customers could bring the mini-mill home. He decided to work on a countertop version that would initially go to coffee shops and businesses, then make its way into people’s homes. The vision included a small stainless-steel kitchen appliance, similar to a Keurig machine, that could create a variety of plant-based milks, protein shakes and lattes.
Making it to TV
Tolwin took this idea to Shark Tank, a TV show where entrepreneurs can secure business deals. He never considered it until a friend mentioned it in passing one day. “I figured the most difficult stage was getting them to read the application,” he says of Shark Tank. “They get 30,000 applications a year.”
Yet out of 30,000, Tolwin’s application made it to the next round. From there, he went through an extensive interview process that he says combined “every application that I’ve ever had in my life.” After months of interviewing and what he recalls as “countless exercises,” Numilk’s countertop business plan made it to an episode. On-air, Tolwin and Savino presented the idea.
“Here’s our goal, here’s our plan and here’s our preparation,” Tolwin says of the outline presented to Shark Tank. “We’re going to execute it to the best of our ability, and hopefully we’ll get the outcome that we want.”
That outcome was a $2 million deal that Tolwin says will go toward building out the commercial side of the Numilk business. He’s partnering with coffee shops, small grocery stores and high-end cafes to bring Numilk to their establishments. While there are no Michigan locations locked down yet, Tolwin hopes to one day scale Numilk to his home state.
In the background, he continues to work on the home-based unit and keeps on dreaming big. “We absolutely will scale internationally,” he says of Numilk’s long-term plans. “We’re uniquely suited to it.”