A talk with the creators of Four Loko suffered the same fate on Yale’s campus Tuesday as the infamous beverage did in Connecticut last December.
The Yale College Dean’s Office banned the talk from its on-campus location in the early afternoon, forcing its Yale Entrepreneurial Society sponsors to relocate the event to their office at 254 Elm St. Though YES members said they were told to leave campus because the event was controversial, administrators maintain that the talk was moved because YES, which is not a registered student organization, failed to properly reserve a room in Linsly-Chittenden Hall.
“The group is not registered, so it is not allowed to use Yale facilities,” John Meeske, associate dean for student organizations and physical resources, said in a Tuesday night email to the News.
Michael Holkesvik ’13, vice president of YES and an organizer of the event, admitted that YES had booked the room improperly — the group registeredthe Four Loko talk under Operation Smile, an international nonprofit with a Yale chapter. But Holkesvik said the improper room reservation was overshadowed by the controversy associated with the speakers YES had organized.
Four Loko was banned in the state of Connecticut in December 2010, after reports emerged about the severe intoxication and health risks it could cause and the United States Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about the beverage a month earlier. The day before the FDA warning appeared, Gentry emailed the Yale College community to caution the student body about the adverse effects of highly caffeinated alcoholic beverages.
When Meekse informed YES that the talk could not take place on campus, Holkesvik said the dean made it clear that Four Loko was not a product the administration endorsed.
Holkesvik said he met with Meeske in person Tuesday afternoon to address the issue and insisted that YES was not “holding a rager” but “talking about starting a business.” Holkesvik said administrators initially threatened to punish the organization — even raising the possibility of bringing them before Yale College’s Executive Committee — but eventually resolved the issue without consequences.
“I’m not a rebel at all,” Holkesvik said. “We’re trying to raise an entrepreneurial spirit on campus, and [Four Loko’s creators] have a compelling story.”
Meeske told the News Tuesday night that he thought the event relocation had been “just a misunderstanding.”
Despite the last-minute change of location, more than 35 interested students and aspiring entrepreneurs packed into the room to hear Four Loko creators Jason Freeman, Chris Hunter and Jeff Wright discuss the drink and their company, Phusion Projects.
Freeman, Hunter and Wright, who are all in their 20s, met each other as students at Ohio State University. After graduation, the three came together from different career paths to develop their product — then called “Four Regular,” Wright said.
Though the trio spent over two years developing Four Loko, securing about $150,000 in funds from friends and family, and obtaining a $100,000 line of credit, Freeman said they faced economic difficulties early in the process. The first 4,000 cases of the drink “pretty much rusted on the shelves,” Wright added.
“Unless you have the next Google, it’s very hard to get money from people — they’ll take everything and your first unborn child,” Freeman said. “We maxed out our credit cards. We were all in.”
But business turned around as Four Loko caught on, and Wright said Phusion Projects is able to compete with larger beverage companies today because of its small size and “creative and nimble” staff. Hunter said the company focuses on continually tweaking their products, abandoning a “one-track mind” and keeping an eye on the market.
The trio spent a large portion of the talk discussing the warning the FDA issued Phusion Projects in 2010 for Four Loko’s unsafe use of caffeine, and the notoriety their company gained from it. Though they emphasized that the drink was never banned nationwide, they said Four Loko marked the first time the federal government had taken issue with a caffeinated alcoholic beverage — putting Phusion Projects through “20 years of government scrutiny in three months,” Freeman said.
Despite the negative reputation Four Loko acquired from the FDA warning, the three maintained that they are satisfied with their company.
“We got demonized, and again that’s back to the press, but we’re proud of our company,” Freeman said. “We do things the right way. We run an efficient company that sells products that people want and makes money.”
In addition to selling standard 23.5-ounce cans of Four Loko, Phusion Projects also markets the product in bottles and smaller 16-ounce cans of “Poco Loko.”
Correction: 11/2/2011:The story “Loko founders banned” and the caption on the photo accompanying it incorrectly stated that Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry banned the talk from its on-campus location. In fact, the Yale Entrepreneurial Society was informed of the decision by John Meeske, associate dean for student organizations and physical resources and Gentry did not have any direct contact with the organizers of the talk.