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His Magical Elixir

Dr. Alex Hughes thinks he can make you smarter, thinner, and less hungover by injecting water with ingredients he found in the hospital. But his company, Function Drinks, first has to fight for shelf space amid all the other health drinks promising miracle cures.


Alex Hughes is standing in an aisle of the Whole Foods on Bowery, staring at a cooler, watching his drinks occupy New York real estate. A handsome 31-year-old with a square jaw and a redhead’s complexion, Hughes is co-founder and president of Function Drinks, a newcomer to the health-drinks market. Hughes is also a doctor; in fact, he was recently chief resident of orthopedic surgery at the UCLA Medical Center, and last month he started a yearlong fellowship at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan. He hadn’t neglected to mention his medical career to the buyers at Whole Foods when, last year, they agreed to provide Function with national shelf space.

Now Hughes takes in the full display. Function makes eleven drinks, each a different color and flavor, each claiming to address one health issue or another: fatigue, stress, a hangover. He’s pleased with what he sees, as getting Function into Whole Foods was something of a coup. The next step is to win territory in street-corner bodegas. About 4,000 New York stores now carry the drink, and Hughes hopes to get that number up to 10,000 by the end of the year. So he leaves Whole Foods with Josh Simon, Function’s marketing man and co-founder, and Bob Miller, executive vice-president of sales, to make a few house calls.

They drive down Broadway to Prince. First stop is Dean & DeLuca, the type of upscale market Function depends on. But after a quick scan of the beverage refrigerator, Hughes sees that the store lacks even a single Function drink.

“Hey,” Hughes calls to a white-smocked employee. “Do you guys carry Function?”

“We did … ”

“Where was it when you had it?” Hughes asks.

The employee points to a low shelf in the refrigerator occupied by Liv sports drinks. “Liv went away when Function came in. But maybe it wasn’t selling that well. Then Liv came back.”

Hughes asks for the name of the store’s buyer and takes down his number on the back of a business card. His face has darkened. He strides outside and begins placing calls to his salesmen.

“He gets like this,” Simon says. “He takes it personally.”

Miller has taken the car around the block, and when he pulls up to the curb, Simon and Hughes step in, Hughes still on the phone.

“We need to get back in that account,” Hughes says when he disconnects.

“We’ll sort it out,” Miller says.

Miller finds parking outside the Morton Williams at Bleecker and LaGuardia. There are just a few bottles of Function in the open-air cooler at the back of the store, lined up beside row upon rainbow row of Snapple and Vitaminwater. Hughes takes his cell phone out of his pocket, then puts it back. Realistically, there is not much a salesman can do to force more bottles onto the shelf until the drinks prove themselves. But if the bottles don’t have a presence, they’ll never sell.

They continue on foot. In a bodega near Washington Place and Sixth Avenue, Hughes starts to push bottles of Cytomax (an energy drink geared to athletes) into the back of the cooler to make room for another row of his drinks.

There is a logic, or at least a psychology, to staging bottles in the refrigerator. Eye level is ideal; otherwise, Function likes to be above its competitors, to allude to the term top-shelf. The company tries to situate the best-selling flavor nearest the refrigerator handle, easiest to grab. In a bodega like this one, Function will spotlight Urban Detox, a bright-orange beverage alleged to help mitigate hangovers. It’s the brand’s strongest product, and a good impulse purchase for a customer who might be out drinking. (In grocery stores, where customers are more often female, and concerned about health, Function might lead with its Light Weight line.)

By the time the bodega manager spots Hughes, he has finished cramming Function bottles into the extra rows and is rotating them so the labels face perfectly forward.

“Hey, c’mon, guys,” says the manager. “I need the space.”

Hughes freezes, mutters an apology over his shoulder, and then begins to undo his rearrangement. “It’s like an addiction,” he says sheepishly as we walk out the door. “Every time I see one, I have to touch it, even if it’s just to change the facing.” We head down Sixth Avenue, and at a market on West 4th Street, he buys three dented bottles to clear them from the shelf.

Function Drinks was born at the end of a particularly boozy night in 2004 at the Los Angeles house Hughes and Simon shared. They had gathered around their built-in bar with their friend Dayton Miller (no relation to Bob), and somebody—details are fuzzy—came up with the idea of making a drink that relieves hangovers. These were probably not the first inebriated entrepreneurs to stumble upon that idea. But then Hughes piped up. “Actually, guys, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and with all the dietary-supplement deregulation that’s happened, I think there’s a great opportunity for a drink here.”

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