This Man Spent $3 Million to Make Instant Jello Shots

Jeff Jetton (left) and Tyler Williams, co-founders of Jevo, at their office near Portland, Oregon.

Jeff Jetton (left) and Tyler Williams, co-founders of Jevo, at their office near Portland, Oregon.

Photographer: Matt D'Annunzio/Bloomberg

To Jeff Jetton, the four hours it takes to make Jello shots is an eternity—and an opportunity.

Bars love selling the jiggly, alcohol-infused confections because they’re money makers. But no bartender or sous-chef likes boiling water, mixing the powder, adding the booze, and then…waiting. And making more at midnight after you sell out isn’t an option, so you end up leaving money in partiers’ pockets.

Jetton, a serial entrepreneur who’s started and sold two companies, says he and co-founder Tyler Williams, a former bar owner, have the answer: a high-tech machine the size of a large microwave that turns out a tray of 20 shots in just 10 minutes. It’s taken them three years, and $3 million of the $4.2 million in venture capital they’ve raised, to turn slow-setting gelatin into fast food, but they’re just about ready for launch. They aim to ship the first commercial machine in March. 

“There was no innovation around gelatin,” Jetton, 49, says in an interview at his office just south of Portland, Oregon. On the other side of a glass wall, one of his eight employees fiddles with tubes, wires, clear plastic containers, and batteries, simplifying the prototype machine for production. “We started with a yellow pad of paper,” he says.

Jetton and Williams say their machine, called the “Jevo,” will do for gelatin what Keurig did for coffee, and make them a fortune in the process. Keurig, now called Keurig Green Mountain, became the envy of the food-and-beverage business in about 2009 when sales of its single-serving brewing system took off.

The Jevo will turn out a tray of 20 edible shots, served in recyclable plastic cups, in just 10 minutes.
The Jevo will turn out a tray of 20 edible shots, served in recyclable plastic cups, in just 10 minutes.
Photographer: Matt D'Annunzio/Bloomberg

The company sells coffee makers yet makes most of its money on the little plastic K-Cups, which caffeine fiends pop into the brewers by the billion each year. In the fiscal year that ended in September, it sold 9.8 billion K-Cups, reaping $3.6 billion in revenue, up 13 percent from the previous year.

Like Keurig, Jetton’s company, Food + Beverage Innovations, plans to make money on gelatin flavor “pods,” not the machines. A pod, enough to make 20 shots, is about the size of a single-serving yogurt. Just drop one in the machine, add water and booze, and hit a button. Ten minutes later, you have a tray of chilly gelatin shots.

Jetton plans to make his Jello shots without Jell-O brand gelatin. (The term “Jello shot” refers to spiked gelatin, regardless of who makes the raw material.) Jetton is sourcing his gelatin through Jel Sert, which is better known for its Otter Pops than its also-ran Royal Gelatin. The company is making Jevo’s powdered mix in 17 flavors, from mixed berry to Margarita. 

Kraft Heinz, maker of Jell-O, isn’t a fan. Spokesman Michael Mullen says “Jevo” is an infringement. “Kraft Heinz are [sic] not associated with this company and they are using our trademark without our consent,” Mullen said in an email.

Jetton is undaunted. “If they have an issue with us they can call or send us a letter,” he says. 

Jetton says 2,500 bars, restaurants, casinos, and cruise ships are considering a Jevo machine. He's also working with spirits giant Beam Suntory Inc. on promotions. Hennessey’s Tavern Inc., a company with 17 restaurants in California and Nevada, is signed up to be one of Jetton’s first customers. Terry Hermeling, owner of Yur’s Bar & Grill in Portland, is in line, too. “We sell a lot [of Jello shots], but we have to make them by hand,” he says. “I think he’s onto something. I’m a beer drinker, but the kids like them.”

Eric Bowler, owner of two Portland bars, says he’d like to add Jello shots to his menu. He hasn’t yet, though, because he’d need extra hands as well as another refrigerator. Also: “I hear they disappear,” he says; employees see them in the fridge and say, ‘Oh, Jello shots,’ and take one.

Jetton got interested in Jello shots after Williams, an old friend, came to him with the idea for a machine that would crank them out. Williams owned a Portland club called Bettie Ford—a dark reference to the California rehab clinic. There, and at other bars he owned, Williams sold thousands of Jello shots, he says. Making the things was a pain, though.

Jeff Jetton
Jeff Jetton
Photographer: Matt D'Annunzio/Bloomberg

Jetton pondered the idea. A college dropout and former U.S. Marine, he made his first fortune in the late 1990s by building the largest network of independent ATMs in the U.S., with 9,000 high-fee machines in bars, restaurants, and casinos. In 2000, he sold it to E*Trade Financial for $100 million. Then he developed a system that speeds payment at the end of charity auctions, and sold that, too, five years ago.

He has big dreams for the Jevo machine. After rolling out in bars, Jetton wants to put them in every hospital and assisted-living center in the world. Gelatin is just as good for delivering medicine to hospital patients as it is for getting Ketel One vodka down people’s throats on Friday nights, he says. And demand could be huge because the sick and elderly often have trouble swallowing pills, but they love their Jello.

In January, Jetton completed a pilot project with U.S. Renal Care, providing gelatin cups packed with protein to dialysis patients. They tested the system for ease of use and taste, which is a challenge because protein supplements can taste terrible. A big pharmaceutical company is interested, too. Jetton says he can’t disclose the name yet.

Food industry analyst Phil Lempert says he’s skeptical of the Jevo. “I’m intrigued by the idea,” he says. “But to deliver medicine and to deliver hipster drinks, Jello might be the wrong carrier.” Gelatin is “artificial everything,” he says; hipsters and sick people alike might be put off by that.

And replicating Keurig is tough. SodaStream International, an Israel-based company that makes home soda makers, fizzed for a while. Then the stock faltered in late 2013 when sales fell short of too-rosy forecasts. Impending competition has weighed on the shares, too. This fall, Keurig is rolling out a competing drink maker, called “Keurig Kold.” 

Gummy vitamins may be a better precedent, according to Jetton. Avid Health, based just north of Portland, in Vancouver, Washington, figured out how to infuse gummy bears with vitamins; in 2012, Church & Dwight Co., maker of Trojan condoms and Nair hair remover, bought Avid for $650 million.

Other entrepreneurs are chasing gelatin gold in more traditional ways. In October, Los Angeles-based Ludlows Cocktail Co. started selling pre-packaged “Jelly Shots.” The five flavors, which include Fresh Lime Margarita, Planter’s Punch, and Meyer Lemon Drop, are all natural, and upscale. They sell for $9.99 to $12.49 for a package of five. No refrigeration is necessary. They’re formulated to be jiggly at room temperature. 

Until Ludlows, no one had re-invented the Jello shot, says co-founder Freya Estreller.  A rival called Liquor Gelz, makes ready-to-eat shots look like neon apple sauce packs compared with the pastel tones of Ludlows’s.

The first person to ever do a gelatin shot, loosely defined, may have been Antonin Careme, the Frenchman who baked Napoleon's wedding cake. According to Ian Kelly’s Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Carame, the First Celebrity Chef, Carame, a devotee of complex cuisine, devised a recipe called “Orange-Flower and Pink Champagne Jelly” that called for isinglass, a collagen extracted from the dried swim bladders of beluga sturgeon. Much later, according to Jetton, soldiers used innocent looking Jello shots to get contraband booze onto base.

Estreller’s Jelly Shots are proving especially popular with women. “Moms are obsessed,” she says. “They sneak them in their purses everywhere. They take them to soccer games.” One Facebook post showed a mom nibbling one at Chuck E. Cheese's.  

Estreller says she likes Jevo’s shots. She tasted them at the Nightclub & Bar Show in Las Vegas in March. “They’re sweeter than mine,” she says. “They have a really good texture.”

After three years and $3 million of R&D, they’d better.

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