By GREGORY ZELLER //
It took Chris Cianciulli more than two decades to find his true calling – but when he did, it couldn’t have been any sweeter.
It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. Cianciulli, founder of Plainview-based TraLa LLC and creator of its flagship organic coffee sweeteners, explored many possibilities over a quarter-century of professional development. But it wasn’t until he came across a little-known South American plant – and unlocked a potentially golden solution to a long-befuddling healthy-eating conundrum – that the Connecticut native found his path.
Health and wellness were always Cianciulli’s passion, ever since 1995, when he landed his first job cleaning equipment at a local gym. The fitness world made a lasting impression, and soon Cianciulli was on Long Island, studying exercise science at Garden City’s Adelphi University.
As part of his exercise-physiology graduate program, he worked on exercise programs with the New York Islanders; he completed a cardiac-rehabilitation internship at Roslyn’s St. Francis Hospital; outside of school, he worked at another local gym, this time as a personal trainer.
The myriad experiences each taught Cianciulli something new about himself and his own professional aspirations, and fueled a desire to be his own boss. At age 22, Cianciulli started his first business: OptiFit, a 2,000-square-foot gym tucked inside Island Garden, a 75,000-square-foot multi-sport complex in West Hempstead.
OptiFit took off fast. Within a year, the startup had more than 600 members, and the entrepreneur faced a time and space crunch.
His solution was to cut a deal with Synergy Fitness Clubs, which had just opened a Franklin Square location. Synergy Fitness would assume OptiFit’s clientele, while Cianciulli would become the Franklin Square club’s fitness director.
The arrangement allowed Cianciulli to work one-on-one with individual clients, which he preferred. But again things developed quickly, and soon the fitness director was managing training staffs at five different Synergy Fitness locations. He also developed a training manual and fitness protocols emphasizing safety and simplicity – keys, the trainer noted, to getting everyday clients to stick with their exercise programs.
For example: replacing hour-long sessions, a staple of the personal training industry, with shorter workouts, which most people were more likely to endure.
“It’s not a matter of how long you train (per session), but the frequency and how long you continue training,” Cianciulli noted. “My basic idea was to make things more realistic and feasible in the real world.”
That theory – minimal changes for maximum results – would stick with him. But as Synergy Fitness scaled up, Cianciulli’s inner entrepreneur started itching again, and he pivoted once more, this time opening Get Fit 516, a Franklin Square-based one-on-one training studio.
His education continued – “I was learning a lot about people’s habits and behaviors” – and once more, success begat success. Cianciulli’s client list grew to include celebrities (his lips are sealed), including occasions when he traveled to catch up with stars on tour.
But celebrities, professional athletes, large-scale gyms – none of it truly appealed to him. Cianciulli knew he wanted to run a business; knew he wanted to create a product; knew he wanted it to focus, somehow, on wellness. But the details still eluded him.
In 2013, the business owner was invited to a meeting of LeTip of Sunrise, the Long Island chapter of the LeTip International business-networking group. The meeting was small and “demographically, the people were much older than me” – but still Cianciulli liked what he found, “a closeness among people who owned their businesses, a friendliness.”
“Something about the hustle of people on Long Island,” he added. “People who didn’t depend on someone else for a job, but provided their own opportunities.”
There were only 18 members in the chapter at the time, Cianciulli noted, and when the presidency opened up, he decided to run. Flash forward: Now-chapter-prez Cianciulli has grown the membership to 80 members, and in 2018 was named LeTip President of the Year, out of 325 chapters.
Among his LeTip connections was an entrepreneur peddling a cold-brewed coffee, which not only scored with Cianciulli’s taste buds but called to mind a common question he’d been asked many times throughout his personal-training career. Cianciulli will always tell clients the best way to lose weight is to cut down on sugar – and inevitably, he says, the first thing they’ll ask is, “What do I put in my coffee?”
Motivated by his friend’s cold-brewed creation, Cianciulli hit the books, researching the pros and cons and side effects of alternative sweeteners – the “pink one and the blue one and the yellow one,” he noted – and eventually the organic sweeteners (Stevia, for instance) gaining popularity now.
His research led him to the yacón plant, a perennial South American daisy known – at least locally – for its crisp and sweet roots. Cianciulli was intrigued and started experimenting.
“There are multiple health benefits,” the innovator noted. “But when all is said and done, it just tastes really good in coffee.”
Friends and relatives agreed. And not only was the yacón syrup not as cloyingly sweet as something like Splenda (no “taste bud burnout,” according to Cianciulli), but it could be easily manipulated into coffee-friendly flavors like hazelnut and French vanilla.
Now Cianciulli’s innovator sense was really tingling. He boned up on importing and arranged to have yacón sourced from Peru. He learned about organic certification and kosher certification. He tested bottles, learned about labeling and formed a co-packaging partnership with Little Bird Kitchen in Plainview, then finally launched TraLa LLC in January 2018.
The startup’s first products hit digital shelves in November, supported by social media and word-of-mouth marketing campaigns. And just two months later, thousands of bottles of TraLa Organic Coffee Sweetener have already shipped out.
Cianciulli, who trumpets impressive search returns on Amazon.com and Google, is already in growth mode. TraLa LLC now employs 12 part-timers (focused largely on SEO optimization and marketing) and will be debuting in its first brick-and-mortar stores next month (two Brooklyn specialty supermarkets owned by a fraternity brother from Cianciulli’s Phi Gamma Delta days).
Getting here has been expensive – Cianciulli, who anticipated a $10,000 investment, estimates $50,000 sunk into product development and early production runs – and the frustrations have been considerable.
“I’ve never experienced more stress, more headaches or more excitement than I have in the last year,” Cianciulli noted. “Once I started this, it started to rule my life.”
But seeing his product now connecting with consumers – at a time when “alternative organic sweeteners are getting ready to explode” – has made it more than worthwhile, according to Cianciulli, especially after decades of professional exploration.
“When I tell someone what I do and they say, ‘Oh, I’ve heard of that,’ I believe that’s what it’s like when a musician hears their song on the radio,” he said. “It was passion that drove this, the passion of getting something beneficial into people’s heads.
“There are times throughout the day when I’ll say, ‘Why did I do this?’” Cianciulli added. “Then someone will post an Amazon review and say ‘Wow, I’ve been looking for something like this!’
“And then I’ll say, “Yeah … that’s why.’”
What’s It? Organic coffee sweeteners chock full of Peruvian goodness
Brought To You By: Health and fitness veteran Chris Cianciulli, who took his time and did it right
All in: About $50,000, for product development and initial production
Status: Enjoying the slightly-less-sweet taste of success