Clean Cause water founder on fresh starts and sobriety
It’s not uncommon for strangers to walk up to Wes Hurt after he addresses a crowd at an event to tell him a painful part of their past.
Hurt, founder of the Austin-based beverage company Clean Cause, has usually just shared painful parts of his own story, a life of addiction and recovery, loss, love, cupcakes and sparkling tea.
Not everyone has a story about sobriety, which Hurt has had for more than five years now, but nearly everyone has a story about a loved one struggling with addiction. Hurt hears it all. Some adults trust him with stories about taking their teenagers to rehab, others about their own counting drinks. Kids express anger, frustration and confusion about not knowing if their parent, their sibling, their uncle is going to be OK.
“People just open up to me, man,” the energetic CEO and father of two says. “This kid came up at an event just earlier today. He said, ’Thank you so much. Both of my parents are addicts.’ I said, ’No, thank you for sharing.’ That connection means so much.”
When telling the story of Clean Cause, a business he founded when early in recovery in 2017, Hurt rarely tells his whole story from start to finish — when does the story of addiction really start, and does it really ever end? He tells snippets. Sleeping on the streets and in a cemetery off North MoPac, smoking crack and trying not to get caught at work or by his family. Running a business while high.
When Hurt decided to get clean, he knew he’d need a cause to help keep him sober, but he needed help getting sober first.
Hurt grew up in Austin, and after bouncing around to colleges, taking “bus trips fueled by cough syrup and Doritos,” he eventually graduated from St. Edward’s University with a degree in entrepreneurialism.
In 2007, Hurt used his savings to start Hey, Cupcake, one of Austin’s first big food trailers, whose instant popularity helped launch the city’s food truck industry.
At the time, Hurt was the face of the company, and the bigger-than-life cupcake on top of the Airstream matched Hurt’s over-the-top enthusiasm for business.
But behind that facade was a crumbling man. Drugs and alcohol consumed his life, and he couldn’t hide it from his employees anymore. He had gotten married, but refusing to get treatment, he was often on the streets, chasing one high after another. He’d gotten booted from the company and had been suicidal for months.
Hurt’s story of heading toward rock bottom always includes Uncle Frank, a fellow addict who had been living the unsheltered life for decades. He was with Uncle Frank when Sheila, his wife, called, for what everyone hoped was the last time, telling him to get off drugs and find a life worth living. “(Uncle Frank) looks at me and said, ‘Go, go home and get sober.’ He knew I could still get out,” he says.
That was what got him in his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and the only thing that kept him coming back was that he was sick of feeling sick. “I didn’t want to live like that,” he says.
In one of his early meetings, just as sobriety was starting to transform into recovery, Hurt had the sudden realization that he wanted — “no, needed,” he says — to devote his life to helping other people along their own recovery journeys.
Hurt knew how much rehab and sober living houses cost, and he also knew how to create and market a product that people wanted to buy. His mission became clear: Sell something that helps people who need recovery services get them.
“I thought I didn't have anything to offer the world because I made (Hey, Cupcake) when I was on drugs,” he says. “I sat there in an AA meeting, and I had this spark. I hadn't had that feeling without drugs.”
He realized then that he could fuel his energy into something good. He started selling bottled water under the Clean Cause brand in 2016, and he insisted on printing the mission in big text on every bottle: Clean donates 50% of its profits to pay for recovery services and sober living.
“I was fearful of how it would be received,” he says. He thought investors and customers would be doubtful because of his past; instead, he found his vulnerability to be a strength.
Starting a for-profit business rather than a nonprofit was an easy decision, he says. “I wanted to create something that could compete on its own merit rather than because it’s a bleeding heart with a noble cause.”
Passing on the cause
Clean Cause has given away more than 1,200 scholarships since launching, and one of the early recipients was Slade Skaggs, who was at Serenity Star Recovery Center in Smithville when he knew he would need some financial support to find a sober home to live in.
“Before recovery, I knew how to cut hair and deal drugs,” says the lifelong Austinite.
After 11 overdoses, Skaggs finally found long-term sobriety about three years ago with the help of Serenity Star, a long-term treatment facility whose nonprofit restaurant, ComfortCafe, supports the recovery center.
When he was transitioning out of Serenity Star, he didn’t have enough money for the bed fees required at many sober houses.
He heard about Clean Cause’s $500 scholarship and applied. “I got an interview and was accepted into a house and for the scholarship, and things so easily fell into place,” he says.
The scholarship did for Skaggs what the “aha” moment in a recovery meeting did for Hurt.
“It didn’t just afford me a few weeks of bed dues,” Skaggs says. “That $500, you’ll never know how that helped change my life. It was so much more than having a safe bed for a few weeks. It’s bigger than that.”
Skaggs eventually opened a sober living home called Recovery Centered Living in North Austin.
Watching Hurt run Clean Cause while openly acknowledging his past helps reduce the stigma of people in recovery running businesses.
“I never knew my path and purpose was going to be helping people in recovery to create a safe space and environment where they can grow in,” he says. Skaggs says he hopes to open another sober home by the end of the year.
“It’s not just a place to live; it’s a place to build a family.”
’There’s just so much need’
Hurt says hearing from scholarship recipients like Skaggs gives him the motivation he needs to keep expanding the mission.
A year and a half into the business, Hurt wanted to find a value-added product that they could sell to a wider audience, so they started making a sparkling yerba mate tea that is naturally caffeinated and lightly sweetened with stevia.
“We needed to create something that could really create pull and turn,” he says. The demand for sparkling water has spiked in recent years, and although Clean Cause is not marketed as an alternative to alcohol, plenty of people drink it as an alcohol-free White Claw.
Clean Cause is now a staple at 750 grocery and convenience stores in Central Texas. With a recent expansion in Whole Foods and Walmart, Clean Cause is in 6,000 stores across the country and will be in 25,000 stores by the end of the year. Customers can also buy the product by the case online for delivery.
“Everybody is affected by addiction,” he says. “There’s just so much need. We can’t move fast enough.”
Clean Cause has donated $600,000 in scholarships, with at least another $500,000 to be distributed in the coming year.
Clean Cause has started a nonprofit arm called the Clean Cause Foundation, which Hurt says he hopes will allow them to offer even more support to the growing network of businesses and nonprofits that support recovery.
“We want to be informative, not prescriptive,” he says. “We pursue the greatest good, whatever that looks like. We're not trying to save the world, but we're trying to play our little piece."
Clean Cause has a staff of 60, many of whom are on their own recovery journeys.
“A kid had asked, “What do you look for when you’re hiring someone?’” he says. “Humility. I look for someone to tell me, ‘I don’t know, but I’m committed to finding out.’ That’s what I care about.”
Hurt says he tells his staff every day to remember that Clean Cause itself isn’t the solution, but “we want to be part of one.”
From the dark to the light
Hurt and his wife, Sheila, now have two children, ages 2 and 4. They are on this recovery journey with him, too, and that road is built one decision at a time.
Right now, he’s trying to run the business from home during a pandemic that has shifted the food system, but that hasn’t changed his desire to show his kids what it means to live life to the fullest and leave something good behind.
“I wish I could sit down with each one of them to say, ‘Look, I don’t have all the answers, but I can tell you some things about finding your purpose: It’s not a fixed variable or destination,’” he says.
Hurt’s candor and levity are what draw people to him as he continues to write his own story.
He’s the guy who asks investors what they think the purpose of life is. “They let me get away with it because I’m the weird guy,” he says. “But, really, how much money do you need to be happy? You gotta find something more.”
He’s seen the dark and can now experience the light, and he can sense that pain and joy in others.
"I’m not ashamed of my past,“ he says. “We're all the same. We're not different.”