Stuck at home during the summer of 2020 after the pandemic closed his office workplace, the seasonal heat made Johnny Chhom nostalgic for a refreshing drink popular in Cambodia— sugarcane juice.
“I’m very familiar with it, and not many people are. And I felt like it could’ve been a niche product that I can serve to people without much people knowing what it is,” Chhom told the Signal Tribune.
Chhom is the son of Cambodian immigrants, and combined his background with his entrepreneurial spirit to launch the brand Sweet Grass Sugarcane Juice.
“I like to solve problems, and so it was a very hot summer, everybody’s stuck at home, and I thought ‘you know what would be really good right now? An ice cold beverage,'” he said.
Chhom first began selling his sugarcane juice out of his apartment in June of 2020 and quickly began growing his brand through social media and pop-ups in Signal Hill.
Sweet Grass’ Original flavor consists of pure freshly pressed juice from sugarcane stalks sourced from Southeast Asia, but Chhom has also filled out his menu with innovative fusion flavors that put a new spin on the traditional drink, combining the sweetness of the cane juice with various fruits and other ingredients. Each flavor is served cold with generous amounts of ice that add an extra level of refreshment.
The Calamansi Cane flavor combines the tartness of the small citrus fruit sometimes found in Filipino cuisine with sugarcane juice, the calamansi’s acidity helping to balance the pure sweetness of the cane juice.
While the Calamansi Cane shares the rich golden color of the Original flavor, many of the other drinks are visibly layered. The Pandan Cane flavor, which uses extract from the pandan leaf, is bright green on top before blending into the golden juice below. Colorful top layers can also be found in other drinks on the Sweet Grass menu, including Dragonfruit Cane and Chhom’s newest creation, Mamba Lemonade, made with tea from the butterfly pea flower, freshly squeezed lemonade and sugarcane juice. Mamba Lemonade was made in homage to Kobe Bryant, who Chhom grew up watching. The purple Laker color on the top half of the drink was achieved by infusing the butterfly pea tea with lemon juice from the lemonade, changing the tea from its original blue color.
Sweet Grass is particularly proud of using young Thai coconut, the highest grade of coconut in the world, in its Coconut Cane juice.
Chhom is now preparing for the opening of Sweet Grass Sugarcane Juice’s first storefront location in the Bixby Knolls neighborhood of Long Beach. When the Signal Tribune spoke to him on Jan. 26 he was preparing to sign a lease for a storefront located at 3543 Atlantic Ave., within the Bixby Plaza strip mall. The grand opening is expected to happen around four months from now.
By it’s nature, sugarcane juice is plant-based, naturally flavored and therefore vegan— making it an appealing choice for those avoiding meat or processed foods.
“I feel like it has some staying power. And I felt good about serving this to people because it’s not syrupy. I’m not serving high fructose corn syrup or anything like that to people. I’m serving all-natural drinks, I was conscious of that,” Chhom said.
While expanding his new business during the coronavirus pandemic, Chhom has made an effort to turn Sweet Grass into a positive force in the local area and hopes it can inspire others in his community.
Just this past January, Sweet Grass gave free drinks to frontline healthcare workers, and in December 2020 raised $2,000 to help pay for a new playground for The Muse Academy in Long Beach, which serves young low-income children as well as foster children.
“I’m the son of immigrants, of refugees really, and I’m [the] first generation born here. A lot of my motivation and a lot of what I’m doing as well, not only for myself— because obviously my motivation for this was to prove something to myself and to prove that I can do all things possible if I put my mind to it— but another motivation of mine and kind of why I got a chip on my shoulder was to really prove a point to everyone else, that I feel like everyone else can do it too,” Chhom told the Signal Tribune.
To stay updated with Sweet Grass Sugarcane Juice and view their menu, follow them on Instagram, @drinksweetgrass. Visit their pop-up location open Tuesday-Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. by Ten Mile Brewing.