Don’t call it sparkling water, sugary soda, or a “woo-woo wellness” tonic. Dallas-based Poppi, founded by husband-and-wife team Stephen and Allison Ellsworth, defies categorization on the grocery shelves the bubbly drink has been flying off of since March 2020.
The crisp, lightly carbonated canned drinks are infused with apple cider vinegar, fruit juices, organic cane sugar and stevia, all blended into nostalgic soda-inspired flavors in fun, retro cans that still feel grown-up.
Many of the flavors evoke already-popular drinks: Strawberry Lemon tastes like summery lemonade; Ginger Lime calls Sprite to mind; Orange has “Fanta vibes,” Allison says; and Grapefruit can easily replace your Fresca. Then there’s the newer Classics line of Root Beer, Classic Cola and Doc Pop, an ode to Dr Pepper.
“I might have spent extra time [formulating the flavor] on that one,” Allison says of Doc Pop. “Being from Texas, that one was important.”
Allison still creates all of the flavors herself, even though Poppi has grown from Dallas farmers markets to Target stores across the country. The Ellsworths first started marketing their concoctions in 2016 as Mother beverages in glass soda bottles. The line was soon picked up by Whole Foods.
The Ellsworths both worked in the oil and gas industry but quit their jobs to pursue entrepreneurship and open a manufacturing facility in Dallas. “It was the full-on American dream of, ‘Screw it, let’s go for it,’” Allison says. And they wanted to grow more.
So in 2018, the couple pitched their product on ABC’s Shark Tank, where “beverage shark” Rohan Oza of Bai and Vita Coco fame chose to invest $400,000 in their company in exchange for a 25% share.
“Oza didn’t have a lot of Shark Tank brands already, so we got a lot of his time and focus,” Allison says. “He really hated our branding as Mother. And we couldn’t trademark it.” So they worked together to rebrand Mother as Poppi, a play on soda pop, with happy and fun graphic cans.
They were scheduled to relaunch as Poppi in grocery stores in March 2020, right as the pandemic-related shutdowns began. “It was right as COVID hit,” Allison says. “But thankfully, people were looking for healthier products. Health was top of mind. We saw a lot of growth.”
Now you can find Poppi at Target, Whole Foods, Sprouts, Publix, HEB, Kroger, Safeway and 7-Eleven. They sell tens of millions of cans a year and have added manufacturing facilities across the country.
And while Poppi is a specialty drink, Allison says: “We see our biggest competition as Big Soda.”
That may sound overly ambitious, but market trends point to growth in health-conscious beverages. The carbonated soft drinks market has been historically difficult to enter, as it’s dominated in the U.S. by large multinational players like The Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo and Keurig Dr Pepper. But in recent years, sales for sugary sodas have been sluggish as consumers demand alternative beverages with higher nutritional value, less sugar and more mature flavors, according to reports from Grand View Research and Beverage Industry. That has made room for more “better for you” beverages, like functional drinks from smaller companies like Poppi.
And health is still key to the brand, which is good for business strategy but also personal for Allison. When she started experimenting in 2016, she was suffering from health issues, like bloating and tiredness. She began regularly taking apple cider vinegar. “I was shocked at how it made me feel, but I literally could not do the taste,” she says.
Apple cider vinegar, which is apple juice that has been fermented twice, has been used for thousands of years as a wellness tonic. It’s often touted as a weight loss aid, acid reflux remedy and promoter of gut health, according to the Cleveland Clinic, because it contains natural prebiotics, acetic acid and antioxidants.
When Allison began experimenting with ACV, she mixed it with carbonated water and juices in her own kitchen, creating full-flavor sodas with far less sugar.
Now she spends months working in a lab to create the newest flavors. (On Shark Tank, “Bethany Frankel yelled at me: ‘Get out of the kitchen!’” Allison says.)
Current fruity flavors include Ginger Lime, Strawberry Lemon, Watermelon, Orange, Raspberry Rose, Peach Mango and Blueberry. They are meant to be sipped on their own but can be used as a cocktail mixer.
The new Classics soda-inspired line has added green tea extract for caffeine and agave inulin for a thicker mouthfeel. “We wanted it to taste like the classic sodas, and the inulin creates a thicker liquid,” Allison says.
“We like traditional, nostalgic flavors that people are used to,” she adds. “Poppi is for the regular consumer that just wants something better for you.”