Energized by her own success story, Allison Ellsworth is stocking the shelves for a healthier generation.
By Regine Malibiran. Photos by Romina Olson. Styling by Asma Parvez, with inspiration from Nordstrom, The Garden Room and Arbor Eye Center. Shot on location at Poppi corporate office, Austin.
More than seven years ago, Texas native Allison Ellsworth brewed the basis of Poppi out of a mason jar in her home kitchen.
At the time, Allison was working in the oil and gas industry and frequently traveled as part of her responsibilities. She met her husband and co-founder, Stephen Ellsworth, through their mutual careers.
“I met him in Utah at the mall, which is not a typical place,” says Allison. “I went to go buy a backpack, and he helped me. Then he asked to take me to ice cream and got my number. Then we were inseparable.”
She spent a lot of time in small-town hotels, where grocery stores and gyms would be 30 minutes or more away from where she stayed, if that. “Fed up” by a medical condition that was exacerbated by her lifestyle and cost $15,000 over five years to diagnose and treat through standard means, Allison searched for a way to keep her digestive system healthy. During the process she learned of the benefits of apple cider vinegar. According to recent clinical trials, apple cider vinegar may benefit those looking to lower their blood sugar levels, manage their diabetes or improve their heart health.
“After two weeks, it really did change my life and how it made me feel,” Allison shares. “My digestion got better. I was sleeping better. I also cut out gluten. Just making those two really big changes, I was shocked.”
There was only one problem: she couldn’t stand the taste.
She leveraged her passion for cooking and created the first version of Poppi, a flavor-infused apple cider vinegar drink. It was originally called Mother Beverage as a reference to the “mother” bacteria and yeast of vinegar. Allison’s father, who is her “biggest fan, biggest supporter, biggest inspiration,” encouraged her to start sharing her drink with her neighbors and sell it. Motivated by her own health experiences, Allison was satisfied with simply helping her neighbors live better lives through a hobby, citing cooking as a “love language.”
About two years into her marriage, amidst her experimentation with apple cider vinegar, Allison and her husband began seriously discussing starting a family. Their jobs allowed them to take several months off at a time and during one of their breaks in December 2015 they moved down to Dallas where Allison had family and friends. Within one month of trying, they expected their first child.
“I’m not one to sit still,” says Allison of her first pregnancy. “I was so excited for everyone to feel as good as I did. So on the weekends, I started going to the local Dallas farmers market.”
Allison persevered, working outside in the Texas summer heat while pregnant, and three weeks later, a buyer for Whole Foods approached her at her booth with an offer to join the shelves of the grocery store. Up until that point, Allison hadn’t seriously considered selling her beverage. But once the possibility was made real, she immediately had to act.
“I looked at Stephen in that moment,” Allison recalls. “I told him, ‘I’m not ever going back to work again. We’re doing this. And I think you should seriously think about quitting your job.’”
Her husband reminded her of their circumstances: they had recently bought a house, and she had just started her second trimester. But Allison could not be dissuaded, intuitively feeling like pivoting to entrepreneurship was the right choice and inherently trusting herself and her support system to figure it out along the way. Her father and sisters, entrepreneurs themselves, encouraged her, and her husband applied his logic and strategy toward a successful business plan.
That business plan involved investing their savings, raising $125,000 to open a production facility and pitching to venture capitalists on Shark Tank, the longstanding entrepreneur reality television show that has helped launch dozens of companies. For beverages specifically, being on the show typically leads to selling out of product. At that point the Ellsworths were established within Whole Foods and were seeking capital and partnership to expand their business. Allison was nine months pregnant when she and Stephen pitched on the show. Serendipitously, the guest shark during their episode was Rohan Oza, whose marketing and investment portfolio includes major brands like Coca-Cola and Glacéau as well as success stories like Bai.
“I remember talking to Rohan afterwards, and he said, ‘If you are willing to go on Shark Tank at nine months, I knew you were serious about your business,’” recalls Allison. (She gave birth to her second child less than two weeks after filming.)
Allison is outspoken about prioritizing motherhood and entrepreneurship at the same time. She believes that women don’t have to put their dreams on hold, that they can pursue the fullness of the lives they want to live.
“A lot of the time we feel like we have to choose or wait,” shares Allison. “We have to say, ‘Oh, let me have kids first, and then I’ll start my career.’ Yes it’s harder to do it at the same time, but it’s so rewarding. You can do it.”
Allison credits her family for helping her balance growing a business and raising young children. On top of her father and sister’s entrepreneurial support, her mother moved closer to her to be with the children while she built Poppi from the ground up. And of course, Stephen is right by her side through it all.
“I don’t know how I would do it without him,” says Allison. “He will always choose to be on my team, and that’s such an amazing feeling. It’s a true partnership that we have because we do such different things.”
While Allison runs the creative side of the business and represents the brand’s story through marketing, Stephen oversees operations, product innovation and finances. She values the way he balances her out and how he fully understands the complexities of her priorities because he’s with her every step of the way. For the Ellsworths, whose busy lives might not always include time for romantic getaways, making each other feel loved manifests as being each other’s rocks. In January 2022, after eight years in Dallas, the young family moved to Austin.
“Austin is a really special and creative space for entrepreneurs,” says Ellsworth. “We moved down here to foster a better culture for Poppi. Austin is the cultural leader of Texas so it made perfect sense for Poppi to be at the center of that!”
Under Oza’s mentorship, their business rebranded from Mother Beverage to Poppi, a flavorful guilt-free drink with only 25 calories and fewer than 5 grams of sugar. Their messaging shifted from focusing on apple cider vinegar and more toward being a healthier soda alternative. In March 2020, Poppi launched with a mission to “take on big soda.”
“[March 2020] has a double meaning for me,” says Allison about the unpredictability of the pandemic’s onset. “We had been working on the rebrand for so long before this. We [were determined]to launch this product.”
Because of the rebrand, the Ellsworths had to turn down retailers who were interested in stocking their shelves with their product after the show aired. Despite that obstacle, they still garnered more than $1 million in sales during their hiatus. After eight months of being on hold and with exciting new changes, the Ellsworths were understandably eager to get their business up and running again.
Benefiting from the lockdown’s emphasis on health and online sales, Poppi took the number one spot on Amazon’s new products list three weeks after launch. On a whim, Allison also took to TikTok during a time when not many brands had tapped into the social media platform’s marketing value yet.
“I just sat down one day and told my story and went viral,” says Allison. Her impromptu video resulted in 100,000 sales over 24 hours. “I always try to tell other people to just get on and tell your story. If you just stay positive and you’re authentic and real, you’ll find your community.”
The couple’s business savvy is paying off. According to Allison, Poppi is starting to outsell brands like A&W, Fanta and Crush. What started as a DIY kitchen project to alleviate her own personal health problems has now grown into an up-and-coming player in the beverage industry. The difference, Allison believes, is the consistency of her original intentions for her business.
“I got really excited to share [Poppi] with people versus, I think, a lot of people who start businesses to get rich,” says Allison. “It just feels so good to [help people]cut sugar out of their diets or help someone with stomach problems or give a mom a better beverage for her kids. There’s so much opportunity.”
With its bright and bold packaging, a can of Poppi invites whimsy and fun for its drinkers. It’s available in unique flavors like raspberry rose, ginger lime and strawberry lemon as well as nostalgic favorites like root beer, grape and orange.
“I love our grape flavor because how often is it acceptable to drink grape soda as an adult?” says Allison. “With our flavors, we tap into that emotion that someone might feel with soda that they can’t have anymore. What Poppi does is give everyone the freedom to love soda again.”
Competing with the established brands of big soda is a major undertaking. According to Beverage Digest, Coca-Cola’s market share in the 2022 carbonated soft drink industry was more than 46%, with PepsiCo and Keurig Dr. Pepper following at 24.7% and 21.3%, respectively.
“The big sodas own everything,” says Allison. “They own every stadium; they own McDonald’s; they own every fountain; they own everything. If you want to go sponsor Coachella or really get your name out, Coke already has a contract, so you can’t. We always have to get creative in a lot of the things we do.”
Instead of accepting big soda’s brand and commercial ubiquity as an unconquerable obstacle, Allison and the Poppi team consider it to be an opportunity for innovation. Restricted from being in outlets such as football stadiums and movie theaters, Poppi strives to create new moments of nostalgia for future generations.
“What does that new occasion look like? [Instead of fast food,] you partner with ghost kitchens and Uber Eats,” says Allison. “What’s hard with the big established brands is that they’re just so used to doing things the way they do and don’t move at the speed of culture.”
For the holiday season, Poppi is releasing a new limited edition flavor, cranberry fizz. Along with bundling it with some of their permanent flavors in a holiday variety pack, they’re partnering with beauty brand InnBeauty Project to create lip oils featuring Poppi’s flavors. The Sips & Lips duo will be available online directly to the consumer as well as on sephora.com.
“Their brand is this better-for-you lip oil,” says Allison. “We’re better soda, so both [are]for the next generation.”
From the people she helps lead a healthier life, to her growing staff, to her own young family, Allison is steadfastly committed to the community she’s grown through Poppi. Her company has expanded from two people to over 120 in the past three years, and Allison, a genuine leader at heart, speaks of how “rich and fulfilling” it is to see her team “get promoted and succeed.” As her children grow, she and Stephen want to instill this same work ethic for whatever they choose to pursue in life.
“[We don’t want to] work our butts off to build such an amazing future for our children that they never learn anything hard along the way,” shares Allison, whose kids are ages 7, 5 and 1. “We’re very aware of raising respectful, hard-working young men because I think people can lose sight of living through experience if you just give your kids everything.”
With a clear vision, a strong team and a generational purpose, Allison Ellsworth and Poppi are here for a good time and a long time.