Poppilu founder discusses benefit of taking success in small doses

By Mary Ellen Shoup

- Last updated on GMT

"It gives them [consumers] permission to enjoy lemonade again," Poppilu founder Melanie Kahn said.
"It gives them [consumers] permission to enjoy lemonade again," Poppilu founder Melanie Kahn said.
As a food or beverage startup, it’s natural to want to expand very quickly, but brands should take a moment to revel in their small-scale existence and take advantage of their ability to be nimble, says Poppilu founder Melanie Kahn.

“It’s very tempting to go very fast, very quickly,”​ Kahn told FoodNavigator-USA. “It’s not that hard to get a lot of retailers on board [if you have a compelling brand proposition], that I think is the easy part.”

Based in Chicago, Kahn founded Poppilu – an antioxidant, low-sugar lemonade range – and for now, is staying laser-focused on her 500-store Midwest footprint. But the brand is gaining major attention, being recently selected as one of the five startups in Kraft Heinz’s first incubator program​.

“The hard part, and the part I want to make sure I get right, is driving velocity at the customers that we have,”​ she continued.

“Instead of going really fast and spreading ourselves too thin and not having the resources to support huge distribution, we are focusing just on the Midwest with some key retailers like Jewel, Mariano’s, HyVee, and making sure we’ve got good velocity at those retailers and that we work out any kinks.”

From a craving to branded product:

Kahn wanted to create a lemonade made with real lemons that still had a bold citrus flavor but that was also low in sugar – a quest that stemmed from a citrus craving she had when pregnant with her second child. 


To create a healthier version of lemonade that still had a sweet flavor profile, Kahn turned to Aronia, a woody perennial shrub that grows along woodland edges particularly in the Midwestern states such as Illinois and Iowa. The berries have a deep purple due to their high polyphenol content (1752 mg per 100 g dry weight), especially anthocyanins.

The tart tangy taste of Poppilu lemonade has been a hit with adults and kids, according to Kahn.

"It’s not your typical super sweet lemonade,"​ she said. "Lemonade has been devoid of nutrition and here we’re giving them high antioxidants, we’re giving them less sugar, we’re giving them the boost of the locally grown Aronia berries. They like the fact that it gives them permission to enjoy lemonade again."

The company’s three lemonade flavors, blueberry lavender, passionfruit, and original lemonade, are all naturally pink in color due to the Aronia’s dark hue.

Since launching in the chilled beverage space last year, one of the changes the brand was able to make was its bottle shape.

“We still have a 12-ounce, but our bottle shape at the time was about an inch shorter than other 12-ounce bottles on the market,”​ Kahn said.

“The value that consumers were seeing was out of whack with the price because the bottle looked small – it looked like they were getting less product for the money.”

Elongating the bottle shape to be at the same height as its competitors on the shelf helped Poppilu look less like “the little junior guys.”

“Thankfully we were, and still are, small to be able to make these changes before it blows up on us.”

Kahn added that the brand has its sights set on big distribution, but for now is focused on strong velocity and building consumer demand to “have the data points so that when we expand we can go to those retailers with a solid selling story.”

Moving forward, Poppilu is considering adding a multi-serve packaging format as well as a smaller bottle size for kids.

Incubator programs are a two-way street

Being selected for Springboard, Kraft Heinz’s platform for emerging, disruptive startups, was the “icing on the cake” for continuing to accelerate the Poppilu brand.

Still in its first week, Kahn along with the founders of four other food startups will participate in a four-month program of workshops connecting with senior leaders of Kraft Heinz and other industry veterans at a dedicated collaborative WeWork space.

“They’ve built out a really robust schedule on everything from how to do market research on slim budget to how to negotiate with contract manufacturers to how to sell to club stores and Walmart to how to build your brand foundation,”​ Kahn shared.

Kraft Heinz also benefits from hosting this type of program as it provides the company with a “sneak peak” into how startups operate.

As the only woman-led beverage brand selected for Springboard, Kraft Heinz could gain an especially valuable glance into a refrigerated beverage brand like Poppilu as the generations-old food company isn’t historically known for having a robust beverage portfolio outside of shelf-stable brands like CapriSun, Kool-Aid, and Maxwell House.

Kahn added that it does make her wonder what Kraft Heinz’s intention is in the beverage space and if that’s a category it hopes to build out.

“While Kraft does shelf-stable beverages they’re not on the perimeter, but maybe that’s compelling to them,”​ she said.

Kraft Heinz has not commented on whether it is identifying future acquisition targets through its Springboard incubator program.

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