Fizzy drinks are at an inflection point. While traditional and diet sodas have been roundly demonized due to the adverse health effects of truly jaw-dropping amounts of sugar and artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, the flavor-light sparkling waters on the market haven’t quite been scratching that itch. Enter Poppi, an Austin-based company that’s making soda for the health-conscious-but-still-want-to-have-fun consumers, largely made up of millennials and Gen Z.

With cheerful neon packaging and flavors ranging from classic cola and grape to watermelon and strawberry lemonade, Poppi sodas are jarringly good—even more so when you realize they have just 25 calories a can with five grams or less of sugar. With its claim of its products being good for the digestive system due to their inclusion of apple cider vinegar and the prebiotic inulin, Poppi joins a legion of brands—such as Olipop and Mayawell (another Austin-based company)—hoping to make soda trendy again. Poppi can be found in 120 major retailers spanning more than 36,000 locations, and the company projects it will be in 58,000 locations before 2025.

But Poppi, for all its cool, youthful cachet, started in a decidedly unsexy way: as the homemade Mother Beverage, sold at local farmers markets. Allison Ellsworth started making the drink to aid her gut health when her career in oil-and-gas research kept her on the road for seven years. The lifestyle was hard on her health, and she developed skin issues and suffered from a perpetually upset stomach.

“Like so many of us are guilty of doing, I googled my symptoms,” Ellsworth recalls. “I kept reading online about the health benefits of apple cider vinegar.” After a few weeks of taking a daily shot of apple cider vinegar, she noticed her skin and upset stomach start to improve, but she didn’t care for the too-tart taste. She thought to combine apple cider vinegar with ingredients that are more pleasing to the palate. Using real raspberries, she produced a raspberry “rosé” soda.

Ellsworth bottled her product and marketed it as a low-calorie, low-sugar, full-flavored prebiotic soda, made with ingredients people could recognize. It was an instant hit, selling out week after week, and it soon captured the attention of a Whole Foods Market buyer who visited the farmers market. “She gave us her card, and told us there wasn’t anything like this in Whole Foods,” Ellsworth says. “I looked at my husband and said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ” 

Ellsworth and her husband, Stephen, began manufacturing Mother Beverage in Dallas, and they got placement in a dozen Whole Foods stores across the state. After hitting $500,000 in revenue in their first year, they set out to appear on ABC’s Shark Tank, going through months of tryouts before finally landing a spot. “Rohan Oza, one of the sharks, said our product was good, but the branding sucked,” Ellsworth says, laughing. They struck a deal, with Oza agreeing to invest $400,000, which led to the company’s swift rebrand and the expansion of its product line. The packaging was changed from glass bottles to brightly colored aluminum cans, and the brand was renamed Poppi, as a play on “soda pop.”

Poppi officially launched in March 2020. While many businesses struggled during the nationwide shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ellsworths made the most out of a unique opportunity. “It was a pivotal moment in time—everyone in the entire world was thinking about health and wellness,” Ellsworth says. As a mother herself, she knew parents were interested in alternatives to mainstream sodas and fruit juices.

The couple relied heavily on selling on Amazon during that time, when people weren’t going into grocery stores as often, but without face-to-face engagement that comes from doing in-store events and demos, Ellsworth had to get creative. Ellsworth posted a video of herself on the social media platform detailing her health problems and the couple’s journey to Shark Tank. Poppi did $100,000 in sales on Amazon that night, according to Ellsworth. 

With Poppi’s numbers of social media followers and real-life customers increasing in droves, the brand became the best-selling soda on Amazon. From 2 employees in March 2020, Poppi has grown to have 130 members on its staff. 

A huge push for the brand came this past February, when Poppi revealed its first national television ad, a sixty-second spot that aired during the Super Bowl to some 120 million viewers. “[For] a brand of only four years to do a Super Bowl ad is bananas,” Ellsworth says, reflecting on Poppi’s rapid growth. The brand’s fan base encompasses a number of celebrities too, including Jennifer Lopez, Billie Ellish, and Hailey Bieber, while others, like Olivia Munn, Halsey, and Ellie Goulding, have joined the pool of investors.

Buzzy campaigns with VIPs and influencers have further upped Poppi’s cool factor. This year, the brand hosted guests in a Poppi-themed house during the first weekend of Coachella.

Despite all the hype, the Ellsworths are laser focused on showcasing the brand to the masses. “We have not let our foot off the gas,” Ellsworth says. “There are still so many people who don’t know about it.” New flavors, such as Lemon Lime and Wild Berry, were released this spring, but even more are expected to drop this year.

Regardless of how far and wide Poppi’s fan base stretches, or which A-lister will pop a top next, Ellsworth credits Texas with the brand’s success. “If we would have started Poppi anywhere else, I don’t think it would have gotten as much support,” she says. “Texans get behind Texas brands.”