As eager as Susan Alexander is to have people try her Switchel, which is made with organic apple-cider vinegar that is infused with ginger, molasses, organic lemon and organic blackstrap maple syrup, she does not want to limit its potential uses by restricting where in the store the ready to drink beverage is stocked.
“Switchel is hard to classify. It really seems to standout in a lot of different categories,” including as a natural energy drink, a sports drink, a grab-and-go alternative to sugary sodas, a cocktail mixer and even as a gourmet food ingredient, Alexander said.
“To me, that is what makes Switchel and drinking vinegars so ground breaking. They really are a hybrid of many traditional beverage categories. It is a functional drink because of the health benefits of apple cider vinegar, ginger and vitamin C. And it is it packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents,” she said, adding, “But it is also a natural energy drink. Things like Red Bull are great for some people, but they are really just stimulants, whereas Switchel and drinking vinegar are low on the glycemic index so they metabolize slowly and provide energy without a boost and a drop.”
As a result, Switchel, like other drinking vinegars, can be shelved in many places in the store, which is good for demonstrating its versatility, but bad for establishing a cohesive category, building product awareness and establishing a place where consumers who want it can consistently find it, Alexander acknowledged.
“The industry wants [Switchel] to be neatly categorized .... Part of me wants the world to bend so that it doesn't have to be, but I know that won’t happen,” she said, adding that she knows that refining Switchel to one or two main categories will help it grow and be distributed beyond the 250 natural stores, including some Whole Foods, where it is currently sold in the New England and New York areas.
A natural fit for sports & energy
If Alexander’s marketing efforts so far are any indication, Switchel likely will end up in the sports and energy drink sections of stores.
Switchel was originally developed generations ago and used by farmers to “slake their thirst and provide natural energy while haying,” and now Alexander says she markets it as a natural sports drink to rehydrate and restore depleted minerals after hiking, biking, running and being outside.
“It is a pleasant alternative to the kinds of things we have been drinking for so long that are sweet and sugary and that fail to quench your thirst. Switchel is snappy because of the ginger and vinegar but it has a nice smooth finish with the maple syrup without being cloying,” she said.
Given these properties, Alexander has promoted the beverage at the Vermont City Marathon and organized bike rides. She also recently launched a concentrated version of Switchel that athletes can mix with water in their hydration packs and plastic bottles so that it can go with them places that the ready-to-drink versions bottled in glass cannot.
Alexander also raised awareness of Switchel by sampling it aggressively at stores and at the farmer’s market where she first launched her business.
“Farmers’ markets are a great platform to introduce new foods and drinks and in Vermont we have a huge tourist industry with people coming from all over to try our foods and experience what we have to offer. So the farmers market was an opportunity to just start getting people to understand what Switchel is,” and from there local stores became interested in carrying us, she said.
Alexander also helped spread the word about Switchel by sending some to her state senator, Patrick Leahy, who hosts an annual taste of Vermont event, she said.
Attending the Natural Products Expo in Baltimore, Md., in 2014 also positioned Switchel to grow exponentially after several distributors approached Alexander about carrying her product.
While Alexander has an “unquenchable enthusiasm” for expanding distribution so more people can try Switchel, which she says she fell in love with at first sip, she said she wants to “grow smartly and at the right time.”
“I am chomping at the bit to showcase the new flavors and packaging changes, but I don’t want to spread my resources to thin, yet,” she said.
Just as she realized restricting where Switchel is shelved can help it grow, she realizes that limiting her growth to only what she can currently handle will help her company expand more in the long run than if she overextended herself and could not fulfill her obligations.
“I have to focus myself on growing so that we can get the next step in production figured out, which is working with co-packers further afield from” New England.
Alexander also wants to ensure there is enough supply “for our local folks” before she heads to new regions, she said.
As she works out these details in a way that will not bury her in debt, she will continue to produce Switchel at the Vermont Food Venture Center, an incubator she joined in 2012 that helps start-ups get off the ground.
Reflecting on how far Switchel has come since the early days at the farmers’ market and on how much farther Alexander wants the drink to go, she bubbled that “even though it is a lot of hard work, I have loved every minute of it.”
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[Correction: This article has been updated to clarify that, while the product is made with organic apple cider vinegar and other organic ingredients, the finished product is not itself certified organic. We apologize for any misunderstanding.]