NoLo Beverages on the Rise: It Helps to Have a Good Sidekick

Oct 31, 2023

Growing up one entrepreneur could never have predicted her mother’s apple cider vinegar drink would one day spawn a beverage brand. Here’s why a USP is so vital in today’s growing no- and low-alcohol sector

One of Fiona Tomlinson’s most vivid childhood memories is more sour than sweet. Back in the 1970s, her mother routinely gave her apple cider vinegar (ACV) as a health tonic at their home in Auckland, New Zealand.

“Mum was ahead of her time, she worked for a health food shop, so she was well informed,” explains Fiona. “She knew ACV was good for your gut, can help lower blood sugar and cholesterol. She used to mix it with water, honey and fruit. Dad also used to add a nip of whiskey when I was sick and had trouble sleeping!”

Little did Fiona know, but those homemade drinks would be brought to life more than 40 years later in Sidekick Soda, the New Zealand beverage company she co-founded with her son Rogie.

Showcasing for the first time at Naturally Good 2023 in the Start Up Zone, the pair fielded constant enquiries. With the global apple cider vinegar industry worth $1.3 billion, and expected to reach $2.8 billion by 2030, Fiona says the time was right to launch into the Australian market at the event.

A unique selling point in ACV

In 2022, sales of no- and low-alcohol beverages (NoLo) grew by more than 7 per cent across 10 key global markets, surpassing $17 billion in market value. In such a competitive sector it’s become vital to have a healthy hero ingredient – everything from kombucha to prebiotics to nootropics.

With ACV as it’s unique point of difference, Sidekick is now stocked in just under 100 stores, outlets and cafes throughout New Zealand. It will soon launch in Foodstuffs North Island which feeds over 300 stores, and California’s 10 Erewhon Markets with hopes to be instore prior to Christmas 2023.

Having successfully masked the taste of vinegar with the help of a beverage developer, the drinks have also sold well online.

In April 2023 the business launched with three flavours – plum, mango and strawberry/plum. “The first sodas were all made with a Damson plum, however after Cyclone Gabrielle wiped out most of our Damson orchard we needed to rethink everything,” says Fiona. “I think we’ve ended up with much better products as a result.”

Fiona got into the food and beverage industry when a fourth nerve palsy in her left eye temporarily wiped out her binocular vision making it challenging to continue her photography job. In In 2017 she set up her other company, The Damson Collection, which has won numerous top awards including The World’s Best Fruit Liqueur in 2020 for its Damson Plum Liqueur.

“The Damson business does well but it’s very niche,” she says. “I wanted to create a beverage business with more mass appeal which is how Sidekick was born. Having attended trade shows, I wanted to gauge interest at Naturally Good and was encouraged by feedback.”

Hard work and homework paid off

One curiousity was the brand’s name. “It could be perceived that the AVC is the ‘sidekick’ in the drink, but it more relates to the drinker being the hero and the drink being the sidekick next to them,” explains Sales Manager Rogie, a former New Zealand rep cyclist. “People may think it also relates to Mum and I working together, but we are equals. Neither is a sidekick to the other!”

The pair approached the event strategically reaching out to buyers from key distributors to set up meetings in advance. “We met so many incredible distributors,” says Rogie. “Everyone from Global By Nature to Little Valley. We’re now working with Prep Local on our Australian market, they’ve lined up some really good connections already.”

Rogie also says meeting people like Dale Parkes from Unique Health Products, who won the Trailblazer Award at the 2023 Naturally Good Awards, was invaluable. “Dale was phenomenal, he took the time to explain the market and gave us advice about distributors. We learnt so much in a short space of time.”

NoLo – why is it suddenly so popular?

Fiona says it helps to have her son’s perspective as a 20-something, along with other young specialty contractors, given the demographic is a large part of their target.

In fact, Gen Zers are drinking about 20 percent less alcohol per capita than millennials did at their age, according to Berenberg Research. This stems in part from a heightened awareness of the risks of drinking, from poor decision making, to addiction. Additionally, both young and older customers are now prioritising their health more post-Covid, which bodes well for Sidekick and other players in the NoLo space.

Key beverage producers Soulfresh, Refresho and H2coco entered the 2023 Naturally Good awards, each highlighting health benefits of their drinks. Teaesk was announced winner of Best Beverage Product for their Black Tea & Lemon Iced Tea which has no artificial preservatives or sugar.

Fiona says the brand will return to Naturally Good 2024 and is also considering entering the competition. By then she expects the brand to be doing well in Australia. “We’re hoping to pick up more distributors at the upcoming show. It’s been nice to showcase a product that people really like.”

If you’re interested in exhibiting at Naturally Good 2024 contact the team today.

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