Ethan Hirshberg is the first to admit that he comes from a place of privilege. "I grew up on Stonyfield Farm," he says. He means that literally.
Hirshberg, 29, is the son of Gary Hirshberg, the chairman and former CEO of the Londonderry, New Hampshire, organic yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm. His mother, Meg, is a longtime farmer and current cancer advocate. His first cousin, Jon Cadoux, is the founder of Portland, Maine-based organic beer company Peak. So when the junior Hirshberg endeavored to launch Ethan's, a Boulder, Colorado-based maker of apple cider vinegar drinks in 2017, he had more than a few advantages. "I think it greased the wheels to get me into the business," he says. "It made me feel confident, like I had good resources and advisers right there with me."
Despite these advantages, Hirshberg says, he has worked hard for his company's success, which includes landing a nationwide partnership with Whole Foods in 2017. The company, which also has a presence in select Kroger and Wegmans stores, expects to double its revenue in 2019 to $4 million.
Hirshberg didn't set out to build a healthy beverage business. The itch came to him while working in the research and development division of the San Francisco-based coconut water company Harmless Harvest.
Growing up, Hirshberg often attended organic food trade shows like Expo West with his dad. Reentering the industry as an adult allowed him to see the field with fresh eyes, and he didn't like everything he saw. Along with an overemphasis on marketing gimmicks, "there was a little bit of a disingenuous feel," says Hirshberg. "It was kind of starting to feel to me like many brands were preying on people's desire to be healthier." Meanwhile, a friend had gotten him hooked on apple cider vinegar as a means for easing digestion. In small, diluted doses, vinegar boasts moderate health benefits: Applications include fighting diabetes by stabilizing blood sugar levels and helping with weight loss by curbing cravings.
The only problem was the taste, a hurdle that led Hirshberg to leverage his R&D background into experimenting with different mixers: "I was making these kind of large jars that I kept in my fridge at home. The first one I made tasted terrible; I think it was maple syrup, apple cider vinegar, and apple juice," says Hirshberg. "It was a long road to refining those."
Once he had a few tasty recipes, the young entrepreneur decided to test out his drinks at Expo East in 2016, expecting to blow the competition out of the coconut water. He quickly found that he was not the first beverage company on the apple cider vinegar wagon. BluePrint and Souza, along with a few other companies, were debuting their own versions. And while that was disappointing, it was also validating.
More importantly, though, it was the push he needed to think bigger picture about how his company would stand out: "I think people don't necessarily want to drink 16 ounces of apple cider vinegar," says Hirshberg, who packages his cider shots in smaller, two-ounce glass containers. "The smaller, more portable, convenient size solves a problem for people in a real-world way," he says. "We're not just creating another beverage for consumers to buy."
That message has been key for landing grocery store customers. "His keen attention to the industry has empowered him to cultivate an ingredient story and amplify it quickly in a way that resonates with Whole Foods Market shoppers," says Kate Brunson, the specialty supplements category merchant for Whole Foods Market.
Ethan's nine-person team, which includes two part-time nutritionists, is hoping to attract similar interest in its new line of medium-chain triglyceride, or MCT, oil-based shots, a keto-approved metabolism booster. The fatty substance, often found in certain oils and dairy products, is one of the main components of bulletproof coffee. Also in the works: natural energy shots, a caffeine and organic supplement-filled alternative to 5-hour Energy packs.
So what does his dad say about Ethan's success so far? A lot, apparently. Says Hirshberg, "Thanksgiving dinners have a way of turning into unofficial board meetings."