She-E-O and Tufts alum Nicole Blank (A&S ’15) just launched her new drink company, Sip City, and if you haven’t heard of it yet, you will. Nikki and her business partner Josie have brewed a solution to the dilemma that so many young people face: how to drink alcohol and still be (kind of) healthy about it. It’s called switchel, and it’s an old, colonial-era, probiotic recipe, and they are bringing it back. I got to interview Nikki about switchel and her experience creating it as a female entrepreneur and after hearing her story I don’t just want to make Sip City a part of my weekly routine, but I want to start my own freaking company!
SG: What is switchel and what inspired you to start making it? How did you decide to turn it into a company?
NB: Switchel is an apple cider vinegar and ginger based drink that has roots in the United States as the OG natural sports/probiotic drink and cocktail mixer. In colonial America, farmers sipped on switchel after working out in the sun and Congress used to spike switchel with rum. The base of our switchel is apple cider vinegar, ginger, honey and a little bit of citrus. There are no added or artificial flavors and preservatives— something that separates us from the other sports drinks, cocktail mixers, and sodas on the market.
I came across switchel about three years ago, when I began researching probiotics, gut health, and drinking vinegars. I was brewing my own kombucha with my roommate, and was looking for something easier to make at home. Switchel was an easy to make, great tasting alternative to brewing your own bacteria in a Boston apartment. I was working in a newsroom at the time, and many of my coworkers tasted my switchel concoctions. One of them encouraged me to start a boozy beverage company, and the idea for Sip City was planted.
I moved from Boston to DC in June of 2017, thinking I would get another job in political news. In DC, I realized that the drinking culture was a lot more extreme there than in Boston, and that food incubators are a thing. With the guidance and support of a food incubator, I could take my switchel idea and make it into a reality. My business partner, Josie, and I pitched Union Kitchen with our healthy cocktail mixer alternative in August, and officially created Sip City.
SG: Did you always see yourself being an entrepreneur? When you were at Tufts, what did you see yourself doing in the future?
NB: I’m not sure I always saw myself being an entrepreneur, but stories of entrepreneurship and small businesses always peaked my interest. I’m an extremely creative person, and always had creative side projects while at Tufts, and in the working world. There had been a few ideas before this one, where I thought, “hmmm maybe I should pursue this as a side hustle,” but nothing as big as this. At Tufts, I studied English and film, and saw myself having a career in political news, political satire, or scripted comedy. After graduating, I worked at WGBH as a production assistant on a TV political news show, and at the Harvard Business Review as their social media editor. After months of looking for news jobs in DC, I decided to take the plunge into entrepreneurship. I never thought at 25, I’d be running my own company, and a functional beverage company at that.
SG: What is it like being a female-run company in a male-dominated industry?
NB: It’s been a surprisingly seamless experience, so far. We’re two 25-year-old women, with no experience in the field, and for some reason, people keep saying “yes” to us. In food innovation, you really just need a good idea and a ridiculous work ethic to get off the ground. There is so much room for growth and new ideas in this space, regardless of gender. Because we are launching this venture without investors, we’ve avoided gender discrimination on that front. We’ve had some incredible male and female mentors throughout this process, and there’s an amazing network of women in food in DC, called the Pineapple Collaborative. Women have long been the behind the scenes heroes of food. I hope that these contributions become more public.
SG: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
NB: One of the biggest challenges so far is that no one knows what switchel is, so we’re educating people on a “new” product (that’s been around forever.) Thankfully, because of kombucha’s recent popularity, people are starting to learn about probiotics, gut health and drinking vinegars. Because switchel isn’t quite like kombucha or a juice or a drinking vinegar, it’s hard to describe, and we really need people to try it for themselves.
Another big challenge has been the lack of routine in owning a company, and being your own boss. There’s no set schedule in a venture like this, and that takes some getting used to. I am 100% responsible for my time, and my work.
SG: What are you most excited about for the future? Any exciting plans?
NB: I’m most excited to build this brand from scratch, and introduce people to the magic of switchel! There are so many fun opportunities to market switchel in the sports drink category and the cocktail category, and I can’t wait to disrupt both of those industries with our all-natural product. I’m also excited to start selling online and reaching people all across the country and the world!
SG: What advice would you give Tufts students who are hoping to go into your field?
NB: There’s nothing that you can study that will fully prepare you for running a small food business. I think to succeed in most fields, you need to not be an asshole, be well-rounded, and be real with people. Grit, hustle, and scrappiness are key, as is a sense of humor. Another piece of advice that I give to friends is: if you’re unhappy in a job, and that unhappiness is spreading to all other aspects of your life, you need to make a change.
Looking back at my life, I think being an athlete most prepared me for this adventure. Talking about sports somehow always ends up sounding corny, but my soccer career taught me about teamwork, grit, perseverance, and enduring setbacks. The 6am practices, games in the snow, endless practices, and grueling fitness tests were my training ground for this venture in entrepreneurship. As a 5’2” center mid-fielder, I had to be a scrappy player, and as a 25-year-old female founder, I have to be a scrappy girl boss.
Answers have been modified for length
Wanna try switchel? Same. Unfortunately, it’s not available in Boston yet (if anyone is heading to DC soon if you get me some switchel I’ll be your best friend). But check out their website (www.sipcitydc.com) and follow them on Instagram (@sipcitydc) to stay updated on Nikki and Josie and Sip City and if/when you’ll be able to get some.