Bringing an Acid League (trip) to the condiment aisle

Scott Friedmann's strategy is to launch a wave of experimental products that take gastronomy to a new level.

Acid League1By Will Novosedlik

When Scott Friedmann, co-founder of the Acid League brand of premium vinegars, tonics and wine proxies met with Whole Foods in late 2019 to talk about his earliest line of “living vinegars,” the retailers wasted no time setting expectations. Right off the bat, they said they had no intention of launching his products.

That didn’t stop Friedmann from trying. The entrepreneur brought with him 30 different flavoured vinegars in generic eye-dropper bottles, which the Whole Foods team got to taste, one drop at a time, while Friedmann made his pitch. After an hour of tasting, they turned to him and said, “Can we launch this nationwide?” and “Can you make enough?”.

And that was the beginning of Acid League’s venture into retail.

The experimental vinegar brand was born out of a father-and-son DIY project. Friedmann comes from two previous generation of food innovators. Whereas his father and grandfather made their reputations in the 50s and 60s as inventors of various chicken-based products destined for the freezer aisle and QSRs like Harvey’s and KFC, Friedmann and his own son are more like gastro-mixologists, experimenting with novel ingredient combinations to achieve unique flavour profiles that satisfies both food adventurers and gut-health enthusiasts.

When Friedmann assured the Whole Foods buyers that he could put his products on their shelves, he had no brand, no logo, no website, no content. What he did have was the prototype and a 10-month runway to deliver the finished product nationwide.

Having worked in the branding and advertising world for much of his career (he was a former chief innovation officer at Idea Couture and a director of strategy at Blast Radius), Friedmann knew how to brand and scale a business. However, he had no idea how to scale the science of vinegar-making, so he teamed up with food scientists Cole Pearsall and Allan Mai on the product side and creative director Rae Drake for branding and content development.

“From the start,” explains Friedmann, “our ambition has been to deliver against three key criteria: taste, health and design. But the bigger vision is to build a food innovation business. We see the centre of the store as a wide open platform for innovation. We love being in vinegar, but it’s going to be a tiny part of the business relative to condiments and salad dressings.”

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Acid League products are based on the creation of “living vinegars,” which are raw, unfiltered, unpasteurized, prebiotic, functional, and full of complex flavour. Most vinegar you find at the grocery store is filtered and heat-pasteurized, killing all the microorganisms and stripping it of complex flavor. Acid League vinegar, on the other hand, is never heated, which allows it to preserve nutrients, healthy bacteria, and flavour.

According to Friedmann, people who buy its vinegars come are attracted to its flavour, health or design, or a combination of all three. “I think there’s a lot of people in the wellness community who have a design appreciation, as well a health appreciation. They also have an appreciation for flavour, but they’re not necessarily the hardcore foodie. It’s people who are interested in all things craft and fermentation.”

To appeal to what you might call the kombucha crowd, Acid League has been launching new products at a torrid pace. The company’s marketing strategy is based on what Friedmann calls “product as marketing.”

“We always thought, ‘Let’s engage people by perpetually launching interesting new products.’ We support our monthly product drops with collabs, like the one we did recently with Nashville chef Sean Brock. We did a collaborative book launch with Julia Sherman, who’s otherwise known as ‘Salad for President’, which was launched with two of our vinegars. So I think the secret is having a lot of production capacity and product development capacity. The speed and variety of product development is really what engages people.”

“Last year was a busy year,” he adds. “In November we launched something called the ‘Living Pantry’, which consists of 15 high-end products for the pantry. These have more upscale ingredients, more technique and longer fermentation times.”

In addition, he says the company also created two broth concentrates in partnership with Whole Foods in the fall, and another 12 new products in January 2022, including a California ketchup, creamy mayo, a spicy mayo, two hot sauces, two barbecue sauces, several new vinegars and a carrot ginger sushi shop dressing. He adds that Acid League has also created three new probiotic dressings, which are set to launch in March at Whole Foods.

ProxiesBeyond condiments, Acid League has also expanded into the no- to low-alcohol category with a selection of non-alcoholic wines. Called Proxies, the wines were inspired by zero-proof pairings at the Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, says Friedmann. “We made just over 40 different wine proxies last year, releasing three every month for sale online, along with five for wholesale,” he adds.

As far as distribution is concerned, Acid League claims it is in 4,000 retailers across North America, including Loblaws and Metro in Canada, Whole Foods, Publix and Safeway in the U.S, as well as several independent high-end natural food stores. While retail accounts for about 50% of its sales, the other half is direct-to-customer via its website. Products are purchased individually or in collections and kits. The brand will also soon be available on Thrive Market and other online platforms.

Friedmann and his partners are counting on customers who are interested enough not just to buy prepared vinegars and sauces, but to do some base-level experimentation of their own. The brand is betting that, in a category narrowly limited to white, cider, red wine, white wine and balsamic vinegars, the time for “flavour tripping experiments in acid” has come.

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