When Jel Sert president Ken Wegner watched mom-and-pop companies enter the market with alcohol freezer pops a few years ago, he recalled the once-novel idea was soundly dismissed as something adults would never embrace.
Today, the wildly popular alternative to a mug of beer or a glass of whiskey is among the fastest-growing options in the alcohol space and a key source of future revenue for Jel Sert, a 94-year-old company better known for its Royal instant mixes and Fla-Vor-Ice frozen freezer pops.
"We're now into a category that's going to be exploding and do really much bigger things as more adults now realize, 'Wait a minute, this is really good and a great value for me,'" said Wegner, whose grandparents founded Jel Sert. "People are going to be reaching into the freezer as adults just as they were when they were a kid."
The freezer pop category overall has been attracting adult consumers nostalgic for a taste of their childhood. Wegner thought this newfound demand, coupled with the emergence of alcohol pops, offered Jel Sert an opportunity to enter the category.
Jel Sert —which is named after the company's first product, a gelatin dessert mix named by combining the words jelly and dessert — not only produces pudding and pops but powdered drink mixes such as its own Wyler's Light brand and through licenses it has struck with Mars Wrigley to use Skittles and Starburst, Hershey's Jolly Rancher and Coca-Cola's Hi-C, among others.
As consumer trends evolve, Jel Sert has added options for many of its products or created new brands to address them. Its SuperC drink mix with antioxidants and 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C caters to shoppers looking for functionality in their beverages. In 2019, the company launched PureKick energy drink mixes, and in 2018 it started producing Otter Pops 100% Fruit Juice, with no artificial colors for some Costco stores.
"We look at hydration. We look at immunity. We look at energy as a real platform and opportunities to grow in that better-for-you world," Wegner said. "We're kind of a jack of all trades."
Despite delving into several categories, few of its products are as well known among kids and adults as its freezer pops, which Jel Sert first started selling in 1963. Jel Sert makes an estimated tens of millions of freezer pops a day and billions annually, most of them under its Fla-Vor-Ice and Otter Pops lines. During the coronavirus pandemic, "the freezer pop category has gone through the roof," Wegner noted. "We can't make freezer pops fast enough right now."
"We're now into a category that's going to be exploding and do really much bigger things as more adults now realize, 'Wait a minute, this is really good and a great value for me.' People are going to be reaching into the freezer as adults just as they were when they were a kid."
President, Jel Sert
In most of the categories the West Chicago-based company operates in, Jel Sert's brands go head-to-head against offerings from large CPG manufacturers. In dessert mixes, its Royal brand competes with Jell-O, while its powdered drink packets battle with Crystal Light and Kool-Aid — all three brands of which are owned by Kraft Heinz. Even in alcohol pops, its rum, agave spirit and vodka offerings under its SLIQ brand go up against products from small and big-name players, including Anheuser-Busch.
"We go up against the big guys every day, and we do it successfully," Wegner said. "We've always done it. That's just the way we run our business." Jel Sert is able to do that, he said, by innovating in categories where the bigger players are content with the status quo and by expanding into novel products through licensing deals, such as a Skittles drink mix with a rainbow flavor variety pack or a Starburst gelatin mix.
Wegner declined to offer details on the private company's finances, but said Jel Sert is growing sales between 5% and 10% annually. As the company looks to tap into future growth, Wegner said Jel Sert will turn to more alcohol options and continue to expand its portfolio into other trendy niches such as functional or clean label products.
"For nearly a 100-year-old company, we have a lot of energy. We're always looking for new and exciting opportunities," Wegner said. " We have a long runway ahead of us."