WORCESTER, Mass.—Nassim Aoude and Michael Melkonian are the young founders of PunchPops, a new Worcester-based company breaking into the American alcohol industry with a 21-plus twist on a summertime favorite.
The idea for marketing wine-infused popsicles emerged the summer of 2017, after Melkonian and Aoude spent a long weekend with friends at Ogunquit Beach. “We had been drinking and playing spikeball all day at the beach,” recalls Melkonian. “We brought regular non-alcoholic [popsicles] with us in a cooler along with our booze. One of our friends asked for a drink from the cooler, and it turned out that we had ran out of cups. With a [popsicle] in his hand, he suggested to just pour the alcohol into the sleeve.” Enter: PunchPops.
Aoude and Melkonian, who have been best friends since high school (they attended St. Peter-Marian in Worcester), never quite envisioned they’d be embarking on a venture in alcohol. Aoude, who studied mechanical engineering at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, leads a drone services company in Worcester called Alpinax. Melkonian, who has Armenian roots and has been active in Armenian organizations like the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF), studied finance at Northeastern and went on to work for Fidelity. Confident about the potential of PunchPops in the American market, Melkonian quit his job at Fidelity last January to pursue his new business full time with Aoude.
After their beach-side discovery, the duo immediately began discussing how to turn the idea—a spiked popsicle—into a viable business. In fact, they wondered how something of this nature hadn’t already made it into the market. Turns out, it had. But Melkonian and Aoude were not impressed by what they found and felt certain that—with their millennial wits about them—they could improve upon previous attempts.
An impromptu research and development phase ensued. The two ordered supplies online and made small test batches of homemade, alcohol-infused pops. Aoude’s basement quickly transformed into a flavor development lab, while Melkonian’s kitchen became the designated manufacturing facility. During this period, they made over 10,000 pops by hand, which they tested with family and friends.
Their next concern was sourcing. Melkonian says that nearly their entire supply chain is U.S.-based—everything from the cardboard packaging to the ingredients (their co-packer is based in Missouri). Currently, the only foreign element is the film for the popsicle tubes. The wine is made from oranges in Florida and goes by the rather curious designation “Other Than Standard Orange wine.” (OTSO, referred to as “magic wine” in their website’s frequently asked questions, is a new product in the alcoholic beverage industry used often in cocktails, handled under wine regulations, yet is characterized by a higher alcohol content than most wines.)
In 2018, after months of back and forth, PunchPops was brought on by Total Wine & More, one of the largest independently owned liquor stores in the country. But bear in mind, their product is a uniquely seasonal one, and by the time they were ready to launch, it was getting to be late in the year. Popsicles don’t sell so well in the throes of a New England winter, so Aoude and Melkonian decided to release their product in Florida’s market. Today, PunchPops, which goes for $1.99 a pop (or $19.99 for a twelve-pack), is now distributed in 28 of 30 Total Wine stores in the state.
Aoude and Melkonian are now preparing to market PunchPops in their home state this spring, where warm weather will hopefully be more conducive to the idea of wine in a popsicle.