PITTSFIELD — Kimberly Allardyce grew up in Pittsfield attending yoga classes with her mother. Her father was an avid meditator. No, there was nothing unusual about her family.
"We weren't that family, you know, that's really out there," Allardyce said, laughing. "They [her parents] were just normal people, but they had a wellness practice integrated into their lives."
Those practices rubbed off on their daughter, who has spent her entire career in the wellness industry, first as an instructor, then on the business side.
In 2017, Allardyce joined Shire City Herbals — it's a Pittsfield-based manufacturer of vinegar-based health tonics — as vice president of business development. In February, Allardyce became the company's CEO.
In 2019, a federal judge resolved a four-year legal battle between Shire City Herbals and a group of herbalists over the use of the Fire Cider name, which Shire City had trademarked in 2012. The court ruled that phrase to be a generic term that, by definition, cannot be trademarked.
Shire City still can sell products under the Fire Cider name, but now everyone else legally can, too. The Pittsfield firm, which distributes its products nationally, is starting to get out from under the results of that decision.
We recently talked with Allardyce about her professional career path, where she sees Shire City Herbals' place in the ever-growing wellness industry, and her thoughts on the Fire Cider controversy.
Q: How did you originally get involved in working in the wellness industry?
A: My former career, if you will, was in mental health and human services.
I was doing therapy work with at-risk populations. I had my own yoga practice, which really helped me manage the intensity of some of that work. I worked with sexual abuse victims, homeless people, autistic children, an array of communities both in Hawaii [she went to Chaminade University in Honolulu] and in the Berkshires. ...
When I was doing work at a residential treatment center as a therapist, I wanted to begin to incorporate some of the techniques I had learned that were helpful for me into some of the therapeutic work that I was doing, so, I signed on for yoga teacher training at Kripalu.
Q: How did you get involved in the business side of the industry?
A: My relationship with Kripalu evolved into where I started teaching yoga for them and helped them with the teacher training program. On the side, I started a business to help resorts who needed to kind of figure out how to develop a program for yoga and get their staff trained.
I landed contracts with Sandals and Club Med. This was just like a side project, if you will, that really took on a life of its own because there was a need there. That was the point where I started to divert more into the business of wellness and gaining a better understanding of that.
Q: You made some deals with some major players in the wellness industry. Did you have a business background?
A: I did not have a business background. I like to say it's an applied MBA, because you learn from all of your mistakes. I particularly like to learn from people who know how to do certain things really well. With these experiences, I spent time absorbing as much information as I could.
Q: Why did you join Shire City?
A: I was home, helping my mom. My dad had passed away. ... Friends of mine said Shire City was looking for someone to help them with sales, and would you be interested in connecting with them? So, I was introduced to them and we hit it off.
Q: Shire City began as a startup in 2011. What have you tried to bring to the business since you got there?
A: They really needed to look at the business as it was from a bootstrap startup to what was really needed to sustain a team and operational practices and then sales strategies. ...
Every business goes through that evolution. It's something that's an idea, then you start it, then you've got 10 people relying on you so you have to set the foundation. So, I stepped in and really helped Dana [St. Pierre, one of the company's founders and owners] with that setting up national distribution and revamping [their relationship] with Amazon and really getting clear about what we were doing for our dot.com business.
Q: When you became CEO in February, the news release said you were taking over as Shire City enters a "period that foretells enormous growth for both the apple cider vinegar category and for functional health beverages," and that the company would be entering a "growth phase." How is the category and the company growing?
A: The category of apple cider vinegar and functional beverages is growing hugely as people are shifting to more of a food-as-medicine approach with their eating. ...
We're seeing growth in more of our direct-to-consumer channels. Retail has been a little more touch-and-go, if you will, because of the pandemic and shifting buying patterns for people, so, retail is the thing that we almost need to reimagine post-pandemic. ...
A new strategy needs to be delivered here, and quite frankly, we're just figuring out what that looks like because no one really knows to what extent retail shopping will return [when the pandemic ends].
Q: Where does Shire City Herbals fit into this boom?
A: We're currently, in terms of our category, the second performer in our industry, to Bragg's. ... We're working on a couple of new products that are going through the lab-testing process, and once we complete that process, we'll be able to launch two new products that are not Fire Cider, [although] they're still apple cider vinegar-based products. ...
We're starting to diversify our offerings from just Fire Cider that's pretty potent and spicy to something that's more palatable to a broader range of people.
Q: Has there been any fallout from the legal battle over the use of the Fire Cider name?
A: I think, in hindsight, we made an error. I think there was some level of being new to business ... corporate law says you have to trademark the name of your product and defend your trademark or you lose your trademark.
In retrospect, we should not have fought that battle. It was the wrong thing to do at the time. It was a wrong focus of energy. We inadvertently caused harm, and there was fallout from that. There are some people who will never engage with our brand.
Q: Has the situation been resolved? It sounds like there may still be some lingering effects.
A: I will say that it's been resolved in the sense that the trademark was dropped and we elected not to appeal the decision because we agreed with the decision by that juncture. At the point when I was asking questions, like, "You guys really shouldn't be doing this," we were so far into it that there wasn't an exit strategy.
Those are the most painful business lessons to learn. You're going down a pathway and it's, how do you make a graceful dismount? We had gotten to the point where we had to see the legal proceedings through to completion. When the verdict was rendered, I actually breathed a sigh of relief because the controversy just dropped.
Q: Is Shire City Herbals on the rebound now?
A: We've rebranded. We're launching new products. We've got a bright view of the future.
I think we are really looking forward. I think we've closed the chapter of the trademark controversy. ... We're taking the time to really listen and learn from the community so that we can make a very intentional path forward to rebuild some of the relationships that were harmed.