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A Morning Inside an Instagram Ad

Dirty Lemon adds a storefront to its Instagram-centric strategy

(Dirty Lemon)
(Dirty Lemon)

A year or so ago, I started to see advertisements for a “detox” lemonade called Dirty Lemon on Instagram. The ads showcased a chic, matte, striped bottle of premium, cold-pressed juice, and it triggered the part of my brain that hisses click, bitch at every Glossier promo. This week, I went to Dirty Lemon’s new pop-up shop in Manhattan to finally try the product stuck on my feed.

In case you haven’t seen the promoted ads, or celebrity fans like Karlie Kloss holding its bottles on their own feeds: Dirty Lemon is a wellness startup that sells a variety of prebottled elixirs designed to make people feel better. Its original recipe, Raw Detox, is made from reverse-osmosis filter water; cold-pressed, non-GMO lemons; organic dandelion root; organic ginger root; and activated charcoal harvested from coconut shells. Its other concoctions promise better skin and hair, better sleep, and increased energy, and they proffer ingredients like hydrolyzed marine collagen peptides and Siberian ginseng. The company’s unusual delivery model is text-to-order. To buy a set of its pricy drinks, one must text with the Brooklyn-based company. The only other way is to happen upon its temporary storefront, which opened at the beginning of July and runs through Labor Day.

The Drug Store is nestled on a hip-glitz strip of Elizabeth Street in Nolita, directly next door to a store that exclusively sells aromatic room sprays. Town and Country called it a “non-alcoholic cocktail bar.” The faux-old-timey space is decorated with glass containers filled with pickled lemons, minimalist tables dotted with modest bouquets of wildflowers, and a large sign behind the bar that says, “D R U G S.” The Drug Store is so meticulously retro-themed that it could be only the work of marketing. And, as it so happens, its founder, Zak Normandin, is also the founder of a creative agency called Redwood. The main attraction is a small bar, at which a floral-clad bartender carefully mixes nonalcoholic drinks for $10 or $12 a cup. I ordered an Energy drink, which was prepared with various bright tinctures doled in precise measurements into a cup of crushed ice with dainty, stainless-steel jiggers. It tasted tangy and delicious. It was a freshly made version of what the company sells online, and it contained lime and lemon juice, along with a “proprietary energy blend” and a “proprietary essence blend,” both of which included green tea. It gave me about as much energy as a cup of coffee does.

(Dirty Lemon)
(Dirty Lemon)

Drug Store also sells Dirty Lemon’s premade, prebottled drinks, and I took one they offered me for free, so I could compare the two experiences. I had the original Raw Detox this time instead of Energy. I liked it as well; it was refreshing, tart, and devoid of the note of “gym socks left out in the rain” that plagues other health drinks like kombucha. The only aesthetic downside is its sewer-water hue, which is obscured by the bottle in square Instagram ads but obvious in real life.

The gutter-runoff color comes from the activated charcoal, which is becoming one of those weird, dubious fad ingredients in the wellness world. Cold-pressed juice purveyor Juice Generation has sold a variety of lemonade-style juices with activated charcoal as an ingredient since 2014. And according to Teen Vogue and BuzzFeed, a new Instagram-friendly drink trend also uses activated charcoal as its key ingredient. Unfortunately, this has earned it the label of “goth latte.” It’s been credited with a panacea quality by various alternative health advocates; Bulletproof coffee founder Dave Asprey, for example, has touted it for relieving gas and bloating, hiding bad breath, eliminating body odor, improving the complexion, helping heart health, helping people live longer, and “general detoxification.” For its part, Dirty Lemon claims that its detox formula, which uses activated charcoal as its main active ingredient, can “help to calm the stomach, support liver/kidney function and trap impurities before they can be absorbed by the body.” Despite its popularity, there is little evidence that activated charcoal will benefit healthy people. I’d probably be more inclined to plop down a 10-spot if Dirty Lemon were just a tasty juice with natural flavors sans any dubious insinuation that it is somehow improving my health.

But that’s just me! And while it is not FDA-approved and decidedly woo-woo, I find Dirty Lemon to be much more appealing than other juice cleanses. The “cleanse” is that you drink Dirty Lemon products on top of whatever else you normally consume, rather than restrict the diet to liquids or a stringent handful of foods like you do during a traditional “detox” program.. Its nonpuritanical approach seems relatively reasonable, or at least as reasonable as any pitch that requires purchasing beverages for $10 a pop can be.

I am Dirty Lemon’s exact demographical target. (A Brooklynite millennial who spends an upsetting amount of money on kombucha.) And while I was aware that the pop-up was gimmicky and more of a real-life advertisement to sell the drinks than an actual place, I enjoyed the experience. It reminded me why I like going to physical stores even though clicking around to order stuff online is so much more convenient: It’s fun to be out in the world! Traditional retail is in shambles, with abandoned malls plaguing the suburbs. Just a few neighborhoods over from The Drug Store, shuttered storefronts besmirch the West Village, an example of what’s known as “high-rent blight,” where expensive neighborhoods become retail ghost towns because it’s difficult for businesses to make the steep rent. Dirty Lemon’s business model makes more sense living on the internet rather than in cafés (which is why the pop-up is a temporary promo). But even though I’d found out about Dirty Lemon on Instagram, sitting in the sunshine and sipping a freshly made drink was an experience that felt like a respite from technology-driven business more than an extension of it.

This feeling was, of course, illusory. I pulled out a $10 bill to pay for my drink. “We’re cashless,” the bartender told me.