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Restaurants and Bars Hop On the Pop Bandwagon

Mark Lazarchic, head soda jerk and owner of six companies (“I like giving people jobs,” he says), that run the gamut from fireworks to a soda pop store, which he’s thinking of franchising.

When is a craft soda not a craft soda? When it’s bottled by Pepsi or Coca-Cola—and it’s ubiquitous. “Everyone wants to be national,” says Mark Lazarchic, head soda jerk at Whistler and North Star Soda and owner of the Blue Sun Soda Shop in Spring Lake Park, “but we don’t want to work 80-hour weeks.” (When you’re the boss, you get to make up cool titles for yourself, like “head soda jerk.”)

Lazarchic doesn’t have any local examples of lazy soda makers, but when he tried to get more product for his store from a bottler on the East Coast, the owner told him no, he only bottled one week a month. “You can’t yell at a guy for being happy,” he says.

Craft soda, like craft beer, needs to be a niche product, and in some cases a destination-like experience. Which is why the number of craft soda brewers in the Twin Cities area is growing, as well as the number of restaurants adding the products to their beverage menus. 

As more people avoid imbibing  traditional sodas, the craft market is filling that void. The push is part of a “huge movement of anti-sugar and the willingness of younger consumers to give up taste for nutrition,” says Bob Safford, founder and CEO of  Boundary Waters Brands, parent company of Joia Sparkling and Joia Spirit.

Safford sees the beverage market following the same evolution as the microwave. “It took a long time for microwave dinners to take off because the marketers forgot that it had to taste good,” Safford says. It took years of mediocre TV dinners before savvy marketers came up with organic and high-quality frozen dinners.

The same is true of the early entries into the soda backlash. The first drops of water in the bucket were flavored coconut water, kombucha and other flavored waters that were low on calories and even lower on flavor, he contends.

Both Lazarchic and Safford say they got into the craft soda market because they wanted a flavorful alternative to alcohol. Nothing is worse than going to a cool brewpub with friends and having a Coke or Sprite as your only option, Lazarchic, a non-beer drinker, says.

“Beverages are meant to be refreshing,” Safford agrees. “Sugar drives sweetness and freshness, just as salt drives flavor in food.”

Craft sodas use cane sugar and stevia-style sweeteners as opposed to high-fructose sugar and controversial artificial sweeteners. 

“Sparkling” is the new buzz word, as in “sparkling organics,” a term Safford says one of his competitors is using instead of “cola.” “We avoid the word ‘soda’ every chance we have,” he says. 

And while a local ZIP code is important, Joia is benefiting from being included in Panera’s beverage cooler, thanks to the chain’s “clean” mandate. It can also be found in an ice tub in independent restaurants such as the local salad concept, Crisp & Green.


Cans or bottles?

Soda tastes better in bottles is the general consensus of beverage aficionados. Joia’s  in bottles, but its newest offering, cocktails using its soda as the mixer, are in small cans because bars don’t like to deal with glass, Safford says. Lazarchic, on the other hand, revels in using the throwback returnable bottles. “I love that you’re reusing bottles,” he enthuses. “Even recycling isn’t the most efficient way, reusing is.”

Joia Natural Soda can be found at a vast number of restaurants and liquor stores around the Twin Cities, as well as in four other states.

The bottling plant for his two brands is located at the 6,000-square-foot soda shop in Spring Lake Park, and when Lazarchic came up with the idea to offer tours, he thought only a handful of people would take him up on the offer. But every third Saturday of the month he gives five tours to 40 to 50 people. It’s also on schools’  and clubs’ field trip radar. 

Cocktails are the natural progression for craft sodas, and Joia Spirit is capitalizing on that with its new line of spirit-based cocktails. “We’ve taken our sodas, tinkered slightly, and added vodka,” Safford says. Restaurants such as 6Smith in Wayzata are already seeing the possibilities in it, he says, as well as, “any situation where you have to make a lot of drinks fast.” The Ordway Center for the Arts has shown an interest because it could speed up the bar service during intermission. And catering is a natural market.

While Joia thrives on unusual pairings of ingredients and Whistler and North Star combine for 60 different flavors, Tree Fort Soda produces four nostalgic flavors of craft soda: orange, cola, root beer and ginger ale. “Classic American flavors but with a level of respect,” says David Duckler. Duckler is the co-owner of Verdant Tea and Prohibition Kombucha, as well as co-owner of Tree Fort Soda with his younger sister, Eva. 

Eva, who is a bit of a soda phenom, is the one who came up with the recipes and the idea for the four sodas, but her big brother handled the interview because she’s away at college. Eva was just 17 when she went into the beverage business, researching the best way to create the old-fashioned flavors she used to crave as a child. 

“She taught herself,” Duckler says. “I think what motivated her is the brewing industry is male dominated. She’d go into stores and people would assume she was there with a list for someone else.” The recipes were developed through a lot of trial and error, but the results have gotten rave reviews from the media and consumers alike.

What’s next? Soda as dessert, perhaps. Excel bottling has released two dessert-flavored offerings, Gooey Butter Cake and Apple Pie. Put that on your list of after-dinner aperitifs. 

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