Web Exclusive | July 2012 | By Sonya Chudgar

Craft Soda Steps Up to Bat

Artisanal soda is winning out against a number of mass soft drinks. 

Hotlips markets a line of made-in-house sodas to draw in customers.
Hotlips markets a line of made-in-house sodas to draw in customers.
Bookmark/Share this post with:
Email this story Email this story
Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Owners who stake their restaurant brands on natural ingredients are now matching their beverages with their mission statements.

Built on values such as sustainability and local sourcing, craft soda—the nonalcoholic sibling of craft beer—has stepped up in recent years as an alternative to mass-marketed soda. Owners say these sodas convey a positive message to guests about their restaurants’ responsible yet adventurous personality.

“It really is a point of differentiation,” says David Yudkin, owner of Hotlips, a chain of gourmet pizzerias based in Portland, Oregon. Hotlips makes its own sodas in-house, with flavors that run the gamut from raspberry and apple to habanero ginger ale and marionberry.

“By working with live ingredients and using fresh ingredients, you have an opportunity to create a relationship with the customer and the product in a way that they would expect from wine,” Yudkin explains. “It puts a personality on our soda.”

Hotlips utilizes only locally grown fruit in its soda mix, leading the brand to establish close relationships with regional farmers.

“One of the ethics of our company is to channel our money into the local economy,” Yudkin says. “So instead of sending the money off to a corporation, we have a chance to send off to local farmers, and they can be our customers and our advocates. We, in essence, cross brand; the farmer is out there talking about Hotlips.”

Purveyors of artisanal beverages contend craft sodas correspond with the brand in a way other offerings do not.

“I think someone like Coke just really sees their brand fitting in with everybody, and in some ways, Coke didn’t really, completely fit with us,” says Jim Little, culinary director at Burger Lounge, a fast-casual California burger joint built around organic products and grass-fed beef. The 5-year-old restaurant chain replaced Coke fountain beverages with organic Maine Root soda earlier this year.

“The no-corn-syrup and the organic is crucial to us,” Little explains. “Not all of our products are organic, but where we can implement them, we do. With everyone trending away from corn syrup, and that being in Coke, it’s been great feedback.”

Likewise, Luke’s Lobster, a seven-unit seafood restaurant that sources its seafood and products from Maine, has served Maine Root soft drinks since the first location opened in 2009.

“By working with fresh ingredients, you have an opportunity to create a relationship with the customer and the product.”

“We definitely want to support other Maine brands and Maine companies,” says Grace Needleman, brand manager of Luke’s Lobster. “Their whole brand image and what they’re about matches our company.”

Creating loyal brand ambassadors was a surprising yet welcome effect of craft soda, Needleman says, as fans of Maine Root sometimes visit Luke’s Lobster solely to purchase the soda. Hotlips’ soda, meanwhile, has blossomed in popularity to the point that bottles are sold in retail stores down the West Coast and up in Canada.

While craft soda fits the personality of certain brands, it doesn’t necessarily fit the personality of its customers.

“It does take a little bit at the register to explain our options,” Needleman says. “They don’t understand that Maine Root is the brand. Sometimes they ask for Coke. Coke Zero was something I got the other day for a request, and I think people are used to having their mainstream options.”

To appease guests’ expectations, most brands that concoct craft soft drinks also offer well-known alternatives. Luke’s Lobster sells Diet Coke, and Burger Lounge will sell outside soda if it fits its messaging.

“We do have Coke in the bottle, but it’s Mexican Coke, which is cane sugar-based, and Fanta, which is also cane sugar,” Little says. “We don’t have a corn-syrup beverage.”

Of course, inventing a personal soda recipe also allows for a little experimentation. At Hotlips, sodas are mixed with champagne to create artisanal mimosas on the weekends, resulting in an unusually strong morning crowd at the pizzeria, Yudkin says. And while sodas are usually made with fresh fruit, organic lemon juice, and cane sugar, Yudkin occasionally toys around with atypical ingredients. He recently devised a ginger ale that would be soothing on a sore throat.

“We did dabble a little bit with some root beer and cream sodas, but one of the flavors that I really wanted to try was a really gingery hot soda,” he says. “So I made a habanero ginger ale. Little kids didn’t like it … There are huge fans, but sales just went flat. We actually pulled it.”

Despite the failure of his ginger ale escapade, Yudkin says sales of Hotlips’ in-house soda account for 65 percent of the nonalcoholic beverage sales. At Luke’s Lobster, Maine Root accounts for 85 percent of nonalcoholic beverage sales.

“That’s pretty much unheard of in the industry,” Yudkin says. “It reinforces our reputation of serving high-quality food. If you look at Yelp or Tweets, people say, ‘Oh, you’ve got to go to Hotlips. The pizza’s really good, but the soda’s really unique.’”