Swig founder Nicole Tanner loves Diet Coke. In fact, she loves it so much that she’s spent the last 10 years building a drive-thru soda-fountain chain based entirely on beverages.
“My husband and I were big-time Diet Coke drinkers—we still are—and we appreciated a good drink from Sonic with pebble ice,” she says. “But if you visit a drive thru to get your daily dose of caffeine through a fountain drink, you might have to wait behind someone ordering food. So we thought there was something missing in the marketplace.”
That something missing was a quick and easy soft-drink stop, and, to fill the soda fountain–sized gap in the market, Tanner opened the first Swig in St. George, Utah, in 2010. She partnered with a local bakery and added cookies to the menu along with soda, keeping the concept streamlined from a food perspective by selling sweets only.
Throughout the first year of business, Tanner says, she and her husband “worked day in, day out” at the store, and began seeing returns on their investment only months into operation. By 2011, the couple opened a second shop about a mile away from the first location in order to alleviate the long lines.
Then, in 2013, a local news station featured the brand as a must-visit destination for spring breakers in St. George. After the story aired, Swig’s popularity took off.
“The news station publicity just kind of shot us out of the water,” Tanner says. “Everyone comes down to St. George for spring break; we had lines at both stores that were out to the street and we were trying to frost cookies just as fast as we could and make it work.”
By 2017, the brand had 16 locations and was fielding franchise requests from all over the country. Rather than embark on a traditional franchising route, however, Turner decided to sell the brand to restaurant development company Four Foods Group. It’s been three years since the deal and Swig is now a 22-unit chain.
FOUNDER: Nicole Tanner
HEADQUARTERS: St. George, Utah
YEAR STARTED: 2010
TOTAL UNITS: 22
FRANCHISED UNITS: 0
According to the Associated Press in 2019, around 62 percent of Utah’s 3.1 million residents are Mormon. As practicing Mormons are not permitted to drink alcohol or hot beverages like coffee, soda is in high demand in the state, and Swig is a perfect solution to that demand. Plus, its product also plays well in other markets; the company has already begun the push into Arizona and plans to expand into other states with upcoming units.
Throughout the recent growth with Four Foods Group, Swig’s menu has remained true to the original focus, continuing to serve cookies and soda only, albeit with plenty of variation in both categories.
The concept is famous for Dirty Soda, which is a regular soda like Dr. Pepper or Coca-Cola spiked with flavored syrups and, often, coconut cream. Each Swig store has around 20 base drinks on offer, as well as 30-plus flavored syrups, creams, and fresh-fruit purées. Guests can order up to 44 ounces of a signature creation—like summertime favorite The Shark Attack, which is Sprite, lemonade, blue raspberry syrup, and a gummy shark—or concoct their own drink. Various LTOs, including seasonal beverages and cookies, are also available.
“We take your favorite fountain drinks, energy drinks, or sparkling drinks and put a unique spin on them, enabling you to become the mixologist,” says vice president of marketing and technology Dylan Roeder. “There are literally millions of combinations.”
While the brand could easily widen its focus to include food items, the team says a streamlined approach is what makes Swig best-in-class when it comes to its key product. “We want to be the best beverage shop out there, and we keep it simple for that reason,” says vice president of operations Chase Wardrop. “We want to do a few things and do them exceptionally well rather than do 100 things marginally.”
This laser focus is reflected in the brand’s ongoing growth plan: expansion through shipping containers turned into soda stands. While there are stores in the Swig system that clock in anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 square feet, the company is now returning to its roots—the original store was 600 square feet—with smaller buildouts in 550-square-foot shipping containers.
The new growth model is sustainable, with lower construction and utility costs than traditional stores. It’s easy to construct, enabling the brand to pursue a new growth goal of doubling its store count over the next 18 months. And, for landlords, the container buildout is especially appealing; the units can fit in small, untraditional spaces, like parking lots, which can easily increase the value of a shopping center.
“Not only are we super excited about it, but landlords and property owners are as well, so we’re on track for some pretty explosive growth,” Wardrop says.
The model works through various conditions that could greet the industry in the future, too. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Swig has seen an influx of sales thanks to its low-contact, easy-pickup operations. The shipping-container soda shops, complete with drive thrus, also helped.
“Before the coronavirus, we invested quite a bit in technology and training that allow us to take orders strategically,” Wardrop says. “So when the coronavirus hit, we became busier than we’ve ever been, and we were ready and prepared.”