Wisconsin soda bottlers bank on nostalgiaAn “endangered species” of business is being revived in Northeastern Wisconsin.
By: By Patty Murray, Wisconsin Public Radio, Superior Telegram
An “endangered species” of business is being revived in Northeastern Wisconsin. Two entrepreneurs have started up an old fashioned returnable soda bottling operation. It's one of a couple handfuls of the deposit-based businesses in the country.
Flavor 8 Bottling in New London is thought to be one of the first newly formed returnable bottling plants in decades.
Co-owner John Mathison started up Flavor 8 along with his partner, Dave Talo, in 2010. The “8” in the name is for the 8 ounce bottles it is sold in.
The company is now in 45 retail locations. Dave Talo says it sells the type of soda that was once ubiquitous in small towns.
“There were over 200 bottlers in the state in the 1950's, small bottlers,” he said. “And more soda was consumed in the late 50's in this country than is now.”
Now, Talo says there are thought to be only 13 small returnable bottlers in the whole country. It turns out three of them are in Northeastern Wisconsin.
“It'd be Twigs [clank of bottle] pardon me, Twigs Beverage, Seymour Beverage in Seymour and us,” he said. “And we're, I believe, the first returnable bottle soda company in nearly 40 years in the country.”
Flavor 8 is categorized by the industry as a “gourmet soda.” A number of microbreweries offer sodas, along with beer, but not in returnable bottles. The state Department of Ag, Trade, and Consumer Protection inspects and licenses bottlers for cleanliness, but doesn't differentiate between returnables and non-returnables.
After scraping together start-up money, and some incentives from the city of New London, Talo and Mathison found and restored a vintage bottle washer, filler, and capper.
“It was in storage for 37 years ... [it] wasn't in this shape!” Talo said.
That's after Talo spent a couple of years and a lot of effort researching the market, and testing out samples from other companies on his family and friends.
“It was a product everyone seemed to like and had very fond memories of but no one understood why it went away?” he said. “How could something so fun and popular go away?”
Turns out bottlers didn't keep their deposit prices apace with the sharply rising price of glass.
“Your deposit has to cover the cost of you losing a case of bottles and the case it came in. And over time they did not keep that deposit rising along with the cost of glass. So when they'd lose it or someone didn't take the cases back they only had, say, $1.50 to replace something that cost them $7.00.”
Customers have to put $10 down for their first purchase of a case of Flavor 8. After that a case is roughly $10.
Co-owner Talo says nostalgia is part of the product's draw, and key to that retro taste is the glass bottle, it can't be plastic or aluminum. He says Flavor 8 also shuns high fructose sweeteners in favor of granular sugar and a “large bubble” carbonation.
“It gloms onto the water molecules during the process,” he said. “You can open it, it stays with the water. The whole idea was when you put it in your mouth and your mouth warms it up: that's when the CO2 comes out of it.”
Talo and Mathison now work with Twig's Beverage in Shawano, best known for distributing Sun Drop. The two go in together on bulk purchases like bottle caps. Besides the two co-owners, Flavor 8 has two part time employees and plans to soon have 11 flavors, with the biggest seller being root beer.
Flavor 8 serves up about 500 cases per week. Dave Talo and John Mathison hope to expand distribution beyond Northeastern Wisconsin to backyards all over the state.