Business Spotlight: Abuzz About Craft Soda
Family owned and operated Ozark Mountain Bottleworks sizes up the niche market
Tuesday, August 06, 2013 9:36 AM
Craft beer is king of the beverage industry of late. Local brewers have posted double-digit sales growth in each of the last two years, and Springfield’s own Mother’s Brewing Co. has grabbed its share, noted as the seventh-fastest growing craft brewery nationwide last year.
Starting in Tina King's kitchen with pink lemonade, Ozark Mountain Bottleworks now sells five flavors and more than 2,000 cases a year.
Well before that buzz, Tina King was concocting craft soda in family-friendly Branson.
King’s craft stems from a pink lemonade she perfected for her children, and in 2009, the homemaker got the nerve to mass produce it.
“This is not an industry that we ever expected to be in,” says King, now the “chief bottle washer” at Ozark Mountain Bottleworks Inc.
Co-owned and operated by King, her husband Chris and her mother, Debbie Walters, a silent partner, the Branson-based family business started with a production run of 60 cases and today runs more than 2,000 cases a year covering five flavors.
Through distributor Premium Beverage Sales, Ozark Mountain Bottleworks is sold at 75 grocery and retail stores in southwest Missouri.
“They are the first craft soda we’re carrying,” says Mark Gelner, Premium Beverage’s vice president of craft and nonalcoholic brands. “I look at this as a craft beer. It has a local aspect and a flavor category, and that’s what’s growing right now.”
Genie in a bottle
Sprouting out of King’s kitchen to work with multiple vendors, delivering product hasn’t happened overnight.
King recalls an 18-hour drive home from Disney World with her husband and their children that turned into a business meeting to formulate the concept and name.
Two things were certain: The homemade ingredients would be packaged in glass bottles and the product would be sold under the name Ozark Mountain Bottleworks.
The first hurdle was settling on a manufacturer. King first presented her recipe to a flavor house in Louisville, Ky.
“They said most times homemade recipes usually don’t work in the market,” she says of the product development team at Flavorman, one of three companies she interviewed.
Flavorman’s researchers suggested she develop more than one flavor and Ozark Mountain Bottleworks quickly partnered with the flavor house, joining its client list of 200, including Chiquita Brands, Jones Soda Co. and Starbucks. After analyzing acid, sugar and carbonation levels, King and the company’s scientists settled on formulations for grape pop, cream soda and orange cream flavors to complement the lemonade.
“They understand we want unique, traditional flavors,” she says.
The search for a manufacturer was centered on a key ingredient: glass bottled packaging. King says there are only a handful of carbonated, cold-filtered manufacturers using glass bottles, and her research took her to Crown Valley Winery in Ste. Genevieve, south of St. Louis on the Mississippi River. The next closest option, she says, was in Minnesota.
King takes her recipes to Crown Valley for mixing, bottling, crowning, labeling and packaging, and the four-packs are then shipped by truck to Premium Beverage.
Ozark Mountain Bottleworks’ business model is strategically market-driven, so production orders are made in smaller batches, typically 430 to 500 cases for each flavor run.
“Last year, we ran three times,” King says. “It depends on the weather – the weather outside and the weather of people’s pocketbooks.
“Let’s say it’s a very hot, long week. Premium will likely go through lemonade the most. If it’s rainy or cooler, we’ll go through cream or root beer faster.”
Root beer is the latest in the family of flavors and King is awaiting an order for 240 cases and a keg. “Root beer is the one that’s grown like wildflower,” she says.
Premium Beverage keeps in stock about 200 cases to ship out as needed to such sellers as Stone Hill Winery and Dick’s 5 & 10 in Branson and Price Cutter, Hy-Vee, Harter House and Signal stores in Springfield. Ozark Mountain Beverage also sells product to a handful of retailers in the Kansas City and St. Louis markets, as well as sales online.
Premium Beverage’s Gelner says Queen City Deli and Old Chicago in Springfield also serve the root beer on tap.
“There is huge potential out there for restaurants looking for quality local draft root beer,” Gelner says. “A restaurant can sell a refill. It’s like you’re selling a pint of beer, charging every time it goes out as opposed to a soda gun.”
Brad Nelson, owner of Homegrown Food since January, recently began purchasing the kegs to sell root beer by the glass at the Rountree Neighborhood store and at Farmers Market of the Ozarks.
“It somewhat simulates the experience of having a cocktail or restaurant drink, but nonalcoholic,” Nelson says of the $2 draft root beer. “We serve a lot of kids, too. There’s something about the concept of drinking out of a keg that makes it taste better.”
The retailer, which prices the four-packs for $6 and individual bottles for $1.75, sells a couple of 24-count cases of each flavor per week, Nelson says.
“It’s exactly what we’re looking for. It’s local, they do their best to get the ingredients here (and) don’t use any un-natural additives,” he says. “They’re responsible to the community – and it tastes great. If I could find a million more things like that.”
King acknowledges her business is riding the coattails of the craft brewery trends, but she says there are unique challenges.
“Soda is so much different. It’s hard to sell soda, in comparison to beer or alcohol. The money isn’t as glamorous as it is in the beer industry,” she says, declining to disclose revenues. “This is still an industry that is going to thrive. Glass-bottled soda is making a comeback.”