Haywood soda company aims to change palettes
Haywood County just got a little sweeter.
Specializing in “handcrafted, locally produced, artisan beverages,” Waynesville Soda Jerks is a new business that has opened at the Waynesville Historic Farmer’s Market. At the center of it all are founders Megan Brown and Chris Allen.
“I think this area is ready for this,” Allen said. “The beverage industry around here is exploding, so we’re trying to tap into it.”
The 26-year-old duo offers a variety of beverages with names like Appalachian Strawberry Rhubarb, Jasmine Vanilla Tea, Cream Soda, Citrus Dewdrop, Watermelon Mint, Celery Soda, Ginger, Strawberry Balsamic, Mint and Lemon Thyme. But tastes are always changing, always shifting, and that’s something Brown and Allen have planned for from the beginning.
“We’re going to keep trying new things and keep changing,” Brown said. “Right now we have ‘Cola Batch #1,” and soon it will be ‘Cola Batch #2,” which will taste different because it’s always evolving.”
After meeting at Pisgah High School, the couple became close. But college changed everything. Brown headed for Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte for business and marketing, while Allen went to N.C. State in Raleigh where he studied mechanical engineering. While in Raleigh, Allen began working in the restaurant industry. It was there that he developed an interest in artisan food and beverages.
“I was in restaurants; I really enjoyed it and the connections I was making,” he said. “So, I decided to go more into a background of cooking and went into the culinary arts program at Wake Technical Community College.”
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After holding a handful of jobs in eastern North Carolina, Brown and Allen soon found themselves back into Haywood County. They crossed paths and have been together ever since. Both currently work at Frogs Leap Public House, a farm-to-table restaurant that has influenced the couple to pursue quality and handmade, instead of mass-produced and processed.
“Our focus is to keeps things as local as possible,” Allen said.
The couple say they weren’t happy with quality of the beverages coming out of the mass-produced soda stream they purchased for their house.
“We didn’t like the syrups the stream came with. It tasted like chemicals, so we started making our own,” Brown said. “We’re now making syrups from fresh fruits and materials that are grown in Haywood County.”
The modern-day soda industry has been getting a bit of a black eye recently, constantly in the news because of health and societal issues dealing with overconsumption and controversial ingredients like high fructose corn syrup. Brown and Allen are trying to get people away from the corn syrup by only using local, natural ingredients and raw cane sugar.
“Besides the raw cane sugar, we’re also working towards using local honey and molasses,” Allen said. “You want to know exactly what you’re putting in your body. We use no chemicals, no artificial flavors or colorings, none of that nasty stuff.”
Brown points to a recent encounter with a young girl, who came up to their booth at the farmer’s market. The girl pointed to a bright red strawberry drink and asked if the color was from an artificial dye.
“She was really concerned, and we told her, ‘No, that’s how red strawberries really are,’” Brown smiled.
So, what is a “soda jerk”?
“It’s an old phrase coined after people who worked in soda fountains or pharmacies,” Allen said. “Like a beer tap, they would pour soda and would ‘jerk’ the tap all day. It’s an endearing term, something a little edgy that has a back story and nostalgic side to it.”
Though it’s been a fast-moving process, the couple is ready for the challenge. They recently enrolled into the entrepreneurship program at Haywood Community College, and now that they’ve secured their spot at the farmer’s market, the next steps are to someday have a storefront, a bottling line and be able to sell the product wholesale to restaurants, cafes and bars looking for something different.
“When people support us, they support others at the farmer’s market, and it’s important that money spent here stays in the community,” Brown said. “It all has happened so quickly, from the time we had the idea to now, to where we’re going and where we’ll be by the end of the summer.”
Want to try it?
The Waynesville Soda Jerks are at the Waynesville Historic Farmer’s Market from 8 a.m. to noon on Wednesdays and Saturdays. 828.808.3616 or www.waynesvillesodajerks.com or www.facebook.com/waynesvillesodajerks.