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Small Business Success — Waynesville Soda Jerks

Megan and Chris with their baby Grady. Megan and Chris with their baby Grady.

As we highlight some resources for small businesses at Haywood Community College this week, we also wanted to highlight a local small business success story that began with help from the Small Business Center at HCC. Waynesville Soda Jerks are a shining example of taking a passion and turning it into a sustainable and growing business. Co-owner Megan Brown took time to share her story with Rumble.

Rumble: Tell me a little about yourself and how Waynesville Soda Jerks got started.

Megan: We started in 2013 as vendors selling hand mixed sodas at the Haywood Historic Farmers Market.  At the time, we were working at a local restaurant together and we thought that starting a small market booth would be a fun and easy gig for some extra cash during the summer.  We often joke about how we were two 26 year olds with what was essentially a glorified adult lemonade stand! We didn’t have any plans to take it any further than a seasonal farmers market booth until customers kept asking if we had bottled products to take home. So, in the fall of 2013, with the push from our supportive customers and family, we enrolled into the Entrepreneurship program at HCC and launched our Kickstarter campaign. 

 

Rumble: How has your small business changed and grown over the years?

Megan: Our business has changed so much since we started and we often talk about how it feels like we’ve created several different businesses within one. We went from home processors working out of our tiny apartment kitchen in Waynesville to now working out of own production facility. The first few years we only operated seasonally at markets and festivals. We also spent those first years developing the concept of Waynesville Soda Jerks, creating flavors, and forming relationships with our local farmers who supply our ingredients.  We started bottling our product until 2015 and tested the waters of wholesale selling by starting with 7 local accounts in Haywood County.  We’ve now grown to over 100 accounts throughout Western NC and have created 11 bottled soda flavors to date. 

 

Rumble: Who have been your mentors and inspiration as you've grown your business?

Megan: We’ve been fortunate to receive inspiration and assistance from all kinds of folks over the years.  The core of our business is making craft sodas from locally sourced ingredients and we wouldn’t be able to do that with the help from our local farmers.  We’ve met farmers and growers from all over North Carolina who have inspired us with their dedication to the produce that they grow. 

On the business end, we’ve worked with Katy Gould at the HCC small business center for years.  She is always available if we need some advice. She is also good about letting us know if there are any opportunities such as grants or free classes that we need to take advantage of.

Our closest business mentor has been John Forrester of Forrester & Associates.  He moved to the area a few years ago and since then has taken a great interested in our company.  He has spent countless hours giving us advice, helping us organize our business, and preparing documents for loans. 

 

Rumble: What has been the most challenging part of starting and running a small business?

Megan: The most challenging part about starting and running our business has been funding.  Chris and I both grew up in Haywood County, each from humble homes. We didn’t have any sort of family money to help seed or run our new venture but what we did have was strong work ethic. We watched each of parents start their own businesses at different points in our lives and we knew what hard work meant. So, at the inception of our business in 2013, we each made contribution a $1,000 out of our savings to purchase basics such as a market tent, cooking supplies, ingredients, kegs, etc.  Since then we’ve received all type of funding to keep our business going…everything from our initial Kickstarter campaign, to traditional loans, and even some grants.  I am also always on the lookout for small business competitions with cash prizes. In 2014 we won the NACCE Student Entrepreneur of Year award for running a small business while being students and in 2017 we won the Farm Bureau Award for Best Craft Beverage Start up. 

 

Rumble: You and your business partner are also life partners and now new parents — what's it like to work and live with your significant other? How has having a baby changed your personal and professional life?

Megan: We get asked this question a lot!  I think it is because a lot of people can’t imagine working and living with their significant other or spending so much time together. We’ve been working together for 10 years now and I can’t image it any other way. The most difficult part of working with my life partner is that it becomes nearly impossible to separate our work and life…it all blends in to one because our life is our work.  In the beginning of the business we struggled with finding balance and we spent way too many nights exhausted and stressed out.  At one point, we were both still working in the local restaurant, going to school full time and running the business and would work into the wee hours of the morning just so we could try to get ahead or even just to keep up. This cramped schedule left little time for us as individuals and as a couple.  We had to step back to reevaluate our time and life and ultimately concluded that without “us”, ­­us being happy individuals in a healthy relationship, that Waynesville Soda Jerks wouldn’t even exist. So, from that point forward we try our best to put “us” first. 

In February 2020 Chris and I had our first son Grady.  Before Grady, Chris and I pretty much split our roles within the company 50/50. Now that I am a new mom I am not able to work as much and I would say that our roles within the company have shifted to 80/20.  Chris is now running that majority of business and I do what I can to work from home by answering emails, running our social media, etc.  We had always planned on taking Grady to work with us which is an option that lot of parents don’t have.  Grady and I will usually go into the office once a week but it is getting harder to make this a feasible option.  When Grady was a newborn I could take him into the office and he would sleep most of the day and I could get a lot of work done.  But now he is almost a year and walking, he is very into EVERYTHING and soda factories are not very kid friendly places to be. Luckily Chris’ mother just retired and is able to help watch Grady once a week so I can get at least one full uninterrupted day in at the office.  

I think is important to be honest with your readers because there are probably other people out there that could relate to what I am about to say… I feel a lot of guilt.  Being 50/50 owner operator of my business for so many years I now feel guilty that I can’t do “my part” to keep up with my business the way I did before I was a mother. But this is one of those areas where it is a perk to run a business with your life partner. I also feel the regular  “Mom guilt” that I should probably make all my own baby food from scr­­atch using organic vegetables that I started from seed in my back yard and never let Grady watch T.V. Haha!  But I come back to reality and remind that I am doing a great job adjusting to new life as a Mom and small business owner. Besides, this time with Grady being so little is just small season of our lives and before we are ready for it he will be in school and I will probably be back to business as usual  

 

Rumble: How has the pandemic impacted your business and what plans are you making for 2021?

Megan: I was in the hospital bed recovering from a C-section when Chris and I saw reports on the news about COVID hitting the USA. We didn’t think much of it at the time because there is always something going around and we thought it would pass. Little did we know that what we were seeing would change the whole world. 

I was at the end of my 6-week maternity leave when the lockdowns began.  We ended up closing our gift shop for months and temporarily shutting our production down for a few weeks.  Fortunately, we had a decent back stock of our product so we could keep up with any incoming orders during this time. However, at the beginning of summer we noticed a significant drop in our incoming orders because of the restaurant restrictions.  Restaurants, cafes, breweries, and small grocers make up our main wholesale business and we were beginning to feel the secondhand effects that the restrictions had.  Some of our accounts didn’t order as much as they moved to take out only and other accounts have sadly closed their doors forever.  The other aspect of our business that was effected by the pandemic were our local events.  We have participated as vendors at the Haywood Historic Farmers Market, The Whole Bloomin Thing, Apple Festival, Folkmoot, and the Canton Labor Day Festival since 2013.  2020 was our first year not participating in a single event.  We greatly missed seeing all our regular customers face to face but we were also thankful to have a little downtime to appreciate our new life as a family of 3.  We wouldn’t have been able to have so much time with Grady if it would have been a normal year. 

We had planned on 2020 being our biggest year ever.  In December of 2019 we had received our largest SBA loan ever and in January 2020 we started purchasing our new equipment to scale up our production.  We were finally moving from bottling by hand 25 gallons a day to an automated 6-head filler bottling up to 300 gallons a day.   Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, this equipment sat crated up an unused for months.  It was heartbreaking to see the things that we had been working towards for years seem to crumble away.  We were also worried about how we would keep up financially with our brand new BIG loan payment coming without the increased sales we had planned on to support it. Luckily, we received a period of forgiveness on our SBA loan and we were about to take advantage of the PPP loan to help with our payroll expenses. This assistance is greatly appreciated but it is only a Band-Aid.  

Like a lot of small businesses, we don’t know what the next year will bring. We hope to still be in business so we keep moving forward as if we will be. In Fall of 2020 we finally had some of our new production equipment installed and in use.  We also reopened the gift shop just before Thanksgiving and had great sales through the holidays.  This gave us a boost to our finances and confidence after a tough year. For 2021, we have plans to update our packaging with new label design, UPC codes, and nutrition panels. With these updates we will be able to go after some larger retailers that we were not able to work with before such as Ingles, Whole Foods,etc.  

 

Rumble: What's the best advice you can offer to other women wanting to start their own business?

Megan: I think the best advice would be to know when to say “No”…no to others and to yourself.  There were too many times that pushed myself too far and would end up overworked, exhausted and completely drained.  There is only so much that one person can do at a time and in a day. The to-do lists tasks will never be completely marked off and you just must accept that. 

If you could include a small bio about yourself.

Megan Brown is a Haywood County native and a graduate of Pisgah High School and Haywood Community College. When she is not busy being a “Jerk” her main roles are mom and homemaker. her hobbies include baking, home décor & DIYs, gardening, and thrift shopping.   

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