Colorado man hits sweet spot with an agave-based soda
the daily tribune
GREELEY – Stephen Anson owned a natural foods restaurant in Denver. He was happy with the menu, but he was frustrated with the drinks.
His customers wanted soda, but part of the reason for opening a natural foods restaurant was to avoid processed, corporate products stuffed with things such as high-fructose corn syrup. He even made his own mayonnaise. (Something he doesn’t recommend, by the way.)
So he decided to make his own soda. Never mind that he knew nothing about it. Why not? How hard could it be?
If you know Anson, 36, well, that’s just him. Since he graduated from Greeley West in 1991 – even while he was attending, really – he’s started businesses, some without much of a plan, because he “doesn’t work well with others.”
He started a car detailing shop and a liquor store and seemed determined to do anything but use the law degree he earned at Georgetown. The restaurant was the same way. He worked in a bunch as he was going to college and thought he knew enough to start one.
As he looks back on how he started Oogave, his soda company, it wasn’t much different from those other businesses. He even laughs about it today, even as his soda is nationwide, in many health food chains. That includes Sprouts, which recently opened in Greeley, making his soda available to his hometown for the first time.
“You know, with the benefit of hindsight, I must have been out of my mind,” Anson said. “I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know anything about bottling, marketing, anything. I just knew I had a good product.”
That product started with some research, and then mixing stuff together in his kitchen. The secret was using agave nectar as his sweetener. He discovered the ingredient after a customer suggested he use it as a substitute for his honey wheat bread. It made great bread, so he figured it would make great soda.
Six months later, he had a few flavors like watermelon, grapefruit and, yes, cola (he thought about garlic but decided against it), and on April 13, 2005, he started serving Oogave. And a funny thing happened. People started coming for the soda, not his food. Sometimes, that’s all they ordered.
Well, if it didn’t take much for Anson to try something, that was obviously more than enough, and when he sold his restaurant in 2007, he figured it was only a matter of time before Oogave was the next Coca-Cola. Only, as he already said, he knew nothing on how to get there.
As with many new businesses, things were lean for a while. No one would bottle his product. No one would even return his calls. No one, after all, had heard of his soda. So, fine, he’d do it himself. He bought a bottling line from an old brewery that closed in 2002. It was a bargain. Then he bought soda-making equipment formerly used by an independent Pepsi bottler in Missouri. It was made in 1962 and needed a lot of work, but it was another bargain.
Things were still lean, but he had some money from the sale of his restaurant and a loan, and in August 2008, he was up and running. Then he went a little crazy. He bottled 240 cases of each flavor (that’s a total of, um, a lot of soda). And then things got really lean.
“They just sat there for six months in a warehouse because I couldn’t find anyone to buy it,” Anson said.
He was paying for the warehouse space, too. He was taking cases into places such as Whole Foods and constantly getting rejected.
But then he got a little help from those who believed in his soda, and it’s those little nudges along the way that saved him more than once, Anson said. Two of his friends and former classmates from Greeley West, Michael Thacker and Mike Price, gave him some money as an investment to keep him afloat. They also agreed to help him despite working full-time jobs.
And Anson found a friend of a friend who worked in the organic food industries and agreed to work as his broker. She quickly counseled him against showing up cold at places like Whole Foods and started to work on getting his product into stores.
In April, he got his first big break, when Whole Foods not only accepted his product but gave him a low-interest loan under the company’s small-business program. That also meant Whole Foods was backing him in a big way, basically requiring the hundreds of stores in the chain to carry his product. Most health food stores carry Oogave now, and he’s hoping to sign with a major supermarket chain by the summer.
Owning his own bottling line in Denver makes him one of the few soda companies in the country to have that advantage, and it’s paying off in other ways: More than 500 stores and restaurants carry his product.
As you might have already guessed, he’s got big plans this summer. He’ll actually have a marketing budget, though that will probably mean going around to festivals and giving away his product again. He’s producing 4,000 cases a month now, and he hopes to produce 10,000 by this summer.
He’s not making money, not yet, but he is close to breaking even in his operations budget. And he’s working 14 hours a day because, though he does have a few workers, he doesn’t have many.
“Basically the only thing I don’t do is make boxes,” he said, “because I hate doing that.”
So there are a few things up in the air, and yet Anson seems to enjoy that. That’s why Thacker and Price believed in him. Anson doesn’t let doubts dam his dreams before they start.
Anson may laugh about how he got his beginning. But it may not be long before managers of all those restaurants that carry his product will wonder why so many people are ordering sodas instead of food.
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