The clinking of glass bottles keened into a clear steady note as Cindy Remick loaded the conveyor line last week. “We'll do 400 cases this morning,” she said, “Strawberry and Root Beer... Yesterday we did three flavors.”
Not every small town has its own brand of soft drink. But this one, perched atop Norwegian Ridge, does – and pretty much for all intents and purposes — always has. Spring Grove Soda Pop has been around since 1895.
Long-necked clear glass swept down the line with parade ground precision. Syrup and water were joined together, then carbonated/cooled to 34 degrees. The line used to run at 30 bottles a minute, but since a new set of equipment went in a year and a half ago, it can easily blast by at 50 to 110 bottles/minute. Obviously, capacity jumped.
Pure cane sugar. Real glass bottles. Orange, Lemon Sour, Grape, Black Cherry, Root Beer, Strawberry, Lemon Soda, Creamy Orange. Maybe something intangible, as well. Pride.
“It's been a real good year,” Vice President Bob Hansen said. He and wife, Dawn, bought the business 11 years ago, maintaining its tradition as a family institution.
The emphasis has always been on producing a product that's a cut above the ordinary, he added.
“It's kind of upscale. Folks can buy Coke or Pepsi anywhere in the world, but they can't get Spring Grove Soda Pop just anywhere. People like that little bit of a change. If they're going to have a treat, I'd like to think that they could reach for a Spring Grove Soda.
“The new equipment is a lot more accurate... We know exactly how much syrup ends up going into each bottle. We're constantly testing it, making sure our consistency is right. With a Spring Grove Soda, you're going to be able to tell which flavor you have.
“We use glass bottles, while others are paying probably half as much for plastic. Glass holds the flavor so much longer. Even representatives from the big bottlers have said that plastic bottles are intended to sell within two months. Aluminum cans will affect the flavor of the product. You can taste the difference that glass makes.
December isn't the busiest month in the soda pop business, but a “skeleton crew” still mans the line a couple times a week, Remick said. Then there's the hours it takes to prep the boxes and get everything else (from ceiling to floor) clean and shiny, set to go.
Hansen said that the plant traditionally produces between 25,000 and 30,000 cases each year. “I would imagine we're going to be over that by at least 20 percent in 2014,” he added. “When you add in the custom bottling that we're also doing now, it will probably be closer to a 45 percent increase...
“Before we put the new line in, we bottled 330 cases in an eight-hour shift. Now we're able to do 500 cases in about four hours.”
Chad Keavy is a lifelong Minneapolis resident. His grandfather (Arnold Housker) and mother (Linda) hailed from Spring Grove. Grandpa Arnold began working at the plant around 1950, and stayed on for decades.
“He did everything from distributing to making soda,” Keavy said. “I always remember going to my grandparents’ house for the holidays, maybe a wedding or a family reunion. There was always Spring Grove pop for us to take back home. I never thought in a million years that we would have Spring Grove Soda Pop up in Minneapolis.
“Now it's in a lot of places up here,” Keavy noted. “You see it on food trucks, small breweries, the Midtown Global Market... It's just amazing to me. We just went to the grand opening of a new small brewery. It was a Sunday night, and a lot of people were drinking Spring Grove Soda; seven or eight different flavors. I've also seen it in liquor stores and grocery stores.
“Not only can you find it up here, but it's kind of what the cool kids, the hipsters, are drinking. The word is getting out... It's really taking off.”
Hansen said it's no accident. SGSP has manned a booth at the Minnesota State Fair in recent years, exposing a whole new set of customers to the drink.
“At the state fair people stop and enjoy the story; learn how long we've been around,” he said. “The funny part is when they get their glass of soda. They take two or three steps away from the booth, and take a drink. Then they'll turn back and look at the booth, and just shake their head as if to say, 'Boy, this is really good.'
“It's getting so that we can go just about anywhere and people know about Spring Grove Soda... January and February is when I focus on finding more distributors.”
When Bob and Dawn bought SGSP, there was only one outfit marketing it in the Twin Cites area. Now there are three.
“But it's really difficult to get shelf space in those bigger stores. They'll give you a spot for a week or two, just as a draw. It's really tough to develop a market if that's what they want to do with your product. But if you can get it into the smaller places like coffee shops, liquor stores, mom and pop groceries, then people can go there on a consistent basis and get it. They know they'll be able to drop by and pick up a six-pack.
“If we could get a couple more of these contract bottling jobs, or get Spring Grove Soda to sell just a little bit better, add a few more distributors, we could have more jobs here. Right now we have two full-time and five part-time positions. There could be more, and we have the capacity to do more.
“I enjoy what I'm doing. It's a lot of fun because it's something you can put together yourself... For us, it's about the sense of accomplishment that we feel. It's a hoot.”