Vito Gerasole pulled his Ford van into the garage, the pattering of a rebuilt engine echoing off cinder block walls.
The 1964 Econoline looked new. Its olive-colored finish showed no trace of rust. Hand painted in white cursive on the side: “Drink Red Ribbon.”
“I wanted it to look like it was straight out of the ’60s,” said Gerasole, 32, the “sultan of soda” behind Natrona Bottling Co.
The van is not unlike the Red Ribbon brand soft drinks that Natrona makes: Shined up for the modern age but retaining the qualities prized among devotees of classics and craft.
Gerasole and a veteran staff of two are trying to rejuvenate a 110-year-old soda pop maker that has chugged along as other small bottlers disappeared.
Natrona Bottling is a tiny player in the $76 billion carbonated soft drink market in the United States. But its line of sodas, sweetened with cane sugar, have been discovered by a new generation of consumers at a time when the largest beverage makers are dealing with declining sales.
“There is no doubt that there is certainly a subset of consumers who are interested in sodas with sugar instead of (high-fructose corn syrup),” said John Sicher, editor and publisher of the trade publication Beverage Digest.
Foods sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup have been blamed for contributing to America’s rising obesity problem. Some consumers perceive sugar as healthier; connoisseurs prefer its taste.
Carbonated soft drink sales have fallen at an increasing rate, declining 3 percent in 2013 after falling 1.2 percent in 2012 and 1 percent in 2011, according to Beverage Digest. Craft sodas occupy a fraction of the market, Sicher said, but their rising popularity has caught the attention of industry giants.
PepsiCo recently started a craft soda line called Caleb’s Kola, and there is growing popularity for so-called “Mexican Coke.” Both are made with cane sugar, just like Natrona’s sodas.
Between 2010-13, Natrona’s sales grew 60 percent, from $140,693 to $224,892, and revenue through the third quarter of 2014 is ahead of last year at $241,980. The company has grown through online sales and by expanding its distribution from four states a decade ago to 17 states through a network of third-party distributors. Customers in Western Pennsylvania can find its Red Ribbon brand in corner stores, pizzerias, retail beer distributors and Giant Eagle’s Market District supermarkets.
Quality, not quantity
Natrona has benefited from sticking to its craft. Red Ribbon soda has always been made with cane sugar, long before it became a niche trend. And the company’s master bottler, Steve Vokish, has gone about his work the same way he learned when he joined the company in 1975.
He learned his trade under the stewardship of Natrona’s previous owner Paul Bowser, who worked there since his older brother bought the business in 1939 from the family that had taken over from founder Ed Welsh.
Bowser staked the company’s future on offering a premium product. When faced with a question of cost versus quality, Bowser opted for the latter, said Mary Jane Zdila, the longtime office manager who kept the doors open after Bowser’s death in 2008.
“The bottom line, Paul would tell me, would come,” she said. “It wasn’t the quantity of the product. It was the quality.”
Gerasole said he has no reason to change the recipes. Yet Natrona’s sales struggled as Bowser’s health declined. Zdila was the company’s only salesperson, as well as bookkeeper and delivery person, and didn’t have time to develop accounts.
Gerasole became that sales force when he jumped on board four years ago, taking over for a family member who bought the business in 2009 and remains a silent partner.
Gerasole updated the bottle design, bought the delivery van and carried around an old-fashioned metal cooler packed with soda, offering samples to store owners.
One of those retailers was Chris Beers, owner of Grandpa Joe’s Candy Shop, with locations in the Strip District and Beaver.
Beers carries 55 brands of soda and 175 flavors. Natrona’s flavors stand apart, from its flagship Red Ribbon Cherry Supreme to Jamaica’s Finest Ginger Beer. Even sold at a premium of $1.87 per bottle, Natrona’s are among Beers’ best sellers.
“Red Ribbon offers such unique flavors,” Beers said. “The cherry is phenomenal. A lot of people like the Plantation Style Mint Julep.”
Gerasole tapped a new market: the craft alcohol drinker.
Bartenders use the sodas in cocktails, Gerasole said. Natrona’s products appear at beer festivals, where they are served to designated drivers.
“The craft beer drinker, if they’re into craft, then they’re into craft,” Gerasole said.
Sicher said there is no guarantee that craft soda will take off like the market for craft beer.
“But the fact that Pepsi is taking a shot at craft soda definitely is something that the industry will be taking a look at,” he said.
Gerasole said he isn’t looking for explosive growth. In fact, the company couldn’t handle it. Natrona’s soda is packaged on bottling equipment that is at least 70 years old. The “pinpoint carbonation” method, which uses dry ice, is an inefficient technique that other beverage makers abandoned decades ago.
But the archaic process is essential to Natrona’s quality and identity, Gerasole said. It is the company’s “heart and soul.”
That is why Natrona will stay small.
“We baby it,” Vokish said of the bottling line. “We don’t push it really hard. We make just enough pop to get through.”
Chris Fleisher is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7854 or firstname.lastname@example.org.