Written by Jason Gilmer | Photos by Evan Anderson
The folks behind Waynesville Soda Jerks have seen steady growth for their business, yet despite increased production and a significant recent expansion, they insist they are still learning as they go.
Go ahead. Call them jerks. Megan Brown and Chris Allen are used to the moniker. Heck, they enjoy it.
They aren’t jerks in the goofy Steve Martin-way. Or like the driver who cuts you off on the highway. No, they are the nicest of jerks and they show their affection through flavored beverages.
The proprietors of Waynesville Soda Jerks have served up a bounty of flavors that use local fruits and vegetables since a small-scale debut on a Saturday morning in 2013 at Haywood County’s Historic Farmer Market.
“I have a T-shirt, that I made for myself, that just says ‘jerk’ on it,” Brown says. “I get a lot of compliments on it, and we might start making them to sell. A lot of people don’t know what a soda jerk is. Kids think we’re being funny, and older people are like, ‘I used to be a soda jerk!’”
The two 32-year-olds, who both graduated from Pisgah High School in Canton, are far from the dictionary version of jerks. They’re friendly and have much more in common with the soda jerks of yesteryear—minus the traditional white paper cap, bowtie, and apron—than those who prefer snark over “please” or “thank you.” Old-school soda jerks were once responsible for making a customer’s favorite concoction at the local drug store counter or soda fountain, and the “jerk” part of the name was for how the handle was pulled to dispense soda.
“We decided on the moniker Soda Jerks in the early stages,” recalls Allen. “We wanted to, at least from a product standpoint, pay homage back to a bygone era. We are simply carrying on this tradition and brought the name with us. Just for a fun play on words, and to add some level of intrigue, we do usually drop the ‘soda’ in conversation, or replace it with ‘proprietary’ in our official titles.”
There’s nothing foolish or half-witted about how Brown and Allen have gone about their business. They’ve grown slowly, made connections with local farmers, and have gone from their “adult, glorified lemonade stand,” as Brown describes their humble beginnings, to a bustling business. Last year the couple and their lone full-time employee bottled 70,000 bottles of soda.
“Starting a business takes a drive and dedication most people just don’t have, as well as a diverse set of skills,” says Kaighn Raymond, one of the owners of Frogs Leap Public House restaurant in Waynesville. “Megan and Chris have built the Soda Jerks from the ground up with their hard work and willingness to learn all the different skills required to produce their great product and run a business. They saw an opportunity in the local marketplace, set goals, and haven’t stopped working towards them—that is the only way to create something new, and it is much more difficult than those who have never tried will ever know. They have brought something new to our great town that we can all get behind and support.”
Allen and Brown are locals in one of the truest senses of the word: They can trace their family history through the Western North Carolina mountains for several generations.
Staying in their hometown wasn’t their original plan, though. The couple, who were born in the same hospital, dated during high school and through some of their college years. “We broke up, and I never thought I’d see him again,” Brown says.
Twists and turns brought them home. Allen went to North Carolina State University in Raleigh to become an engineer, then learned that really wasn’t what he wanted to do. Brown, meanwhile, lived in several North Carolina cities, eventually hanging out at the beach for a bit before returning home.
“Growing up in Haywood County, there was not really a lot to do back then. If you wanted to do anything fun, you had to go to Asheville. I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 18, so it was frustrating having to bum rides,” Brown continues. “We’re so local now, and we love it. We weren’t like that as teenagers. There were a lot of people I went to school with who dreamed of immediately buying a house here with a white picket fence and just having that life, but I never thought that was for me.”
“It’s a fun, full circle story, being teens and growing up here,” Allen adds. “As most people do, we couldn’t wait to get as far away as possible. Now, 10 years later, we’re back and trying to ingrain ourselves into our hometown.” (They love their roots so much that, in May, they made special “Pisgah High School 2019 Prom” bottles in Peach, Raspberry Cream, and Concord Grape flavors for their alma mater’s big event.)
After they separately returned to Haywood County, they worked several service-industry jobs, began to date again, and discussed starting a business together. They grew up watching their parents’ hard work as small business owners—Allen’s mother cleaned houses, and Brown’s father serviced pizza ovens.
A foundational part of their relationship, Allen says, is their shared work ethic. They also had dealt enough with bosses to know they wanted to be their own boss.
They worked together at Frogs Leap Public House and were key members of the staff who helped open the business several years ago. Allen worked in the kitchen, while Brown worked out front, and the two continued to work there even as the Waynesville Soda Jerks opened and began to grow.
“The first years were difficult, Megan and Chris helped us create the foundation of who we are today and we will always be grateful,” Raymond says. “Opening a new business is always a risk, and we believe our success influenced others to take that risk with more confidence. We invested everything we had to open Frogs Leap Public House, and the Soda Jerks have done the same. Hopefully, their success will motivate others to invest in our community, completing the cycle we began and finally passing the torch on to the next local entrepreneur. Only through support of the local community can new business succeed and motivate the next generation.”
Farmers Market Beginnings
A walk-through Haywood’s Historic Farmers Market one morning brought about the idea for a soda company. The weather was warm and there wasn’t a local beverage option at the market.
Sure, someone sold bottles of water, but in a place where everything is “local” it would make sense to have a local drink. Like many successful businesses, the idea is simple—find a need and fill it. “We saw the opportunity and it felt like it presented itself,” Allen says. “We didn’t sit down and do a lot of research and decide on a soda business.”
Allen and Brown had purchased a small soda-making machine for their home and had experimented with local produce and foraged berries to make syrups for their own needs. Having spent years in restaurants, either in the kitchen or behind the bar, they had the needed skills to invent recipes.
As noted above, their first foray into selling sodas at farmers markets was in 2013 and included a stenciled piece of plywood that served as their branding plus food-grade dispensers to bestow syrups into cups. They mixed the drinks on-site and sold them to others who bought vegetables and fruits from local farmers.
“We look so different now in our branding and the way we present our business,” Brown says. “It’s like looking back at the awkward teenage years.”
“We weren’t thinking very much beyond the Farmer’s Market as an extra gig and a pressure release from the service industry,” Allen says. “That was the main goal.”
For two years the business was seasonal. They chose produce that was available and turned it into syrups to sell at their vendor’s booth.
Frequently shoppers asked which stores carried their sodas or if they had canned soda that could be taken home from the market. This opened up more questions for Allen and Brown, who first prepared the syrups and sodas in their home kitchen, and they continued to search for answers in how to increase the business.
“The Waynesville Soda Jerks’ story is one that demonstrates that if you believe in the products you make, that if you provide a product that gives a benefit greater than the one toward your bottom line, a profitable business will bloom,” says Saturday market manager Jaime Chestnut. “The Waynesville Soda Jerks got their start at Haywood’s Historic Farmers Market with the thoughts of hosting a typical ‘lemonade stand’ for the season. Quick cash and an easy gig turned into something delightful to watch grow and further develop through the years.
“I’m not sure Chris and Megan were expecting the demand they received or the growth that has come with it, but they have continued to learn their trade and the business details that surround their field, and have continued to create an excellent product in a seemingly-effortless manner.”
Being vendors at the Haywood market also gave Allen and Brown a chance to talk and make deals with local farmers. They would buy up extra fruits to use throughout the week or barter with someone to obtain herbs that they’d experiment with for new products.
Years have passed since their debut, and they no longer need to be there on Saturday mornings to make extra cash. Their business has grown enough that Brown and Allen could take time off, rest, and prepare for the next week. Instead, they still go.
“We made a promise to ourselves and the market that we will always have a presence there,” Brown says. “That’s where we started. It still gives us a reason to go to the farmers market on a Saturday morning, eat muffins, listen to music, and hang out with our farmer friends.”
“We love buying a cold soda from them during a hot market, and they always make their way through the market to pick up fresh produce from us and other vendors,” says King Harvest Farms’ Terry King, who sells the couple basil for their blueberry-basil soda. “They have a true sense of community, vital to our happy and thriving market… Aside from the fact that their sodas are so tasty, it’s a thrill for us, knowing that something we have grown from a seed has become part of a recipe that so many people will taste and enjoy. We’re proud of that and appreciate Megan and Chris locally sourcing their ingredients.”
Becoming Full-Fledged Jerks
Success at a farmers market is one thing. Turning that into a sustained business has taken more time and a lot more effort.
After they took out a $3,000 loan and received more than $7,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, the couple began to up production. They took some classes through Haywood Community College and were able to move into a rent-free workspace for a couple of years. They eventually became full-fledged, rent-paying tenants and continued to expand, including a small retail space.
“We never wanted to have a gift shop,” admits Brown. “People just kept reading the address on the bottle and would drive from Asheville regularly because they wanted this experience that we can provide them. One day we were like, people keep showing up, so let’s put a cooler in here and let them buy soda.”
Even without a salesman on staff to pitch their product to wholesalers, Waynesville Soda Jerks has grown to almost 100 vendors. Last year was the first year that Allen and Brown survived financially on just their soda-making jobs.
Stores and restaurants across Haywood, Jackson, and Buncombe counties carry their six-packs of soda. A recently hired part-time driver will make deliveries in those areas, and there are other vendors, such as a store in Georgia, that will drive to their facility to pick up sodas. One major vendor is Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Mills River, which has the sodas on its Taproom menu.
They currently produce seven flavors—Apple Rosemary, Blueberry Basil, Blackberry Sorrento Pepper, Lavender-Lemon, Peach, Strawberry-Rhubarb, and Raspberry Cream. A grape soda currently isn’t being made because they didn’t buy enough grapes last year to produce the product throughout the year.
Waynesville Soda Jerks now purchases fruit in bulk from local farmers, juices the fruits in-house, and freezes syrups to use throughout the year. If they are in a pinch, they can reach out to the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project to find a regional farmer who has what is needed.
“We’re always trying to connect with new farmers,” Brown says. “As we grow, we want to be able to spend our money and see it trickle down and see the effects and what they can do [in our area].”
More Soda To Come
The brown-painted, cinder block building sits on Bridges Street near Waynesville’s downtown area and can easily be described as nondescript. After their lease wasn’t renewed last year, Brown and Allen looked at several potential sites to grow their soda business.
They needed more space and more long-term security. They didn’t really need more job responsibilities, but they added a few to their personal skill sets, like carpenter and painter. “Some people, when they think of small business ownership, they think that you sit behind a desk and money is rolling in. That isn’t the case,” Brown says. “We’ve got to be the delivery drivers, the syrup makers, the secretary, and the janitor. We’ll do whatever we need to do; whatever those roles are, we will find a way to fill them.”
The space was once a storage building, so Brown and Allen have built a retail space at the building’s front and an office in the back. Bottles are currently produced four at a time, and the label must be wrapped on the bottle by hand in the 2,800-sq.-ft. space. “We feel confident [enough] in our product and brand and the work we’ve done so far that we don’t have to be on Main Street where there is high traffic,” Allen says. “We feel we can have enough of a draw that if people are nearby-ish, they’ll find us.”
They’ll add an outdoor sign soon and possibly a mural on the building’s side. Even as renovations continue, soda drinkers find the place and ask for a look around.
Now the business owners are looking to their future. They need to up production. If a recently-applied-for loan comes through, more equipment will be purchased. That will allow Allen and Brown to finally meet the demand that their product has amassed.
“Once that’s in place, production will increase, and we will have more stock on hand and have the confidence to go out and start selling,” Brown predicts, of the new equipment. “We don’t want to be nationwide. That takes away from being local. It’s no longer local if you’re selling in California.”
“The whole time, we’ve thought, ‘How do we meet this demand?’” Allen adds. “The desire is there and the potential is there, but how do we capture it? We’ve never been able to get ahead. It’s a crazy feeling, and it’s one of those things, as a business owner, we try to be objective and see it as a good problem.”
There isn’t a blueprint for building this business—one sip at a time—so Brown and Allen are learning as they go. They don’t want to run out of ingredients again and know that a late frost could damage local peaches, so they will look outside of the region if needed.
They both feel that they fought and worked through lean times, and have subsequently come out with a product that boasts local flavors and is healthier than other soda options. And through everything, they’ve managed to stay true to their belief of bringing the local food movement to a refreshing beverage.
“Megan and Chris are great people,” Haywood market manager Chestnut says. “They grew up in Haywood County, and the fact that they continue to keep their focus on this community demonstrates where their hearts are. Their success has brought many strangers to their lives who know them from their sodas, however, and Megan and Chris will spend the time making sure those who cross their path feel special.
“That kind of special touch goes far beyond business and demonstrates who they are as the people behind the scenes.”
Ah, those Jerks.
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