Steve Hersh estimates that he has said the slogan for Grown-up Soda millions of times since the product launched in 2003. He recites, “GuS stands for Grown-up Soda. They’re all natural, and they’re not too sweet” as if he’s pitching to a New York café or a Los Angeles grocery chain, and he’s done both. Hersh is co-founder, along with his wife Jeannette Luoh, of Grown-up Soda, a less-sweet soda that combines real juice and natural extracts with cane sugar into a 12-ounce glass bottle.

A soda is born
In 2002, when the technology boom slowed to a hum, Hersh lost his job at an Internet company. Because he had relevant beverage experience at Cadbury Schweppes as a brand manager for A&W Root Beer, Hersh decided that he wanted to take the leap into developing his own product and company, Utmost Brands Inc., New York.

“I went to a lot of food trade shows and different trade shows and said ‘What’s an opening? What’s a niche? What’s something that I like?’” he says. “My wife and I had just stumbled on something that we like and was missing from the market, which was soda that’s less sweet. We, in our mid-30s, just outgrew soda.”

The genesis of Grown-up Soda, Hersh says, came from his father, who mixed seltzer with everything from Coca-Cola to juice. GuS is about two-thirds the sweetness and calorie level of traditional sodas, Hersh estimates. They also contain no preservatives or caffeine and are kosher. Hersh describes his product as “Orangina-esque,” a lighter flavor and carbonation that is more popular in Europe than in the United States now. The company’s eight varieties – Dry Cranberry Lime, Dry Meyer Lemon, Extra Dry Ginger Ale, Dry Valencia Orange, Star Ruby Grapefruit, Dry Pomegranate, Dry Cola and Grape Black Currant – have 90 to 98 calories per 12-ounce bottle.

The newest flavor, Grape Black Currant, debuted in March at the Natural Products Expo West trade show in Anaheim, Calif., and replaces the company’s Dry Crimson Grape variety. The flavor combines the sweetness of red grape juice with the tart taste of black currant juice, the company says.

Choosing new flavors isn’t an exact science, Hersh says. He looks for flavors that naturally are less sweet, like light citrus fruits. For example, he has considered developing a black cherry or root beer variety, but both need to be sweet to work well, Hersh says.

Distribution growth
Branching out into a cola was “gutsy,” Hersh says, because it could not be too sweet, but he wanted to avoid becoming overly herbal and tasting like other independent colas. Distributors told the company that it would “kill” with a cola in stores like Whole Foods Markets, where the product is sold in New York and on the West Coast, because many low-calorie alternative sodas do not exist in the specialty grocer, he says.

GuS is gaining a greater American following, particularly in the company’s core market in New York, where the soda appears in single-serve 12-ounce glass bottles in cafes and markets and in four-packs in independent and specialty grocery stores, he says.

“Under that banner of grown up, adult, all natural, not-to-sweet, we try to deliver on that with all the flavors,” Hersh says. “Another sideline is that they’re really good paired with food, so they are good with food almost in lieu of wine sometimes. We’re on restaurant menus as a non-alcoholic alternative. … We realize that we want flavors that fit that bill – that are sophisticated enough or not as sweet that they work well with food.”

GuS is available in 40 states through about 25 different distributors, Hersh says, but he plans to expand in the company’s core New York market and the emerging West Coast market.

Since 2003, the company has gotten larger each year, Hersh says, but the recession slowed its growth. In the New York market, the company still grew at a double-digit pace, but the company’s other markets balanced it with modest growth, he says.

The company this year also is beefing up its marketing efforts, including consumer marketing in Edible Communities, a series of local food magazines, in large markets.

“That tends to hit our market, which is people who really like food and like to shop in specialty trade and restaurants,” he says. “We’re using it almost as trade marketing as a tool for the restaurants to see us advertising right next to them, and say ‘We should have GuS on our menu.’” BI

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