Tractor Soda Company, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, has unlikely roots in the organic beef business. But the company history makes sense when founder Travis Potter explains the backstory.
“We started in the organic beef business, then later got into organic sausages and other value-added meat items,” said Potter. “Then we got into dairy.”
A friend of Potter’s mentioned to him that a celebrity wanted to open an organic burger chain, and asked if Potter could discuss with them whether the idea was feasible.
“This was about three and one-half years ago,” said Potter, who met with the entrepreneurs and found they were interested in creating a competitive burger restaurant with an organic option. “I spent a couple of weeks looking at the idea. It looked like we could do everything they wanted to do, from meat to cheese to rolls and condiments, and have it all certified organic. But they wouldn’t make any money.”
Potter explained to the entrepreneurs that without a beverage, there’d be no profit. “Regular costs cover the costs of business, but beverages are where you bring in the money,” he said. “I said, ‘find an organic soda fountain’, but there wasn’t one.”
That’s what gave Potter the idea of creating organic soda. Although his friend eventually dropped the concept of starting an organic burger chain, Potter pursued the organic soda concept.
Since Potter already had experience selling organic meat at the retail level, he knew which direction he wanted to take Tractor Soda. “We already had a food service background and were thinking about which direction to go next,” he said. “We really wanted to make a health impact, and realized that we could do that with a beverage.”
Potter knew that the ‘to-go-with’ soda for burgers is most likely a cola, root beer or citrus-based drink. What he had to figure out was how to market what he was creating, and the best way to make it available to customers. The decision came down to whether the company would make soda that would be available to consumers in bottles on the shelf or through food service. He determined the best option would be creating a craft beverage that would be similar to what people were used to drinking, but it would be organic and made with the best ingredients possible. And the key to Tractor Soda’s ability to reach more customers would be through its ecologically friendly distribution method: a fountain-style dispenser system.
“Craft root beer would sell well, and a cola would sell well,” said Travis, explaining decisions about flavors. “We also needed something with an orange flavored base. Because I’m a sausage maker and we had dealt with dairy products like frozen yogurt, we were already playing with fruity flavors and spices. We also understood the functionality and how flavor profiles would work together. We wanted the soda to be unique, but not so unique that people wouldn’t know what it was.”
Potter knew it was critical to understanding the customer, and that the potential customer wasn’t necessarily a patron of burger joints or bars. “It might be Asian places, burrito joints, Indian restaurants,” he said. “We started looking at flavor profiles that would work for those concepts, and also looked at a global perspective,” Potter noted root beer wouldn’t sell well in the United Kingdom because it isn’t a popular beverage there but thought about what would work. And what about marketing to Japan or Korea?
“We started paying attention to trends,” said Potter. “We wanted to figure out the core flavors first. Let’s figure out how to make a killer cola with a real cola nut and premium Madagascar vanilla, and a root beer with 16 different roots and spices.”
Next came a cherry cream soda and an orange soda with a true blood orange flavor. “Then let’s freak people out a little and go with cucumbers and see what they think,” said Potter. “That took us to the next level. After we had those beverages figured out, what could we do to make it so people could change it out for a season? What kind of cream sodas can we make? Something like hazelnut cream soda made a lot of sense—it’s fun and yummy.”
Looking at soda from both a foodie and a global perspective throughout the process has been critical in developing flavors that have a wide appeal. “A rose soda would be killer, but how do we market something like that?” said Potter. “Is it too weird or unique?”
Potter noted he has developed more than 100 flavors in his quest to find the most appealing combinations. “What it came down to is that we needed to offer not just a soda option, but look at our market,” he said. “We looked at convenience stores and bars that needed a slushy hybrid. We have an organic slushy that also works for alcohol mixtures.”
In addition to carbonated sodas, Tractor Soda also offers several non-carbonated beverages, including a black sweet tea that’s especially popular in the south. “Every place in the south has sweet tea,” said Potter, “but having an organic version takes it to the next level. We also have a chai tea for people who want something a little more ‘foodie.’”
Tractor Soda offers the syrup in several options depending on how the venue wants to mix. “If a bar doesn’t want to add a lot of flavors to the gun, they can use our craft soda pump,” said Potter. “You can create a hybrid—you can mix a cherry cream soda with cola. Even coffee shops that don’t have soda machines can serve sodas if they have carbonated water.”
Potter says the quality of the water at each outlet is critical to maintaining the essence of each soda’s unique flavor profile. “We want people to use ultra-filtered water,” he said. “We spend a lot of time making a killer product, and it should be mixed with the cleanest possible water.”
Over the past several years, Potter has spent a lot of time refining the quality of Tractor Soda and putting the product in big cities to see how it would work. “We did some shows and generated a lot of excitement,” said Potter. “Now we’re launching nationally, and we’ll be in more than 9,000 locations by the end of the year.”
Written by Sally Colby