Pop Culture

Posted on Sep 1, 2009 :: Small Business Spotlight
Sharon Verbeten
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Twig's employee Fred Zimmer

Lying in a hospital bed halfway across the world almost 60 years ago, Floyd Hartwig was concocting a very tasty plan. The injured Korean War veteran returned to the United States and did a short stint in the refrigeration industry – a venture which, quite by design, led him into the beverage business.

“That’s what kind of got his interest going,” says Hartwig’s son, Dan, current owner of Twig’s Beverage in Shawano. His father – nicknamed “Twig” – started the business in 1951 in an old brewery in downtown Shawano and later moved to its current 20,000-square-foot facility on Washington Street.

“There were three soft drink companies in town,” says Dan Hartwig. “[My dad] started out with some drinks called Bulls-Eye Root Beer and Goody Orange, but they never had the longevity of the product that we have today.”

The company, which currently employs 10, bottles its own soda under the name Twig’s and Hill Billy – in flavors including black cherry, orange, lemon sour, grape and root beer – but its biggest seller by far is Sundrop, bottled through a license with Dr. Pepper Snapple Group.

The beverage dates back to the company’s founding. “It was the first ‘gold’ drink on the market,” says Hartwig. “Once [my dad] started selling it, it really took off. It’s about 90 percent of our business today.”

Twig’s was the first company in the state to bottle the lemony blend and is the last to bottle it in returnable bottles.

Today, the 58-year-old company is one of a handful of small soda makers nationwide still bottling in glass – and one of the rare few to still use returnable bottles. According to GlassBottleSoda.org, there are 85 bottlers in 29 states bottling in glass, but only 11 of those companies use returnables. (In Wisconsin, nearby Seymour Beverages also uses returnable glass bottles.)

The trend away from glass began decades ago, when most bottlers found it cheaper to use aluminum cans and plastic bottles. But Hartwig says his company – which he purchased from his father in 1986 – plans to maintain its old-fashioned ways.

“It’s a great business, and this is a great area,” he says. “Shawano has a great following for it [glass bottles]. The majority of our business is local, but we have people who come from all over to buy our glass bottles.” Hartwig says it’s not as much about nostalgia as it is about taste; many feel the soda simply tastes better in a glass container.

“We’re still using bottles that were made in the 1950s,” Hartwig adds. “They can be [sterilized and] reused as many times as possible.”

Using returnable bottles does have an impact on the company’s bottom line. While it can be a cost-saving measure to reuse bottles, it’s also a challenge to get people to return them. Cases of 24 12-oz. bottles are sold for $17, which includes a $10 deposit.

“If you bring them back, the next case is $7,” Hartwig says.

He estimates that about 30 percent of the bottles are not returned; those must be replaced by new ones. It costs about $15 to replace 24 bottles, Hartwig says.

With consumers’ increasing interest in recycling, however, Hartwig says, “I envision it coming back and getting stronger.”

One additional trick Twig’s has up its sleeve to keep customers coming back: The use of granulated sugar instead of corn syrup. Granulated sugar, some believe, offers a crisper, fresher taste. (Some health experts argue that it’s also healthier because the body processes the fructose in high fructose corn syrup differently than it does old-fashioned cane or beet sugar.)

But whatever it is that keeps customers enjoying the taste of Twig’s, Hartwig is just pleased to be carrying on the work started by his 82-year-old father.

“I get satisfaction out of making this product that people want, out of our family business and out of helping the community.”