The top pop

Shawano beverage company builds on its sweet success

Posted on Dec 1, 2016 :: Small Business Spotlight
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

There’s just something unbeatable about taking a swig from an ice-cold bottle of soda.

Though another famous golden soda may enjoy greater recognition and popularity, Dan Hartwig, president and owner of Shawano’s Twig’s Beverage, will have you know that Sun Drop was actually the first.

The soda that put his father’s company on the map still enjoys a loyal, albeit smaller, following. People seeking the one-of-a-kind taste of a bottle of Sun Drop look to Twig’s.

“That’s our claim to fame — we’re the last remaining Sun Drop bottler,” says Hartwig.

The company is rooted in humble beginnings. Hartwig’s father, Floyd, started Twig’s in 1951 with an investment in glass bottles. He would mix batches of soft drinks in an old mix tub with an ax handle.

Floyd Hartwig’s fortune turned when Charles Lazier, creator of Sun Drop, approached him and asked him to sell and distribute his product.

Twig’s, which got its name from the nickname Floyd’s softball team gave him, started in Shawano’s Farmer’s Brewery. His father kept adding on to the building using lumber he obtained from torn-down houses, and eventually he built a water plant.

There’s one reason that beverage companies flocked to the region. “These places all came to Shawano because of the water,” both its abundance and quality, Hartwig says.

Throughout the years, Sun Drop has gone through various marketing campaigns and changes of ownership. In the 1950s, coffee was big, so Sun Drop was marketed as “Refreshing as a cup of coffee.”

“If you wanted to get at the coffee drinkers, you wanted to say it’s OK to drink this for breakfast because there’s orange juice in it,” Hartwig says, noting that to this day the drink still contains orange juice concentrate.

Hartwig still knows many who drink Sun Drop for breakfast. Today, Dr Pepper/7Up owns the beverage. The soda is still big in Wisconsin and North Carolina, as well as in the southeastern part of the country.

Of course, Sun Drop’s most famous fan was NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt. Hartwig recalls always cheering him on to win the Daytona 500, and when he finally did, Hartwig was stunned.

“He gets to his car and opens a bottle of Coke and starts drinking it,” Hartwig says. “I called the company and said, ‘What happened?’”

It turns out that Sun Drop couldn’t beat Coke’s product placement offer. His favorite drink was still Sun Drop, Hartwig assures. He just couldn’t drink it on camera.

In 2005, Hartwig decided to follow his father’s industrious lead. He bought an old, burned-out building near the Twig’s property. He hollowed it out and set about turning it into a museum. 

It took 10 years to make his vision a reality, with the museum opening in May of 2015. “This was one of my dreams, and we got this going,” Hartwig says.

Twig’s, which produces 11,000 bottles of soda a day, also debuted its own line of sodas with flavors both standard and inventive, from cream and root beer to rhu-berry and caramel apple.

Visitors can learn about the history of Sun Drop and Twig’s through the free museum’s collection of vintage signs, educational movies and even an old delivery truck. Most popular? The complimentary tasting bar.

Since opening 18 months ago, the attraction has already drawn more than 35,000 visitors, including Green Bay Packers players and former NBA star Christian Laettner, Hartwig says.

“The museum has attracted thousands of people who want to see the bottling process, interact with the displays, and, of course, taste the different soda flavors,” says Patti Peterson, tourism manager for Shawano Country Tourism Council. “The Hartwigs have done a wonderful job of creating a fun, interactive venue for visitors to experience the history and intrigue surrounding Sun Drop.”

Hartwig says Sun Drop remains the company’s top seller, but favorites in the Twig’s line include its Farmer’s Brew butterscotch root beer as well as its sour soda, which is made with lemon rather than grapefruit. It also sells bottled water and So-Tea, a carbonated iced tea beverage.

The company, which employs 18, prides itself on using real sugar. “We think that the granulated sugar tastes better than corn sweetener,” Hartwig says, noting that his customers tend to agree.

Twig’s, which is available at retailers such as Woodman’s, is always on the lookout for its next new flavor. Hartwig enjoys testing new creations on customers at the tasting bar. A bacon cream soda didn’t quite land with tasters, but a peach cobbler flavor became a new seasonal favorite.

“Some of the flavors are kind of off the wall,” says Randy Wissink, vice president and general manager at Green Bay 7Up Bottling Co., a distributor for Twig’s, but people like them. “Once they try them, you’ve got a customer.”

Wissink says craft soda is a growing niche, though it hasn’t yet caught on in the way craft beer has. People definitely enjoy the trend, however. “You really don’t have to do anything except make it available, and people will buy it.”

Hartwig has realized his dream, but he won’t stop there. There’s always more ways to expand, and of course, more flavors to add. “In this business, you can use your imaginatio