How to Run a Pop-Up Shop Soda Bar with Pops and Sons Soda Co. founder R. David Hague
This is my first podcast episode.
R. David Hague, founder of the Pops and Sons Soda Company, located in the San Pedro Square Market in San Jose, California.
POPS & Sons Soda Company hand craft each glass with serums brewed daily from the finest ingredients and purest carbonated water. From our family to you, our healthy and refreshing culinary compliments await your enjoyment.
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Javier: Welcome to the Specialty Sodas Podcast brought to you by specialtysodas.com. We bring you the latest news and most interesting stories in the soda pop industry today. Discover the companies and people in the industry, and learn from the experts in the soft drink arena who will help you gain a better understanding of the exciting world of soda pop. Today, I am here with David Hague founder of the Pops and Sons Soda Company, located in the San Pedro Square Market in San Jose, CA. Hi David, thank you for being here today.
David: Hi Javier, thank you for having me.
Javier: So can you tell us a little bit about the Pops and Sons Soda Company? What is Pops and Sons?
David: Pops and Sons is a small batch, handcrafted soda bar. We're co-located with about 15 gourmet food walk-up counters, you know, think of 15 gourmet food trucks. And we provide drink to compliment the delicious food being served. Our soda bar has a syrup kitchen included in the bar and so we are cooking our soda syrups in real time in our syrup kitchen, and then we hand jerk each soda to order.
Javier: Okay. So how did you come up with the business idea and why did you pick soda?
David: That's a great question. You know, when the food truck revolution started a few years back, I was really intrigued. I...you know, my first jobs in my teenage years were working in restaurants in the front of the house and then the back of the house in various cooking capacities and serving capacities. And I thought, gosh, I watched the food truck revolution go, and I thought, "What would I do?" And when I went to my first food truck meet up, immediately I thought, soda. Soda would be great. You know, everybody there was thirsty, and everybody there clearly was looking for something you know, handmade and made to order.
Javier: Well, that's interesting. So, a food truck meetup? Were you participating or you went as a visitor to the food truck?
David: I went as a diner, not a truck, just a van [SP].
Javier: Okay, so I'm just curious. How did you come up with the name Pops and Sons Soda Company?
David: Sure. I have two sons, they're teenagers now. I graduated college when I was 37, I was a matriculating student. And so, my 18-22-year-old classmates used to call me pops. And it was a name that caught on around the university and got me a few free passes into some fraternity parties and stuck. So when it was time to name the business, it just made sense. My sons are very much active in the business, as junior jerks, and you know, we're a family business. The Pops and Sons isn't just a name, it's a value. You know, all of our sodas are very kid-friendly, very low in sugar, you know, made with really healthy ingredients.
Javier: Okay, so yeah, that's what I wanted to ask you. So there's a lot of news lately about health risk of drinking soda pop and there have been attempts to restrict purchasing large amounts of soda. What do you think about this?
David: Well, I've been trying to reach Mayor Bloomberg's office and see if he might make the trek from New York to San Jose and taste some of my product and have a sit-down meeting. Because I think he would approve. You know, my soda, a typical 20-ounce portion of soda, contains less sugar than a glass of milk. And I use a lot of alternatives to sugar: agave, honey, cardamom, which is a spice that has a natural sweetness to it, coconut palm sugar, and raw sugar, and beet sugar.
Javier: Okay, yeah that sounds all like healthier alternatives than like high-fructose corn syrup or other kinds of sugars.
David: And so, one of the values that we really try and maintain is...I joke, you can pronounce every ingredient in our soda. Cardamom is the most difficult word to say. If you turn over a can of any soda, from the mainstream bottlers to the boutique bottlers, often times you're gonna find flavor preservatives or other sweeteners in there that just aren't natural ingredients that you find at a local farmer's market or your local health food store.
Javier: Okay. Yeah, so what flavors of soda do you serve?
David: Yeah, well our two most popular flavors to date have been a soda we call "The Dragon," and our "Lavender Lemongrass." The Dragon is a tarragon and grapefruit soda. It's a very simple soda, it has very simple ingredients, but when tarragon and grapefruit collide on the palate, they create a really mystical culinary adventure. The flavor starts out sort of like bubble gum and bursts through the citrusness and the tartness of the grapefruit and finishes on kind of a sweet, smoky, slight licorice note, from the coconut palm sugar that we use in it as well as the tarragon. The Lavender Lemongrass soda is you know, it's kinda what you see is what you get. It's a lavender simple syrup made with lavender and just raw sugar. And a lemongrass syrup that's lemongrass, lemons, lemon juice, lemon grated...grated lemon zest, and a little bit of beet sugar.
Javier: So where do you get your ingredients and are they all natural and organic?
David: You know, we're shooting to be a certified organic facility. We haven't reached that point yet. We buy as much as we can organic, but these are, these ingredients are all things that are just available from your local grocery store. I also...I'm blessed to have a farmer's market right up my business that I shop at every Friday.
Javier: Oh, so that's good. You get local products.
Javier: Okay. So yeah, I visited your soda bar in the San Pedro Square Market in San Jose recently, and one of my favorites was the Lavender Lemongrass which is what you mentioned. I also like the Lemongrass Cardamom and the Saffron Cola. So, one of the things I wanted to ask is, what is the reason why you think people visit Pops and Sons Soda Company? What do you think your customers are looking for?
David: The thing that's really been resonating with our customers is the fact that we make everything in small batches. You know, you mentioned the Saffron Cola, and it's one of my favorites. And it's, you know, something that we make almost daily, it starts off with a base of fresh mint, fresh basil, and fresh rosemary. Then I start building the flavor up with some dried ingredients, some dried fennel and bay leaf and cardamom. And then finally, sweeten it off with honey, coconut palm sugar, and infuse the saffron. And our customers, you know, they walk by our bar, they see magical things steaming out of pots. They can smell them. The sensory experience at Pops and Sons is, you know, is quite intense with the colors, and the sounds and the taste.
And so, as people approach the bar and quite frankly Javier, have a bit of a surprised look on their face, because they're not quite sure what's going on, and we explain to them that we make small-batch, handcrafted soda, they're really been responsive and excited.
Javier: Okay. So yeah, when I visited your bar, I liked how you made the drinks right in front of me and served the sodas fresh. Can you just describe briefly, the setup of your bar and walk me through the process of how you make your sodas?
David: Sure. So the bar is...we're a small facility, a 12-foot bar and a 10-foot long soda kitchen. The kitchen is you know, four burners, cutting boards, small refrigerator, an area for my mise en place, and it's all behind a sneeze guard so people can sit there and look through the glass and see exactly what we're doing, exactly what's going into their drink. We cook, we bottle the syrups as concentrates, and then at that point, it just becomes a very you know, standard sort of bar set up. We have, you know, our bottles in speed trays and a couple of seltzer taps...seltzer fountain taps on the bar and we mix to order.
Javier: Yeah. Your bar kinda has like a laboratory feel to it. I was curious...so as a repeat customer to Pops and Soda...Pops and Sons Soda Company, would I expect the same flavor and consistency of the sodas each time I visit or would each visit to Pops and Sons be a little different?
David: Each time's a little different. In fact, since you've been there, Javier, we've added a couple of things to the menu. So I look forward to having you come back and enjoy, you know, a few more of our flavors. One of the focuses is also to try and you know, maintain flavors that are with the seasons. So, our...you know, we have a Berry Spice Soda that has been using fresh blueberries infused with some cinnamon, clove, and other mulling spices. That's changing. We're now gonna move to a Black Pepper Cherry Soda. The cherries in Northern California are coming into season, they're coming in really nice this year. We had just the right type of weather conditions to get just the right amount of sweetness and tartness.
Javier: So going back to the flavors of the soda, what do you think is the most unique flavor that you have, and can you describe it to us?
David: Sure. You know, one of my favorites...or my favorite one...if someone really wants to try something unique is to pour them a glass of Newton's Favorite. Newton's is a fig soda. It's a fig soda that's infused with chai spice and has a note of balsamic vinegar on the finish. And we...you know, because everything's jerked to order, and not bottled, we're able to either serve that up as sweet or savory. And if a person resonates more with sweet, we can put a bit of our house-brewed simple syrup in it. Our house-brewed simple syrup is made of local honey that again, I pick up at that farmer's market right outside my door, with some organic agave and cardamom.
Javier: Okay. So what do you think is the most popular drink with your customers and why do you think it's so popular?
David: Sure. The two most popular drinks have consistently been the Dragon and the Lemongrass...I'm sorry, the Lavender Lemongrass. What's happening more and more, is customers are realizing that in addition to having small-batch, handcrafted soda, we also have on-site sodammeliers [SP]. A sodammelier is like a wine sommelier, except for soda. And so, given the concentration of food vendors that we have at the San Pedro Square Market, we're able to pair sodas with people's food. And because it's an environment where, you know, a group of four people may go and order four different types of food, they may order a pizza or a, you know, a fresh burger or Greek food or Vietnamese spring rolls. Each person in a party can come back to the bar, let us know what they ordered and we can pair up a soda to match their dinner.
Javier: Oh that's, yeah, really nice. So one thing, when I was there, you offered me something called an amuse-bouche, what is that and why would somebody want one?
David: Sure. Well, in traditional culinary, you know, in your traditional multi-course meal, often times, a chef will start your meal with an amuse-bouche. An amuse-bouche is something designed to just entertain your palate, to tease your palate, to get you started and get you ready for the adventure you have ahead. And so, you know, we have an off-the-menu item which is our amuse-bouche, which is a...it's called a "scrub." A scrub in traditional soda making is anything that contains vinegar. And so, we have a honey-balsamic scrub and a very unique way of drinking our scrub. When we walk people through our menu and we pour the scrub for them, we use it as a, you know, as a way to cleanse our palate and get them ready to try other flavors. Since your visit, we've also introduced "Soda Flights," so we've now had customers come in, sit down, spend 45 minutes at the bar and just walk them through the entire menu starting off with the amuse-bouche, which is something a little bit on the sweeter side with the balsamic vinegar and the honey. And then we'll move them through the sweet pieces of the menu, on to the more savory like the Newton's Favorite and finish them off with one of our you know, dessert selections, such as the Berry Spice or soon to be the Black Cherry. The Black Pepper Cherry.
Javier: So, how do you come up with all your soda recipes and ideas? How do you come up with all these flavors and all these cool ideas?
David: It's just passion. I've been...you know, I think I was probably the first customer to buy a soda stream when they first came out. You know, some years back, you know, I was working at the office and reaching for my three o'clock Coca-Cola pick me up, and my co-worker looked at me and said, "You know that has 13 packs of sugar in it?" And I paused, and challenged her on the point, and found out that she was right. And since that moment, I've just, I just...that was a defining moment for me in 2007 when I realized I want to put good things in my body and soda...hand-making soda, hand-jerking soda, is an art that's been lost and taken over by larger corporations and factories. And it just felt like the timing was right to bring back, you know, things made in small batches and made by hand.
Javier: You know, that's really good. I really admire that and you mentioned that there's...you've made some new flavors? So what are...you mentioned the Black Cherry but do you have any other future soda flavors in the pipeline?
David: Yeah. So we recently introduced a line, "Lizzie," named after one of our employees who came up with it on her own. Which is...it's our simple syrup, the honey-cardamom syrup I mentioned earlier mixed with fresh lime. We do a lot of you know, fresh-squeezing of our citrus. We typically press our citrus to order for each glass.
Javier: Okay. What do you think about the idea of a ginger ale root beer soda?
David: Yeah. So, you know, I am a huge ginger lover. And the next menu item that's gonna introduced to the menu this week is going to be kinda my take on a ginger ale. It won't be a traditional ale, it'll be more of a soda which is gonna be fresh ginger grated into the glass mixed with simple syrup, a dash of lime, and hand jerked. I really, when starting the business, Javier, I really challenged myself not to make ginger ale and not to make root beer. Not because I don't love these flavors, I do. But there's a lot of ginger ales and a lot of root beers out on the market, and you know, being a company that wanted to do something unique, wanted to do something by hand, wanted to do things in small batches, I felt like there were just a lot of other culinary challenges out there for me to tackle before we kinda settled into the status quo.
Javier: Okay. Going back to the location of your soda bar in the San Pedro Square Market, if someone's visiting the San Pedro Square Market, where can they find you?
David: Yeah. So we're located just inside the main entrance, just across from the main parking garage. You know, we're located in a position where you can grab your soda on your way in, and go visit you know, any one of the 15 food vendors.
Javier: Okay. What have been some of your biggest challenges facing your business so far? And what have been some of your favorite achievements?
David: Yeah. Anyone listening to this podcast will know that starting a business isn't easy. Starting a business in culinary isn't easy. I mean it's, you know...I suspect it might be easier to get a hazardous waste permit than it is to get a permit to serve something that people are going to put into their bodies, which is absolutely the way that it should be.
The challenges every day, I wake up to small and large challenges as a business owner. You know, things as small as a leaky hose and as big as, you know, incorporating the business. The, you know, the greatest achievement was accepting my first dollar. And I have toured so many businesses that have that first dollar framed on the wall, you know. And now I appreciate the pride that they have. The thing that's given the greatest amount of satisfaction, you know, as of this recording, has been my Yelp reviews. We have, I think in excess of a dozen Yelp reviews, each of them five-star. And what's been really touching and really humbling, has been the kind words that people have shared on Yelp about the employees, about myself, about the concept, and about the joy that we've brought to their life you know, just by giving them something refreshing to drink.
Javier: You've mentioned already a soda jerk and the word junior jerk. What is a soda jerk and what's so cool about being one?
David: Well, what I haven't laid on you is Chief Executive Jerk, that's the title that's on my business card. A soda jerk in traditional soda making and old fashioned pharmaceutical fountain soda making, a soda jerk is like a waiter or a bartender. If you met somebody new and asked them what they did for a living they might say, "I'm a cook, I'm a waiter, I'm a blacksmith, and I'm a soda jerk." So we're just bringing back soda jerking as a profession. So we have junior jerks, those are my sons. Regular jerks which are some of the other great employees that I've been able to obtain. And myself, the Chief Executive Jerk.
Javier: Okay. So yeah, what are some of the rewarding things about working at Pops and Sons Soda Company for yourself and possibly for your employees and your sons? What do they say is great about working, about Pops and Sons?
David: Well you know, as an employer I really try and promote a culture of kindness, fizz, and joy. You know, and I try and instill that in my employees to carry and pass along as they serve our customers. And you know, carry that into my sons as they mature and grow up and take on the challenges of adulthood.
Javier: So what are some short term business plans for Pops and Sons Soda Company?
David: Well, we've been open now four weeks, today. It's been a really exciting time, we're very much looking forward to the summer. We're ahead of expectations on operational efficiency and revenue, so that's a really nice thing. In the summer months, we're excited to start introducing some new recipes, some new syrup concepts. The immediate, short-term expansion plans are going to start bottling our syrups for folks to take home and mix with their soda stream or just mix with traditional club soda. We've already gotten some traction in that market, some traction at the farmer's market, people have been really excited about you know, coming to Pops and Sons, explaining what they're gonna be serving at their dinner party, and, you know, allowing us to send them home with a bottle of syrup, much in the way they may go home with a bottle of wine from a wine shop.
Javier: Okay. That's interesting. How long do you think the syrup would last, or how are you supposed to store the syrup once you purchased it?
David: Yeah. I mean our syrups are all perishable goods. You know, I'm comfortable saying that they'll last two weeks, but I'd prefer to, you know, cook and serve the same day. So we're doing a lot of syrup sales on Fridays as people prepare for their...kind of their weekend entertaining.
Javier: Okay. How do you see the business growing in the next like four or five years or down line?
David: Yeah. That's an exciting question. You know, what I'm learning now that I've opened at the San Pedro Square Market, is that more and more facilities like this are sprouting up across the country. Now when I say facilities like this, I mean, you know, places where you know, they are permanently installed food truck meet up type of places with independently owned and operated gourmet food walk up counters. And so, we're already looking at new locations. My business, the bar itself is very repeatable, very scalable. The interesting piece is that as we expand to new geographic locations, we'll start, you know, building more recipes to leverage local ingredients. Everything...the idea is that everything will still be cooked in small batches, bottled in small batches, and you know, poured to order.
Javier: Okay. When I met you at the soda bar, you mentioned some unique things you're doing with social media. Can you describe some of the cool things you are using...cool ways you are using social media websites like Twitter and Facebook?
David: Sure. Yeah. So we, you know, we have our Facebook page up, it's facebook.com/popsandsons with the word and spelled out. The internet doesn't care for amperstamps too much. And, you know, beyond Facebook we're also on Instagram, Twitter and you know, have been building a presence more and more on Yelp. Something that we're hoping to introduce soon is "Tweet In Your Order." I'm working with my employees, with other vendors at the market, and doing some test runs to allow people to tweet in their order, so that when they walk through the door their soda's ready for them to pick up and move on.
Javier: Okay. Yeah. That's really cool. And what's your Twitter? Do you know your Twitter name?
Javier: Okay. So there's many people who will be listening to the Specialty Sodas Podcast. If there's someone out there in the audience who you would like to reach out to you, who would this be?
David: That's the fun thing about my business, Javier. You know, our target market is everybody, you know? Our target markets are families, families like mine where, you know, you want to give your kids, you know, something healthy to drink, and you want nothing but the best for your children. Our target market is, you know, young urbanite up and comers. We already have quite a local following among young urbanites who are looking for an alternative to their afternoon coffee. And we're getting a lot of...you know, we have a bit a three o'clock rush. People leaving their office building and, you know, coming and grabbing a Pops and taking it back to their desk to you know, get 'em through the rest of the day. And then on top of that, we love foodies. You know, we're really trying to offer you know, an alternative beverage to pair with your dinner.
Javier: How can people get in touch with you if they wanna contact you or continue the conversation?
David: Sure. They can give us a call. Our phone number is 408-761-POPS, P-O-P-S, connect with us on Facebook at facebook.com/popsandsons or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Really, you know, we invite people to connect with us and contact us to do special events. We've already, you know, in the short time that we've been in business, we have already done a few special events. And our special events can manifest themselves in various ways. We can do special corporate events, say a corporate lunch, barbecue event where the corporation probably isn't prone to serving alcohol on a Wednesday at lunch, so we do very well at corporate events. We can bring a jerking station out with freshly made syrups and mix to order. Of course, you know, we can do parties for young people, we can do private events at the San Pedro Square itself.
Javier: So for those listeners who are in the Bay Area and the San Jose area, I highly recommend you check out Pops and Sons Soda Company in the San Pedro Square Market. David, so for those listeners who are not in northern California, what can they do to support you and be a part of the fresh soda revolution you're stirring up?
David: That's a great, exciting question. And the answer is straightforward. The, you know...as I mentioned earlier, we're gonna start bottling our syrups as perishable goods. And we would love to start shipping our syrups, you know, anywhere in the U.S. overnight. The nice thing about our syrups is they're concentrated. So they don't weigh very much. You know, a one-liter bottle of our syrup is gonna give you, you know, a good 20 or 25 portions.
Javier: Okay. So yeah, thank you, David. I appreciate you being a part of the Specialty Sodas Podcast and I wish you the best success with Pops and Sons Soda Company.
David: Javier, a real pleasure meeting you, a real pleasure meeting somebody with equal passion for fizz.
Javier: And thank you, everyone in the audience listening to this episode of the Specialty Sodas Podcast, brought to you by specialtysodas.com. Thank you, and until next time.
David: Thank you, Javier. Stay fizzy, stay kind.
Javier: All right. Bye.