Newlyweds bet the farm on pineapple soda made in Hawaii
By Betty Shimabukuro
Pineapple growing and soda bottling both have a history in the tiny town of Waialua, a fortuitous note for the new Waialua Soda Works. The company's lead-off product merges those two legacies: pineapple soda, bottled in glass.
Newlyweds Karen and Jason Campbell produced their first sodas -- hand-filled, capped and labeled -- in February. Six months later, their golden bottles of fizz are available in 15 retail and restaurant outlets, including, quite appropriately, Alan Wong's Pineapple Room.
They're doing all the business they can with their current equipment, yet the Campbells will be pouring samples at the Made in Hawaii Festival later this week. They've got their minds set on bigger things, after all.
Waialua Soda Works is a one-couple operation, based in modest quarters -- a single room rented from Harvey's Repair, an old gas station on the road leading into Waialua.
The Campbells do everything, from mixing the brew, siphoning it into clear bottles that they sterilize themselves, all the way through packing, delivery and sales.
Production stands at 18 to 21 cases a week -- in the neighborhood of 500 bottles -- their limit. But new equipment is on the way that will let them produce 700 bottles an hour.
"I sold my house in Texas," Jason says. "I bet the farm on this one."
The Campbells are reviving a local soda-bottling tradition that goes back more than 100 years.
Paul Kanehiro, co-president of the Hawaiian Historical Bottle Collector's Club, says more than 500 bottling companies operated in the islands from the 1860s to as recently as the 1970s. Each island may have had 20 companies at a time.
Many were "real small kine," Kanehiro says. "Some companies lasted less than a year; some consolidated. ... it was a real big thing at the turn of the century."
The first Waialua Soda Works was in business from the late 1800s to the 1920s or '30s, he says. (The Campbells adopted the name, but have no connection to that original company).
The first sodas were produced by druggists, Kanehiro says. "They were called seltzers and stomach bitters, something people thought were beneficial to the health."
Later, when the drinks began to be sold as refreshment, popular flavors included sarsaparilla, orange, lime, strawberry and rootbeer. There was even a Tahiti Lemonade Soda Works, based in Waikiki.
Eventually, though, cheaper aluminum cans made bottling obsolete and the big boys in the market -- Coca Cola and Pepsi among them -- overran the small soda companies.
The old bottles, many hand-blown and embossed with company names and the letters "TH" for Territory of Hawaii, are collectibles now.
The modern Waialua Soda Works pineapple formula is a mixture of Maui natural cane sugar and C&H white sugar, plus pineapple concentrate.
Rootbeer has already been added to the line and the Campbells are planning new flavors of mango, lilikoi and melon or kiwi, as they imagine a row of multicolored sodas on store shelves. "We're trying to get the Hawaiian rainbow," Karen says. "We're trying to figure out what would make purple."
A cream soda is planned, too, using Hawaiian vanilla.
Bottles must be imported, just as they were a century ago in that heyday of Hawaii bottling. Glass remains the company's biggest expense.
The soda wholesales for $1 a bottle; 35 cents of that is the cost of the bottle. A pallet of 4,300 bottles costs just under $900, but shipping from the Oregon factory is another $600, plus $100 an hour for a forklift driver to make the delivery.
"It's probably the most expensive soda to make in the United States," Jason says.
It would be more economical to do the bottling on the mainland, Karen acknowledges. "That's the first question people ask: Do you really make it here, or do you make it in California and ship it here?"
But the company's identity is tied up in the soda being Hawaii-made. "That's why we kind of bite the bullet on the cost."
These sodas-in-glass are boutique products similar to microbrews among beers. A number of mainland bottlers, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, have proven their appeal to a higher-end niche market willing to pay $2 or more per bottle retail for something classier than Coke. Think Henry Weinhard's Rootbeer.
"As long as people are willing to pay that price," Jason says, "I can make it here."
The Campbells based their business in Waialua "because we love the feel of this town," Karen says. Plus, the old sugar mill, the town's principal landmark, is good karma -- sugar being the main ingredient in sodas.
Karen lived in Hawaii as a child and had been visiting frequently over the last five years, since her brother moved back. Jason, a friend of Karen's brother, first came to Hawaii for a wedding, and that's when the two met. They married 18 months ago and moved to Karen's home in California.
Jason came up with the soda inspiration when he noticed there were no longer Hawaii-made soft drinks in glass bottles. A year of research followed. Jason is a metal sculptor by trade and had to learn all the basics of bottling.
After that came selling the idea to Karen. "I definitely needed a little convincing in the beginning."
But the time was right. She left her job in marketing with an architectural engineering firm and there's been no turning back.
The couple moved here last October, started the business, spent a couple of months developing a recipe, then launched their pineapple product.
They haven't even been in Hawaii a year, yet working on their own, financed by the sale of Jason's Texas house, they've uncapped a promising future. Karen's business plan estimates they'll start turning a profit in about a year.
Soda production now involves mixing the water, sugar and flavoring in a bucket, then filtering it into a 5-gallon keg. The brew is then carbonated over 24 hours in a regular home-style refrigerator. The bottles are then filled and capped, one at a time, using a system of tubes and CO2 to pressurize the bottles.
Standing ready, though, are two tanks that can hold 2,400 bottles worth of soda. Freon, pumped into a girdle-like chamber that circles the tanks, does the cooling. They are awaiting one more piece of equipment to put the new system to work.
Another machine, expected in January, will clean, fill and cap bottles -- allowing for a further jump in production.
It's the nature of the bottling biz that you're either a small producer, or you commit to go big-time. The Campbells have taken the leap. "There's jumps you can make in this industry, but they're huge jumps; there aren't any baby steps," Karen says. "You go from our 5-gallon tank to a 200-gallon tank. There's no in-between."