Bryn Mawr duo create new all natural soda

Like many ideas both good and bad, the brainstorm behind Joia all natural soda occurred at a bar.

Last summer, Bryn Mawr resident Bob Safford was having drinks downtown at the Bradstreet Crafthouse with his buddy Steven Walker when the question that led to Joia’s creation hit him — why isn’t somebody creating a more interesting soda?

One year later, Safford, Walker and two partners are trying to create exactly that. Joia, which in Portuguese means gem or jewel, is all-natural soda featuring crafted blends of fruits, herbs and spices. The drink recently became available at select restaurants and groceries, including The Wedge, Linden Hills Co-op, French Meadow, Cuppa Joe, Whole Foods and Lunds.

Safford’s Bradstreet brainstorm wasn’t boozed-inspired; quite the opposite, as he hasn’t had a sip of alcohol in a dozen years.

But closing up the liquor cabinet for good doesn’t mean Safford contents himself with Diet Cokes and Liptons. Over the years, he became an enthusiast of non-alcoholic culinary cocktails featuring the types of complex flavor combinations Joia attempts to capture.

Late last summer, and shortly after leaving a corporate marketing job, Safford began discussing the idea of creating a crafted soda product with Carleton Johnson, his friend and Bryn Mawr neighbor.

Safford discussed the soda concept with his barber, who recommended he get in touch with another regular patron, Dan Oskey, the mixologist and head bartender at The Strip Club bar and restaurant in St. Paul.

Safford and Johnson are both career marketers who have worked for General Mills, Kraft and Kimberly Clark, among others. Oskey agreed to lend his mixing skills to the project, and by early last fall a team was beginning to emerge.

But one significant hurdle remained — where would financing to launch the brand come from?

Fortunately, Safford counts Brad Blum, the former CEO of Burger King and Romano’s Macaroni Grill, among his former business associates. Since leaving Macaroni Grill last year, Blum has invested in a number of small food companies producing healthful or natural products. Blum liked the concept of a culinary cocktail-style soda made with natural ingredients and agreed to financially support the project along with a group of Safford’s college friends.

By November, Safford and Johnson were testing dozens of Oskey’s non-alcoholic mixes with their neighbors; a month later, they narrowed the concoctions down to about a half-dozen iterations and began to envision a mid-2011 launch for Joia.

Marketing research suggested Joia’s founders emphasize the soda’s use of naturally derived ingredients while refraining from an organic certification.

The Joia team looked into the possibility of creating an organic soda, but Johnson said “consumers didn’t seem to care that much about that label, and ultimately it hurts you a lot from the cost and manufacturing standpoints.”

“On the other hand,” he continued, “we didn’t want to make something with preservatives — that’s not what consumers are looking for today.”

Safford added: “From the beginning, the idea was to create these more exotic, unique-ingredient sodas. Then the marketing guys took a look and asked, ‘what does this need to be steeped in to be successful in the market?’”

Joia comes in four flavor combinations: grapefruit, chamomile and cardamom; lime, hibiscus and clove; blackberry, pomegranate and ginger; and pineapple, coconut and nutmeg.

All four varieties use sparkling water, pure cane sugar and concentrated juices as primary ingredients.

In terms of flavor, the grapefruit concoction tastes a bit like a citrus soda served with a slice of orange. The blackberry combination presents a tangy and refreshing blend of sweet and tart flavors, while the pineapple variety is less tangy and almost savory. (Regrettably, this reporter gave away the lime sample to a thirsty friend and hence didn’t have an opportunity to try it.)

Twelve-ounce bottles of Joia are sold in four-packs at groceries (for about $6) and individually at restaurants and coffee shops (at roughly $1.69).

With almost a half-century of marketing experience between them, Safford and Johnson are confident Joia will carve out a niche for itself between now and the end of the year. If the product is successful here in the Twin Cities, they hope to expand distribution into other markets in 2012.

Asked what his experience suggests regarding successfully marketing a new food product, Safford said “if it doesn’t taste great, you have problems.”

Reach Aaron Rupar at [email protected]