Fizzy Waters feeling at home in downtown Duluth
No matter what they walk out with, it's the look on those little faces when they come into the colorful shop that makes Susan Smith's job all the sweeter."My favorite moment is seeing kids walk in the door -- their eyes light up and say, 'Wow, th...
No matter what they walk out with, it’s the look on those little faces when they come into the colorful shop that makes Susan Smith’s job all the sweeter.
“My favorite moment is seeing kids walk in the door - their eyes light up and say, ‘Wow, this is the best store ever,’ ” said Smith, who owns Fizzy Waters with her husband, Steve.
Fizzy Waters opened at its new home at 120 W. Superior St. this summer after a few years selling hard-to-find sodas and candy in Canal Park. The huge new space has allowed the Smiths to grow the store into a destination for all ages, from the generation-spanning candy selection to the hundreds of simple and complex sodas for sale.
“People come in and say, ‘I bet you don’t have that,’ and when I say I do, that’s a great feeling,” Smith said.
From 1919 and Sprecher root beers to Boylan cream sodas and Joia sodas brewed with herbs and spices, Fizzy Waters marks another entry in Duluth’s growing craft scene, as many of the bottled and tap offerings are made regionally or by small-scale craft soda producers.
“Already there’s such a strong craft beer industry,” Smith said. “Not everyone can participate in that, but this can be a complement and/or alternative.”
Craft soda isn’t quite the industry upstart craft beer has become, but it is on the rise.
“We’ve seen more craft sodas entering the market in recent years, and we expect that trend to continue,” said Gary Hemphill, managing director of research at the Beverage Marketing Corp. “These products tend to be characterized by unique flavors, natural ingredients, cane sugar as a sweetener, unique proprietary packaging, premium positioning and pricing.”
Those are certainly the characteristics of Fizzy Waters’ offerings, where natural sugars are preferred, flavors get as wild as Buffalo wing and bacon, and few of the familiar brands from grocery stores are there to catch the eye.
“If there is a cane sugar option available, that’s what we buy,” Smith said, pointing to Cokes made without the much-maligned high-fructose corn syrup.
Though soda taxes and other public health efforts have dinged the industry, and consumption has fallen, Americans still are drinking soda at a rate of more than 40 gallons per person every year. An increasing share of that is craft soda.
“Our expectation is that this segment of the soda category will continue to grow while the overall market continues to decline,” Hemphill said.
Sales for premium/craft sodas are expected to reach all-time highs of $541 million this year on more than 88 million gallons of production - up from $426 million in sales and 78 million gallons in 2010.
“Ultimately the success of the craft soda market will be dictated by the consumer,” Hemphill said. “We view the products more as a change-of-pace choice for soda consumers looking for something different and unique.”
Tapping the market
The Smiths first tapped the craft soda market in 2013 on Canal Park Drive and saw great success with what Susan Smith called “our own invention.” The couple also owns Krabby Ol’ Bills seafood shack and wanted to try something a little different.
Canal Park was never meant to be a permanent home for Fizzy Waters, so when the store outgrew its first location, the Sawmill Unpainted Furniture storefront on Superior Street looked all too inviting.
“It’s a decent space, and now we don’t have stairs people need to climb to get to us,” Smith said. “The locals have found us, and they prefer it.”
With 6,000 square feet, the store today only takes up half the available space in the high-ceilinged shop marked by rows of glass bottles, organized by variety.
There are more brands of sarsaparilla than there are letters in sarsaparilla; there’s root beer from Oregon to Connecticut; there’s Japanese marble soda; there’s kid-friendly orange sodas alongside plenty of tonics and other sparkling beverages that would make unique mixers, too.
Plus, the store offers Midwest-made sodas on tap for filling cups or growlers
“Some downtown workers like to come in instead of going to a vending machine,” Smith said.
The Smiths work with nearly 50 different distributors to keep the rows of brown, blue, orange, green and clear sodas in stock, not to mention candies too nostalgic for most stores.
“Even with our Haribo (gummy bear) selection we need different distributors to get the complete variety,” Smith said.
Access to all those distributors helps the business be nimble when customer requests roll in.
“One of the nice things about being a small business is you don’t need to ask corporate for approval,” Smith said.
Smith said she cycles products in and out and tries to get as much local and regional stock as possible. (Wisconsin has a thriving craft soda scene compared to the few-and-far-between offerings in Minnesota.)
“We’re willing to try anything,” Smith said. “There’s not really a soda and candy consultant we can ask.”
Fizzy Waters also sells soda-brewing kits - getting natural carbonation from yeast and flavor from specialty syrups, it’s much like homebrewing beer but cut off before fermentation.
So maybe a local soda brewer will pop up and get a local label on those taps?
“We’ve had a few people offer, but they need to be licensed through the state,” Smith said.
Traffic has been steady since this summer’s move, Smith said, and the store is getting along fine even after it stopped online sales. Though the winter will be slower, she said she doesn’t mind a little downtime.
The biggest addition to the store, with all its new space, has been gifts and an expanded candy selection.
“Our main focus with candy is nostalgic things, something from every generation’s childhood,” Smith said, but she also carries wilder offerings like Crick-ettes - dried, crunchy crickets with potato chip seasoning.
On the other side of the candy aisle, though, there is a vacuum of sugar.
While Smith won’t divulge her plans just yet, the empty half of Fizzy Waters’ new store could someday get an exciting new use.
“We have ideas for the other half, but we have to see what the building will accommodate.”