Old City Soda plans to offer more flavors; expand customer base

KATHY AMES CARR
KATHY AMES CARR
Mike Gulley of Old City Soda plans on selling his handcrafted sodas to restaurants and specialty grocers within Northeast Ohio, and eventually other regional markets.

As a longtime bartender for various Cleveland establishments, Mike Gulley found himself making his own ginger beer for use in cocktails because he couldn’t find a supplier of craft keg sodas.

Ginger beer mini-growlers sold quickly, and so the blueprint for a new business was born. Now he’s claimed as of July 1 a 5,200 square-foot space in the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood for production of his handcrafted, all-natural carbonated sodas.

“I think our micro-sodas will serve an unfulfilled niche in the marketplace,” said Gulley, founder of Old City Soda

Old City Soda by the end of the month will offer four-packs in 10 flavors, including strawberry-ginger, grapefruit, lemon, lime and cinnamon. Look for hibiscus berry, maple syrup soda, cranberry, pumpkin spice and cold-brew coffee soda.

“Compared to a San Pellegrino sparkling water, they’re much stronger in flavor,” Gulley said. “The flavor doesn’t dilute when served over ice.”

The fresh fruits such as arrive from Florida 24 hours after they are pressed and pasteurized. Gulley then mixes, carbonates, hand-bottles, hand-labels and self-distributes 150 cases a week, but expects production to double in the near future.

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Mike Gulley is currently using a refurbished labeling machine, though plans to add more equipment in the near future to bolster production.

The cavernous warehouse is mostly empty, save for equipment storage, a food-grade processing facility, refurbished bottle filler and a rebuilt labeling machine, the latter of which still requires a lot of massaging.

“I usually run the bottle through the labeler, then have to peel off the label and reapply it manually to make sure there are no creases,” Gulley said.

He expects the warehouse floor to fill up quickly with equipment and product.

He’ll begin by supplying his sodas to Spice Kitchen + Bar, Flying Fig and Fat Cats, and producing some customized sodas for restaurants as that demand materializes.

“I’ve had inquiries from about 30 different restaurants, from as far south as Strongsville, west into Rocky River and east to Willoughby” as well as informal conversations with local specialty grocers, he said.

He sees bars and taverns among his ideal clients. Their focus is not handcrafted cocktails, so draft Old City Sodas are the ideal complement to their beverage programs.

“A Tom Collins can be a four-step cocktail, with the gin, carbonated water, lemon and sugar,” Gulley explained. “If you have our lemon sodaon draft, all you need to do is add vodka or gin, and you have a really good cocktail.”

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KATHY AMES CARR Old City Soda labels

Customers can also buy the sodas at the monthly Cleveland Flea and by contacting Old City Soda directly. Gulley plans to incorporate a retail space into the factory.

By early 2015, he will have installed a canning line that will significantly ramp up production, to about 5,000 cases of the canned carbonated beverages each week.

“We’ll eventually start distributing throughout Northeast Ohio, Columbus, southern Ohio and Pittsburgh,” he said.

“This may be one of the only micro-soda operations in the Midwest, at least that I know of,” added Gulley, noting the acquisition of single-line soda operations by Big Beverage prompted the sector’s consolidation in the 1990s.

Other handcrafted soda companies are starting to pop up around the U.S., as consumer demand for an alternative to traditional soft drinks rises, according to a July 14 Restaurant Business story. Starbucks this summer also rolled out its line of handcrafted sodas.

If all goes well, Gulley envisions moving from beyond a soda company to a beverage operation that also sells craft bitters and vermouth.

He credits The Cleveland Flea as propelling his transition from vision to reality.

“I was teaching a course last spring on how to make ginger beer to about 40 people, and it was so popular, (Cleveland Flea founder) Stephanie Sheldon asked me to have a booth at the next Flea,” Gulley said. “We started serving Moscow Mules and Dark-n-Stormys. Our line extended back to the entrance of the Flea. We sold out of our strawberry ginger in 15 minutes.”

Provenance beverage series extended

Provenance at the Cleveland Museum of Art extended its popular “Tastings on the Terrace” Friday night series through September. Provenance will feature a fine wine tasting menu, served on the open-air rooftop terrace above the restaurant. The theme for Sept. 19 is an exploration of chardonnays, and Sept. 26’s event is on styles of blending red wines.Tasting flights range from $9 to $12.

Work it

The National Restaurant Associationlast month released its most comprehensive work force industry study in decades, which reveals that both employees and restaurant operators believe the sector offers long-term career opportunities.

“Who Works in the U.S. Restaurant Industry,” released by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, reports that 88% of employees are proud to work in the industry, while 75% of individuals over age 18 believe the restaurant industry offers them a strong career path and long-term job security.

According to the study, restaurant managers earned a median annual base salary of $47,000. Salaried chefs and cooks’ earn $40,000 and $65,000.

In Ohio, restaurants account for 534,300 jobs — or 10% — of employment. Restaurants in the state are projected to generate $17.8 billion in sales in 2014.

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Old City Soda Goes ‘Legit’ with the Opening of Midtown Production Facility

“This will be my first legit batch of Old City Soda, Cleveland’s first micro-soda company,” Mike Gulley says from the main floor of his 5,000-square-foot production facility in the St. Clair Superior neighborhood.

Up until today, one day after he officially passed his inspections and received his bottling license, Gulley had been whipping up his in-demand sodas at home, in the kitchens of family and friends, and behind the bar at various places of employment. His path to soda entrepreneurship began five years ago at the Fairmount, where he first brewed up a batch of ginger beer. He went on to sharpen his skills at XYZ Tavern and Market Avenue Wine Bar, adding various cocktail-friendly elixirs to his repertoire.

While the sodas can be enjoyed on their own over ice, Gulley formulated them specifically for use in cocktails. Along with the rise of craft cocktails comes the demand for better mixers, and bartenders are always on the lookout for higher quality products. Gulley makes his without corn syrup and artificial flavors, relying instead on fresh fruit juices, pure cane sugar and even, in some cases, honey.

“My goal is to make the best product available while still making money — these are expensive sodas to make,” he notes.

Fresh-frozen fruit juice is shipped from Florida within 24 hours of being pressed and pasteurized, Gulley says. Working in 30-gallon batches, he brews various flavors like grapefruit, tonic, ginger, lemon, hibiscus, strawberry-ginger and lime.

“I’m really excited about the lime soda,” he says. “It’s made with lime, lemon and a little orange juice. Mix it with tequila and it’s an instant effervescent margarita.”

Gulley will begin kegging and bottling his sodas for delivery to a handful of wholesale accounts. Diners will likely begin seeing them soon at Spice, Flying Fig and Lava Lounge to start, then, as he brings on more help, a larger network of local restaurants. He hopes to add a retail component before the end of the year.

Gulley has been working around the clock for months getting the old woodworking shop ready for commercial soda production. He intends to use the industrial space for happy hours, pop-up dinners and “soda club parties” with food and live entertainment.