Fizzy Math

Photo courtesy of Suzuran Photography
Photo courtesy of Suzuran Photography

Mike Gulley has a plan, a partner and a product. He’s run the numbers, prepped countless test batches and — after three years of development, false starts and testing the water efforts — he’s ready to make his small batch, all natural, less-sweet pop commercially available under the new brand name Old City Soda, which was formerly known as Cleveland Soda Works. The goal is to launch this summer, and he hopes there will be a storefront cafe-type location, too. But you don’t have to wait that long to taste his stuff.

Gulley will set up shop at the first Cleveland Flea of the season. On Saturday, April 12, he’ll be pouring and selling his non-alcoholic ginger beer — a drink that explodes on your tongue and leaves a tingle behind — as well as Cinchona bark and lemon grass tonic, fruity flavors like grapefruit and a cinnamon version.

Photo courtesy of  Suzuran Photography
Photo courtesy of Suzuran Photography

The pop-up market, held in the parking lot and garden of Sterle’s Country House on East 55th Street, is a terrifically fun event dedicated to all things local, handmade, vintage, repurposed, artistic, edible and curious, making it the perfect match for his liquid creations. A bartender by trade, Gulley will also be mixing up some adult-only cocktails, featuring his own carbonated beverages including a Moscow Mule and a wonderful version of the Dark and Stormy that I’ve had the pleasure of tasting. And if winter continues to resist giving up up its grip, he promises there will be hot toddies, too.

Right now, Gulley’s soda-making is a side venture and he spends most nights and weekends as fruit peeler, brewer and bottle filler. But the 29-year-old hopes that soon he’ll be able to concentrate on bringing us “the most unique crafts sodas out there.” Just thinking about it makes me thirsty.

Maker Series: Old City Soda

Indie Foundry is nothing if not a community. We are influenced and inspired every day by the artists and makers we work with at the Cleveland Flea, and the clients we work for as branding specialists. On Thursdays, join our resident storyteller, Sarah Wilt, and our partners at Suzuran Photography as we profile some of our favorite Cleveland makers and small, creative business owners. This special series is meant to celebrate them. (Sometimes, we even have cake in their honor.)


Old City Soda::Mike Gulley

Why soda?

The soda market needs major improvement in terms of quality of ingredients. I saw that there were very few soda producers out there making authentic, all-natural sodas and really no micro soda companies.


Why did you decide to start your own business?

I like to be the boss and the only way not to have one above me was to start my own business.

You are in the process of moving into a space in Tyler Village—what can we expect from that space? Is it just for production or will it be open to the public?

We have been working for the past two months on converting a fairly large warehouse that used to house some sort of wood working shop. Initially, we will just be using the space for production. We recently received our bottling license and are working out some of the kinks in our automated linea. Once we get production running smoothly we will be able to focus time and energy on converting some of our space into a tasting room.

What are your goals and dreams for Old City Soda over the next year?

We are hoping to get into retail shops and grocers heading into 2015. This would lead us to have to triple our current production capability. We then would have a canning line designed for us to produce canned 7-8 ounce sodas. That is our goal. My dream is that Lebron James becomes a fan of our all natural sodas and they help him win a championship for Cleveland.


Who do you look to for inspiration…

  • as a creative? Other bartenders. I keep a close eye on flavor trends that bartenders are gravitating towards and work with ones that make interesting sodas.
  • and as a small business owner? Other small business owners. From the local dog specialty store to craft donuts made from beer, I have witnessed these guys and gals work hard to launch their ideas into successful brick and mortar establishments. It’s contagious. It feels like I have been working on this concept a very long time (4 years), and I have watched others open their concepts quicker. I could have been discouraged by that, but instead I found determination and motivation through others success.


How has the Cleveland Flea helped your business?

It gave me a great opportunity to see what the reception to an idea like craft sodas could be in the northeast Ohio market. I have been able to incubate and really develop the products that work. Overall though, The Cleveland Flea gave me confidence in my ideas.

Have you learned anything about your business by participating in the Cleveland Flea?
I have learned that people love local handcrafted products.

What is the one thing that you will always pay full price for?
This is tough one to answer because I am a cheap ass. I guess beer. I don’t mind inexpensive beer, but I will usually pay a bit more for good smaller produced beer.


What’s your biggest struggle from a business standpoint?

My biggest struggle from a business standpoint is getting to the next step of hiring someone full time to work with me. Right now, I have family and friends helping me along the way to cut back on labor costs, but I feel bad giving them too much direction and bossing them around.

Where can we find you…

  • during the day?: At the factory making sodas.
  • in the evening?: Hanging out with my pups and my gal at the house.
  • on weekends?: Not in the busy, loud bars. Bartending for 9 years has left me with no desire to go out to busy weekend establishments. You can find me at smaller bars and restaurants just taking it easy.


Favorite piece of advice as it relates to food?

Eat and drink local. Eat and drink often. And tip the damn service properly.

Favorite piece of advice as it relates to business?
When you are crunching the numbers on how much money it is going to take to launch your business, take the figure you come up with and then multiply it by 2 or 3. There are always unexpected costs and if you don’t have the working capital then you may find yourself at a standstill or scrambling to make it work.

Crafting a Better Soda


by Justin Glanville
photo by Laura Watilo Blake

When Mike Gulley has a spare moment—which isn’t often, given his 70-hour workweeks—he likes to kick back with a bottle of his own craft-brewed grapefruit soda.

Oh, and a little tequila.

“It doesn’t matter what time of year it is, those flavors take me right back to July,” he says with a laugh. “Which is important in Cleveland’s colder months.”

Gulley, 29, is the founder of Old City Soda, a craft soda company based on Cleveland’s Near East Side. He got the idea for the business about five years ago, while working full-time as a bartender at the Fairmount Martini and Wine Bar in Cleveland Heights and later XYZ Tavern in Cleveland’s Gordon Square neighborhood.

Gulley noticed his customers were tiring of “90s-style” martinis and developing a taste for traditional cocktails instead. The problem was finding well-made, flavorful mixers. To fill the gap, he started mixing up 5-gallon tanks of his own fresh ginger juice and ginger beer, and selling out every night.

“It was something people had never tasted before,” he says of those early batches. “The flavor was so different and true—icier, earthier.”

To get the business up and running, he had to spend a couple years navigating state regulations about manufacturing and distributing beverages that included fresh juices. Then there was picking a company identity. “Old City” is the English translation of his mom’s maiden name, Altstadt. The bear on the label comes from the family crest.

Local bars and restaurants were his first clients; he sells to a couple dozen. For the past year or so, he’s also been selling direct to customers at farmers markets and the Cleveland Flea.

In addtion to grapefruit and ginger, the mainstay varieties are lemon and tonic. He also rotates in seasonal flavors, such as strawberry ginger, pumpkin spice, and hibiscus berry. All are made from fresh juice rather than natural or artificial flavors.

He moved into his current space, a red brick manufacturing stall in the Tyler Village complex in AsiaTown, in July. New bottling equipment and a labeling machine are allowing him to ramp up production. He’s even considering hiring an employee.

“Right now I’m selling as much as I can make, about 1,000 bottles a week,” he estimates.

Future plans include producing smaller-sized cans, opening a storefront at Tyler Village, and expanding into surrounding markets, such as Columbus and Pittsburgh.

In the meantime, he’s discovered a contingent of fans who are a far cry from the sophisticated adult cocktail drinkers he originally targeted.

“Little kids!” he says. “I was really surprised how much they like it. Parents will come up and buy a 4-pack for themselves, and they’ll throw in a couple for the kids.”

The youngsters’ favorite flavors? Strawberry ginger, lemon, and tonic.

Which leaves plenty of grapefruit for the adults.

To find out more about Old City Soda and where you can get a taste, find them on Facebook.

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

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.

H2-140919878 (1)
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.”

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.


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.