Fewer industries have a higher barrier to entry than the soft drink business. Competition for shelf space, finding a distribution network, and developing a strong brand are just a few of the steep challenges that are stacked against young beverage companies that want to sell their products.
Cost is another huge issue that confront entrepreneurs in the beverage world. True, the most prominent ingredient in these drinks is water. The rest is generally sugar, flavoring, and colors. The business model is simple, but with thin margins and fierce competition, the temptation is easy to go with high fructose syrup and artificial flavors. One New England beverage company, however, not only has bucked the trend to go with ingredients out of a chemical lab, but went a step further with the use of fair trade certified ingredients.
Maine Root has its origins in a pizza restaurant in Portland, Maine. Two brothers, Matthew and Mark Seiler, wanted to offer their customers a drink other than what large beverage companies provide. Matthew, a root beer fan, was tired of the bland and syrupy sweet choices to which he was limited. Using the restaurant as a testing ground, he came up with a recipe that morphed into Maine Root. The frothy, refreshing, and herbal brew was first served alongside his pizza. Eventually, other restaurants in Portland started to offer Maine Root, then it spread throughout Maine, and now it is enjoyed in all 50 states. Meanwhile, sales of Maine Root at its birthplace, The Flatbread Pizza Co, exceeded those of Coca-Cola last year.
Currently Maine Root offers six flavors. Sarsaparilla is a hit, bursting with hints of anise, a little clove, and wintergreen, and offers a menthol finish reminiscent root beers from 50 years ago. Modern flavored root beer is available as well. Mandarin orange reminds you of a Creamsicle bar without the medicinal after taste that plagues most orange-flavored soda. And based on a quick skim of some blogs, the favorite by far was blueberry, sweet and tart and as blue as a Smurf without the pesky artificial colors. All of the flavors are sweetened with natural cane sugar, and the entire line is certified by Fair Trade USA.
Some nutritionists will tell you that no matter what its form may be, a carb is still a carb, and sugar is still sugar. Nevertheless, fair trade products are about more than the establishment of fair wages, improved environmental stewardship, and ethical business. For the pragmatic consumer concerned about our food supply, Maine Root’s quality and taste shines when compared to the competition. Their flavors are available online if they are not at a store near year. And in keeping with their social mission, the company is open to donating their product if your event is a fit. If fair trade means building communities abroad while taking an active role in your own hometown, the Seiler brothers and Maine Root are a model to follow.