by Catie Joyce-Bulay
When Sharelle Klaus had the idea to start DRY Soda Company in 2005, she wanted to fill a gap in the craft beverage market. As a mother of four children under seven, she wasn’t drinking alcohol and was looking for a sophisticated beverage to take its place but couldn’t find one.
“I just really wanted to drink something at the time that would feel special — that would pair with food and that you could drink when you weren’t drinking, basically,” said Klaus, founder and CEO.
She started looking into the world of carbonated soft drinks and saw that the market was declining and there hadn’t been any real flavor innovations. This led to the realization that she had a unique business opportunity on her hands.
From the beginning, she knew she wanted to scale up. But as a stay-at-home mom with a background in the tech industry and consulting in public works projects, she had zero experience in the craft beverage industry. She did have experience with building a company — she started a secured internet portal for 10-to-13-year-olds in the late 1990s.
“What I really enjoyed about that was building a brand. I just love brands and I love marketing, so I knew I wanted to build [another] brand,” she said. “The bottom line for me was that I don’t really care what 10-to-13-year-olds do on the internet, so I knew the next company for me had to be one I was really passionate about.” As a self-proclaimed foodie, she knew she’d found the right project with DRY Sparkling Sodas.
She jumped into researching the industry from product to packaging and processing. After testing out recipes and flavors in her home kitchen, working with local chefs and flavor houses, she needed financing, which she secured through a home equity line of credit and similar avenues.
“The first money I spent was on designers,” said Klaus, who first went to a designer she had worked with in starting her previous company. That designer wasn’t available, but her husband, who was just starting up a design firm with a few other Seattle designers, was. Klaus negotiated a price she could afford, with the promise of more to come. DRY spent the next 10 years with the firm, both helping each other expand into large businesses.
“We ended up doing millions of dollars of work with them so I think in the end we all felt really good,” Klaus said. “Their design firm is really big now and we started out to help each other, which I thought was really cool and is definitely kind of a Seattle thing.”
The next thing Klaus knew she needed was a good PR firm, which she also found in her home town of Seattle. “I knew that in order for this to work it was going to have to be something that people discovered,” she said of her budding company.
The PR firm she chose worked with several Seattle restaurants and was able to set her up with sales appointments with them. Out of her first 30 restaurants, all said yes. Then a local grocery chain, QFC, heard about her soda through the restaurants and asked to carry the product.
Things continued to grow from there. After self-financing the company for its first eight months, Klaus found outside investors and was able to work full-time. Up until then, she had been working on the company in the early mornings and late into the night, while home-schooling her two daughters.
“I changed my daughters’ curriculum once they were in kindergarten and first grade,” she recalled. “I said ‘Okay, we’re going to learn how to start a company,’ and so they were a part of the tastings — they went to PR meetings and design meetings. They were just a part of it from the beginning, which is real cute because they’re both in college now.”
The company, still headquartered in Seattle, now has 20 employees, with production facilities and sales representatives located throughout the country, producing millions of bottles of soda each year.
DRY Sparkling comes in eight flavors, including watermelon, ginger, fuji apple, cucumber, blood orange, vanilla, Rainier cherry and, their top seller, lavender.
“Back 13 years ago, when we first started, it was really crazy to do a lavender soda. No one was doing anything else like that, but now you’re starting to see it more,” she said of her favorite scent and one of four original flavors.
“I had it all over my yard and I remember thinking this would be so good with chocolate,” she said. “I would love to drink a lavender soda out of a champagne flute with chocolate.” She noted that lavender was the most difficult flavor to get right because of its medicinal or overly floral qualities.
Lemongrass was another original flavor, which Klaus wanted to include to compliment Seattle’s popular Asian-fusion food scene at the time.
She selected rhubarb as an early flavor because it reminded her of the rhubarb pies her grandmother made her every summer and for its similarity to wine. “I think it’s so complex,” she said of the vegetable. “There’s so many different flavors to it and it reminded me of a wine a little bit, how when you drink wine, there’s these different flavors, so I thought that would be amazing.”
She continues to learn about flavors along the way. Kumquat was another original, but she realized when it wasn’t selling well that consumers didn’t know what kumquats were. She reworked the citrus recipe to include blood orange instead, which sold well.
The flavors they’ve since added to the line-up have come from chef and customer suggestions as well as inspiration from Klaus’s international travels. “I spend a lot of time eating when I travel and spend time thinking about a lot of different flavors and concepts,” said Klaus, who was on her way to Shanghai the day of our phone interview.
A soda that pairs well with food was always the intent and their website includes a list of pairing ideas for each flavor with some recipes.
The company continues to innovate the nonalcoholic craft beverage world as Klaus is always looking for opportunities to fill gaps in quality and flavor. They just released a line of zero sugar organic sodas.
“I will admit I wasn’t interested in doing a sugar-free option for quite a while until we realized that there really is a group of consumers out there that don’t want sugar,” she said. When she started looking at diet soda options, she realized none of them tasted good and were too sugary.
“I was curious if we could make an all-natural and organic soda with zero sugar that could taste good and I wasn’t going to do it if we couldn’t.” She had a theory that if they used less stevia, a common natural alternative to sugar, it would taste good and she is happy with the results. Klaus characterizes DRY Zero Sugar as sweeter and much bolder than the DRY Sparkling line but still less sweet than a regular diet soda, allowing the flavors to come through.