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Jones Soda Knows What's Hip--and How Pink Tastes

Beverages: Small but growing Seattle company is finding success as alternative to Coke, Pepsi.


SEATTLE — Next to Jones Soda, the standard cola looks boring.

What run-of-the-mill soda competes with flavors named "fufu berry," "happy" and "blue bubble gum"? Shockingly bright soda colors ranging from pink to yellow jump off store shelves, making the competition look bland.

Seattle's Jones Soda Co., started by a ski bum trying to make money during the off-season, is gaining ground among young customers looking for the alternative "hip" refreshment.

The 4-year-old company now sells soda across the U.S. and Canada and boasted $11 million in sales in 1999 and more than $9 million in the first six months of 2000.

"Whenever you have a company that starts out small, you bring more creativity in," said Peter van Stolk, the 37-year-old company president and chief executive who saves suits and ties for funerals and uses words like "wacked" and "no worries."

Whether it's the unusual pictures on the labels, fortunes inside every bottle cap or upside-down labels on the pineapple upside-down sodas, Jones Soda can safely be described as creative.

Most of Jones Sodas' 15 flavors, like "pink" and "green apple," smack of candy-like fruitiness. For the more traditional, flavors like "root beer," "vanilla cola" and the best-selling "cream soda" are available. Just don't ask van Stolk to describe his drinks.

"What does 'pink' taste like? It tastes like chicken," he joked. "What do you think it tastes like?"

The success of a small, wacky company like Jones Soda isn't too surprising. The soda business is opening up for smaller companies, said Tom Pirko, president of the Santa Barbara-based Bevmark Inc., a market research firm for the beverage industry.

Coca-Cola and Pepsi are outdated with young drinkers, unlike with their parents who were loyal to a brand. Consumers prefer the alternative, rather than commercial, Pirko said.

"I think Coke and Pepsi are seen by most people as soft drinks by the Man," said Brendan Powell Smith, 27, of Mountain View, Calif., an avid Jones Soda drinker. "They try to be cool, but it's all a little too corporate. Jones really is the 'little guy,' running with a great idea."

Smith has collected 883 Jones Soda labels, which he saves by refilling bottles with colored water to match the flavor.

He is not the only collector. Jones Soda bottles, whose various labels sport more than 1,299 photographs, have created a craze among a number of collectors and can be found on EBay, the Internet auction site.

Each label features a photograph, usually black and white to play off the brightly colored soda. Subjects range from people and animals to offbeat signs and unusual objects. Even ordinary objects, like salt and pepper shakers and tractors, have been found on Jones Soda labels.

The staff looks for funky, fun and unusual pictures. Jones Soda used the photographs of professional photographer Victor John Penner for the first 35 labels. After that, the company opened up the call to the public.

A Photo Contest

"We want Joe Average," said van Stolk, describing nights his staff would drink vodka and select photographs.

Last year, the company chose from more than 48,000 photographs sent in by the public.

Seattle photographer Shel Izen was featured on label No. 530. He called his picture of a boy with a polka-dotted cape holding an 8-ball "a strange, spiritual photo." He even received a call to compliment him on his picture.

"It's been a lot of fun," Izen said.

Jones Soda's roots can be traced to a fruit stand in an Edmonton, Alberta, church basement when van Stolk was a ski instructor. The fruit trade evolved to importing juices. Soon, van Stolk's company, once known as Urban Juice and Soda Company Ltd., was distributing drinks like Arizona Iced Tea and Just Pik't Juices in western Canada.

In 1996, the company created Jones Soda. Four years later, van Stolk said his soda's fans include Whoopi Goldberg, who orders it by the case.

The company first offered its drinks at clothing stores, tattoo parlors and skateboarding shops but has expanded into grocery and convenience stores.

Jones is hoping for similar success with its energy drink Whoop-ass, which debuted in January 2000. The drink, which comes in a can of course, got positive response, van Stolk said.

While Jones Soda is moving into the mainstream, the company plans to follow the motto "Run with the little guy."

"We're definitely looking to put the soda in more locations, but we still want to keep our roots to the alternative," van Stolk said.


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