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Firm roots in the past, with an eye on the future

Twig's Beverage has called Shawano home for more than seven decades

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November 29, 2023

SHAWANO – As vice president of Twig’s Beverage, Inc., son of its president (Dan) and grandson of its founder (Floyd), Ben Hartwig said much pride comes with working in the 72-year-old family business.

“I love the history of it,” Ben said. “I love everything that my dad and grandpa did, and I’m excited to see where it goes. We’re always expanding and doing new stuff.”

The most recent “new stuff,” Ben said, is the introduction of “soft seltzers” – a low-calorie option to compliment the diet soda versions the company already makes.

Focused on being a family-friendly producer, Ben said the seltzers do not include alcohol.

“My dad, he’s big into keeping it very family-friendly,” he said. “You’ve got Stubborn Brothers in town already – they’re an amazing brewery, and we love working with them. So, we’ll stick with the soda and not do any of the hard stuff at this point.” 

Ben said another new development will be offering original Twig’s products (except Sun Drop) in plastic bottles, including the forthcoming seltzers – which he said will provide additional opportunities for the beverage company to distribute its products.

“The thing that gets tough is, when we go to events and people want our product there, we can’t (provide it), because it’s glass,” Ben said. “(Plastic) is going to be a way for us to reach these other events and more people.”

A look back
With firm roots in the past and an eye on the future, Ben said he’s grateful for his family and the history behind Twigs.

“My grandpa, Floyd Hartwig, started the company back in 1951,” he said. “He actually came up with the idea while he was in a Tokyo hospital bed. He was in the Korean War and he got shot through both of his knees, so while he was over there in the hospital bed he came up with this idea that he wanted to start a soda plant when he got back.”

Ben said his grandfather was so committed to this vision that he instructed his family back home to sell some of his possessions, so that when he returned to Shawano he could start purchasing equipment, bottles and cases.

Ben said Floyd’s friends from his softball team – who affectionately called him “Twig” – helped him start the company when he got back.

Bottling products, like Bullseye Root Beer and Goody Orange, Twig’s Beverage originally operated out of the former Farmers Brewing Company building, a seven-story structure (still the tallest in Shawano) that Ben said was too tough on Floyd’s war-injured knees.

“That building’s so tall, and he always had to go up and down, and back then they had these 100-pound bags of sugar that had to go in each batch,” he said.

Eventually, Ben said his grandfather relocated Twig’s to a one-story facility a block over on Washington Street, and Twig’s has been bottling there ever since.

Ben said his family credits the business’s longevity to a 1953 encounter with a man named Charles Lazier.

“The creator of Sun Drop, Charles Lazier, talked to my grandpa and asked him if he could produce and distribute Sun Drop up in this area,” he said. “And that’s how it got started here, and it’s been our main product ever since.”

Ben said though many think Sun Drop is a Twig’s Beverage-originated product, “it wasn’t invented (in Shawano), and (Twig’s) doesn’t own the rights to it.”

Though Twig’s wasn’t the only bottler Lazier would approach, and he maintained ownership of Sun Drop (which is presently held by Keurig Dr Pepper), Ben said, to this day, Twig’s-bottled Sun Drop exclusively contains two special ingredients – “real sugar and refreshing Wisconsin water.”

Twig’s Beverage, Inc. was named after its founder Floyd “Twig” Hartwig . Matthew Day Photo

“Those are the two differences between our stuff and the Sun Drop you’d find in the plastic and cans,” he said. “People can tell the difference because that stuff’s made with corn syrup as a sweetener, versus us here, for the glass bottles, we do all sugar – we don’t use corn syrup at all. And people like our water that’s in the product as well.”

Ben said his father Dan – who purchased Twig’s Beverage from his grandfather in 1986 and presently serves as president and CEO of Twig’s – successfully expanded the company’s facilities, as well as its product lines, including a line of original Twig’s specialty sodas.

Ben said they also purchased locally beloved soda recipes from the now-closed Werbelow’s Beverages to continue offering them to the community.

His father’s passion for history, Ben said, also prompted the creation of the Twig’s museum, which tells the company’s full story with an array of artifacts.

“My dad loves collecting all these Sun Drop signs,” he said. “He goes to antique malls and flea markets, and people bring them in. So, he decided to have his own Sun Drop museum – a spot where he could put it all.”

Opening in 2015, Ben said the free museum is now the primary location for customers to buy Twig’s products directly, as well as exchange returnable bottles.

Visitors can also enjoy a short film about Twig’s Beverage’s history in its movie theater, with complimentary popcorn and soda samples.

Ben said it also offers a chance to view one of the bottling lines in action.
 
“With the museum, people can come in and see the history, and almost live vicariously through it,” he said.

Ben said he spends a great deal of time shadowing his father so he can learn as much as possible about the family business.

He said his brother Jake also works at Twig’s full-time, and that his brother Luke works there part-time in addition to his career as a full-time tattoo artist in downtown Shawano.

Beyond his brothers, his father and himself, Ben said Twig’s has around 25 employees, including valuable help from students working after school or during college breaks.

“We have a good little, small operation – but it’s a good Twig’s family,” he said.

Not only does Twig’s love Shawano, but Ben said he senses the feeling is mutual, particularly when he’s at a restaurant and overhears someone from out of town order a certain caffeinated citrus product, only to be met with recommendations to try Sun Drop instead.

Ben said those moments are heartwarming and make him feel right at home.

“You say that around my dad… ,” Ben said, referring to the aforementioned soda competitor, “That used to be a swear word when we were younger.”

Ben said Twig’s is also very much involved in community events, particularly the annual Sun Drop Dayz, a non-profit summer kickoff with plenty of entertainment and even more soda.

“Shawano means so much to us,” he said. “Anything we can do to help the community, we want to do, because they’ve supported us the whole time. We always talk about if we were to do this anywhere else, we don’t know if it would succeed.”

Ben said he has been involved with Leadership Shawano County, a group that previously helped to organize Sun Drop Dayz, and is now helping him to better highlight historical places throughout the city.

He said he’s collaborating with the Shawano Historical Society to create and place commemorative plaques at noteworthy locations.

Sticking to what works
Ben said the Sun Drop formula isn’t the only way the Twig’s of today stays tied to its decades-long history – noting the company is the only one to still sell soda in extra durable, returnable glass bottles.

“We’re still doing the returnable bottles, keeping that going,” he said. “We have 16-ounce and 12-ounce (options). You can see that some of those bottles we use are dated from the ‘50s and ‘60s, so they’ve been going through our washers ever since then.”

Though due to the nostalgia and relative rarity of these bottles, Ben said their finite supply began to dwindle as customers failed to return them – which prompted some doubt as to whether the company could continue offering returnables.

However, he said Twig’s was recently able to find a custom bottle producer where the company can special order more.

“We’ve been able to keep it going, and we got more stock on that,” he said. “We don’t want to give up the returnable line – that’s like our staple. We have customers come in now and they’re like, ‘I’ve been getting cases of soda for 50 years.’ It’s really cool that we’re able to keep that history. People love the returnable glass bottles, so we always want to keep that going as long as we can.”

To complement the company’s returnable option, Ben said Twig’s began producing non-returnable bottles in 2015.

And though he said some customers say “the returnable bottles are better than the non-returnables – it’s the exact same recipe.”

“We can’t change anything, because Keurig Dr Pepper has control over what we produce, and it’s got to be the same recipe in both bottles,” he said.

 Ben said when customers see a glass bottle of Sun Drop in a store, they can check the label to see whether it was bottled at Twig’s – the taste test, he said, is “equally revealing.”

 “Oh, yeah – you can tell some just taste different,” he said. “And if you look at the label, you can see if it’s sugar or corn syrup for the sweetener.”

In addition to Sun Drop, Twig’s Beverage’s specificity soda options include: Black Cherry, Forget-Me-Not Grape, Blue Raspberry, Orange, Lime, Rhuberry, Punch, Cream, Root Beer, Butterscotch Root Beer, Sour, Lemon-Lime, Cola, Ginger Beer, Diet Grape, Diet Black Cherry, Diet Sour and Diet Root Beer.

For more on Twig’s Beverage, Inc., visit twigsbeverage.net.

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