It wasn’t quite as simple as dusting off the recipes and working Jolly Good soda into production at Krier Foods when John Rassel decided to relaunch the Wisconsin brand known for a multitude of flavors and the jokes at the bottom of its cans.
But it was close.
“Everything kind of aligned,” said Rassel, president and fifth-generation family owner of Random Lake-based Krier Foods.
Krier had long produced Jolly Good with dozens of flavors and the ability to mix-and-match different cans at retail outlets. But sales declined over time and the company stopped production in the 2000s.
Rassel was approached a few years ago by someone interested in purchasing the trademark to the brand. At the time, the company wasn’t doing anything and Rassel knew he would need to make some product available to keep the trademark registered. He’d also talked with his uncle, the company’s fourth-generation owner, over the years about relaunching the soda.
All of those factors, combined with the rise in popularity of craft beverages that fill a particular niche, convinced Rassel to give it a try.
“We just thought it might be a good opportunity,” he said.
It is an opportunity Glendale-based Sprecher Brewing Co. has been taking advantage of for years. Randy Sprecher started making root beer not long after starting the company to offer something for those people on tours not interested in beer. The company found it was actually easier to ship root beer to stores and the product helped build its brand.
Today, Sprecher ships five times as much root beer as it does beer, selling in more than 40 states.
“It’s become a big part of our business,” said Jeff Hamilton, Sprecher president.
Krier started its relaunch journey last year by distributing Jolly Good to a few local retail outlets in Sheboygan and Ozaukee counties. Then in July, Krier partnered with Piggly Wiggly to test market the product on a wider scale. Rassel said he wanted to get a lay of the land, understand potential price points and see if there was still brand recognition.
The six-month trial is coming to an end and Rassel said he hopes to open up to more distribution, additional flavors and other products in the spring.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said.
As Jolly Good eases back into the marketplace, Sprecher remains a significant player across the country.
In the beer industry, craft beer has experienced a boom at the same time large brewers like Miller, Coors and Budweiser have declined. It’s a trend Hamilton said is playing out in sodas as well.
“We do see the specialty beverages continuing to grow,” he said.
Changes in consumer attitudes – with more people opting for healthier choices – and government regulations – six cities passed taxes on sugary drinks in the most recent election – mean that when people do have soda, they’re looking for something unique or different, Hamilton said.
That trend plays right into Sprecher’s hands. The company brews using a gas-fired method instead of the steam many others use and incorporates Wisconsin ingredients, including ginseng, cherries and honey. The recipes have remained largely the same over the years, with the exception of taking some bite out of the ginger ale and focusing the Raven Red on cherries instead of cranberries.
Hamilton said he expects the industry to continue following the beer market’s trends.
“I think you’ll continue to see innovation in both flavors and ingredients as it follows more the trend of craft beer,” he said, although he also said it won’t produce the same boom in new breweries.
For Krier Foods, the reality is Jolly Good only represents a very small portion of its business. The contract beverage manufacturer counts brands like Minute Maid, Monster Energy and Ocean Spray among its clients. Its 300,000-square-foot production facility has produced roughly 20 million cases of beverages in a single year.
Rassel acknowledged there are limited resources for the company to put towards the Jolly Good project, but he feels Krier has “done a pretty good job of spending where we need to spend.”
One benefit was the company already had the recipes for the six flavors – fruit punch, grape, orange, cherry, sour pow’r and cream – it has reintroduced. Rassel said the goal was to use the same formula or be as close as possible. In some cases, certain flavor ingredients just aren’t available, but for the most part, Jolly Good is the same as it was when it disappeared from store shelves.
“The marketing part was a little tougher,” Rassel said.
Being a contract manufacturer means Krier knows the production side of the business well. The responsibility for marketing the drink and securing distribution generally falls on someone else. Rassel said he’s gone outside the business to get help and having contacts in the industry helped ease the transition.
The reality is Krier’s competition for Jolly Good is not big international players like Coca-Cola or Pepsi. Instead, it’s smaller, local players in the flavored beverage segment that have carved out a niche, as well.
To stand out on crowded retail store shelves, Jolly Good is now packaged in a taller, skinnier can to help differentiate it from the competition.
One of the marketing features most tied to the Jolly Good brand remains, but in a new format. Rassel said the way the cans are made today prevents the company from including jokes at the bottom of the can.
“It seems that a lot of people remember them,” he said, noting demand for the jokes – sometimes good, sometimes bad one-liners – was one of the things that surprised him about the relaunch.
The company has taken to tweeting the joke of the day instead of printing it at the bottom of the can. Rassel said dealing with people’s memories of how Jolly Good used to be is one of the challenges of having a nostalgic brand.
While the marketing portion has been the toughest part of the relaunch, Rassel said he has been approached by companies looking to expand distribution. He’s opted to push those conversations off until spring, taking a walk before you run approach and finishing the market test first.