After a 53-year hiatus, NORKA Beverage, a soda company that operated in Akron from 1924 to 1962, has been revived and reappeared on West Point Market shelves.
“There was just so much pride to see NORKA on a shelf and to have brought back this brand,” says Michael Considine, company founder and president, and the person responsible for the revival. “And I think the same pride that I had, I also have seen in others because there was excitement and there was such a great reception to NORKA being back on the shelf at one of the original accounts, West Point Market.”
The opportunity to launch his first company presented itself by accident. Considine and his father were having lunch at The Game Grill + Bar at Canal Park when he saw a logo for an old, local beverage company in a mural at the restaurant. He researched the brand online and found only a few signs and antique bottles on Ebay, so he turned to a local law firm to track down the trademarks and patents. It was discovered that the company dissolved in 1962, releasing any legal rights to the brand it had.
“Once I found out that was the case, I just said, ‘Hey, this was a iconic brand. I’m in the business. I know how to bring this back. What a great opportunity — especially something from my hometown — to bring this back to the market,’” he says.
At the time, Considine was working for the private equity group, Solvi, that had several interests, and among them was beverage.
“I was primarily in the beverage business, which was ideal for what I’m doing now. So it’s really just kind of been a great journey that has wound up perfectly to run the NORKA Beverage company today.”
Riding the craft soda trend
From the start, Considine says he wanted to make sure the product had a place in the local economy.
“But once I saw that success here locally, I was reassured to say, ‘No, we can take NORKA outside of Northeast Ohio and test it in other markets,’” he says. “And having the experience and connections from former positions, I was able to make that happen very quickly.”
He practiced careful planning to make sure the company could take on more as it grew, a strategy that has worked. NORKA soda can now be found in California, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Minnesota and elsewhere, helped by a national partnership with Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and Micro Center, and in part because of NORKA soda’s hometown story.
“We do see the consumers appreciate a regional high-quality product, which has really helped, I’d say in general, grow the craft soda business, kind of paralleling craft beer,” he says. “Nationally, consumers will recognize our product attributes — natural flavors, cane sugar, caffeine/gluten free — but also our story is still important. There’s interest on a national level of a story out of Akron, Ohio. So we still sell that. That remains unchanged from how we sell our story here locally.”
Landing a national account helped to nearly double the company’s growth in its second year. This year he says the company is on track to grow another 30 percent, which to him suggests that the craft soda trend has legs.
“Right now we are still in the very early stages of craft soda. It’s nowhere near what craft beer has done. Even in Ohio there’s really not that many craft sodas to speak of. It’s not anywhere close to what craft beer is, but it is growing, and you are seeing state by state and region by region nostalgic brands coming back.”
Nostalgia on display
Amid the soda’s expansion across the country, one aspect of its production may be coming back to the city. Currently the soda is bottled at a contract packaging company in Scranton, Pennsylvania, but talks have begun around creating a home base for the soda where fans of the brand can stop in for a taste.
“What excites me about that is having a facility where we can have tours, have a soda pop shop, which is similar to a tasting room where people can come in and try our sodas, have a root beer float, and really set it up to have that nostalgic 1924 feel with a lot of our old memorabilia, our vintage pictures and have that be really an attraction and a NORKA space to invite all of our fans and customers,” he says.
While Considine has been focused on growing the NORKA sparkling beverage line, he sees opportunities for nostalgic products other than sodas. Those could include popsicles and ice cream eventually, and possibly chocolates.
“Really it’s building that umbrella of products under NORKA Food and Beverage. So it’s exciting to say, ‘All right, we’ve brought back this brand but now we’re going to add to this brand, and really try to find products that are the right fit.’”