Pop culture

Dodgeville couple open The Pop Place Store for craft “soda” aficionados.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Somewhere between a 30-year corporate career and a family kettle corn business (Mommabees Kettle Corn Kitchen), an idea popped into Jeff Luitjens’ head: With craft beers being so popular, why not launch a craft soda store?

Inspired by a craft soda shop they had visited years earlier in Duluth, Minnesota, Luitjens and his wife, Brenda, opened The Pop Place Store in Mount Horeb in September of 2017.

They funded the family business themselves, with Jeff running the show almost entirely during the workweek, along with his puppy sidekick, “Mack, the Soda Retriever.” Brenda works full-time at Springs Window Fashions in Middleton, and their two sons, one in high school and one in college, help out when they can.

The small shop packs a carbonated punch, with more than 450 different varieties of bottled sodas rarely found in local grocery stores. About twice a month when sodas need to be restocked, Luitjens hits the road to re-load at as many distributors as possible within a few hours drive of Mount Horeb. Minnesota has been a great resource, he says, as has the Chicago area, but Wisconsin bottlers produce excellent craft sodas, as well, including Sprecher and Dang! Last year, the store offered craft sodas from 37 different states.

Arranged by flavor or soda type, the Pop Place’s selection runs the gamut from fruity to spicy, with stranger concoctions mixed in — bacon, beef jerky, buffalo wing, and even a ranch dressing soda!

One new arrival is Moneybag, a new soda product line from Kiss lead singer and serial entrepreneur Gene Simmons, but the store’s most popular craft sodas are root beers and ginger beers. “Most people aren’t overly adventurous,” Luitjens says.

Customers looking for Coke, Pepsi, or other commercially marketed products will likely be directed elsewhere.

Craft soda retail stores are few and far between, Luitjens explains, counting them on one hand, and that’s the business niche the couple aims to fill.

From a business standpoint, the first five weeks of 2019 proved particularly difficult. After creating detailed business plans projecting day-by day and week-by-week sales numbers, Luitjens admits he didn’t anticipate the extent to which weather — or an unplanned surgery — would affect walk-in traffic and his bottom line. Post surgery, he returned to the store in mid-January, just in time for the snow and brutal cold to hit.

“Right now, I’m trying to restructure my plan for the next three months until summer,” he admits.

The couple scaled back the store’s winter hours to Thursdays through Mondays, but look forward to resuming its 7-day schedule on April 29.

They’re making longer-term plans, as well, and have numerous ideas for the Pop Place Store’s future. “I know I’ll need to expand and make my popcorn on site,” Luitjens notes. Expansion requires financing, though, and Luitjens is now working on building up his business credit. “Only time will change that,” he says. “You have to prove yourself. I get that.”

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The store is popular among the 20-and-younger crowd and also people who prefer not to drink alcohol, but many other customers simply appreciate the clever names, humorous labels, and purchase unique sodas as gifts for others.

“I think 95% of our customers just want to say they tried something once,” he says.

Luitjens, a former “radio guy” who once was the play-by-play announcer for the North Dakota State Bison football team, still has a flair for marketing.

One recent store promotion, the Red Party 4-pack, included a bottle of Leninade, Stalinade, Fidel Castro Havana Banana, and Kim Jong-un Nuclear Bomb. It was a big hit, he laughs.

Meanwhile, Luitjens keeps his ear to the ground on issues related to soda taxes, which some cities have implemented to discourage people from consuming high quantities of sugar. “Everything in moderation,” he sighs. “Nobody should be drinking large quantities of soda.”

And while the store’s sales numbers are off slightly and spring can’t come soon enough, Luitjens is taking it all in stride. “Mentally and physically, my stress-level is different, but I’m more in control.

“I’m selling craft soda,” he adds. “How bad can it be?”

The Pop Place Store
213 E. Main St.
Mount Horeb, WI 53572
(608) 425-8101
thepopplacestore.com

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