When It Comes to This Soda, Less Is More

Autumn 2019

Steve Hersh ’87 refines your guilty pleasure.

GuS often sponsors food events, where Hersh has rubbed elbows with celebrities like Ethan Hawke and the cast of Law and Order.

In America’s plight to be more health conscious, the daily can of pop has gone by the wayside: Bottled water sales surpassed soft drinks in 2016, according to Business Insider. And, with the LaCroix craze and kombucha rising in the ranks, consumers have dramatically changed their afternoon pick-me-up. Steve Hersh ’87 saw it coming. 

He started his company, Grown-Up Soda (GuS), in 2003 as a reaction to the low-to-no-sugar beverage trend. By creating products made with real juice, natural extracts, and 40% less sugar, he offers buyers a soda option with fewer ingredients than brand giants like Coke and Pepsi. 

“[When I started the company], I just said, ‘What’s missing on the market?’” Hersh recalls. Drawing upon his experience as brand manager of A&W Root Beer, he remembered: “I used to work on this soda brand, but I didn’t really like what I was selling because it was way too sweet.” 

Hersh used his know-how from earning a master’s at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and his Colgate economics major to establish a business plan. He started GuS with his wife out of his maroon Subaru Outback, delivering cases of 12-ounce glass bottles around New York City and New Jersey. 

Sixteen years later, his product is in major metropolitan areas, from Chicago to Seoul. “A lot of people flame out when they try to be everywhere,” Hersh says, so he limits his distribution to high-end restaurants like Napa Valley’s The French Laundry and gourmet groceries like New York’s Zabar’s.

Hersh says he’s stayed relevant due to his willingness to change the flavors and ingredients of his fizzy drinks, rather than relying on one star product. “We’re trying to hit every soda trend we can,” he says. 

Among those trends are creative concoctions. When a friend waxed on about how GuS’s cranberry lime soda made a good mixer, Hersh and his team ran with the idea, producing a line of four cocktail mixers. Think old favorites like mojito and tonic and lime, ready to mix into alcohol or provide an easy mocktail. 

He’s also tapped into the health drink market. “People are looking for benefits in their beverages,” he says, “like ‘this kombucha is going to help my gut’ or ‘this drink is going to give me energy, protein, or make me live longer.’” Ginger ale is his most popular soda, so he built off of the plant’s health benefits to adjust the drink, adding more ginger. To up the health ante, he used low-calorie sweeteners like monk fruit and stevia extracts. Their slim cans are trendy too. 

But what will really change the soda game? The invention of low-calorie sweeteners that taste exactly like sugar. “That is the holy grail that they have not cracked,” he says. 

Hersh is on the hunt.