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Posted by on May 16, 2017.

Buckhead soda company bubbles up with offbeat brands

Atlanta may always be equated with Coca-Cola, but a Buckhead-based soda company adds some pop to the market by keeping unusual and regional favorites alive.

Monarch Beverage Company produces such old-school brands as Kickapoo Joy Juice and Ramblin’ Root Beer for a market that includes fans of the new “craft soda” trend and people seeking a taste of nostalgia.

Kickapoo Joy Juice soda in a sample retail store display. (Jaclyn Turner)

Founded in 1965 in Atlanta by Frank Armstrong, a former Coca-Cola executive, Monarch operates from a local office in the 3630 Peachtree Road tower and an international outpost in Paris.

The company seeks out drinks with a regional market that could capitalize on having a distinct popularity and loyal following, according to Mariam Diallo, head of marketing. Its two main brands in the U.S. are Kickapoo and Ramblin’.

More than 99 percent of Monarch’s beverages are consumed overseas, mostly in Asian, African and Latin American countries.

“It can be very hard to compete with Coke,” Diallo said, “but we differentiate ourselves with specialty drinks that can be regionally adapted, like a horchata … or tamarind drinks in Africa.”

Kickapoo and Ramblin’ Root Beer are bottled in Coca-Cola facilities. Monarch holds the international rights, but not the domestic rights, to other brands, such as American Cola, Bubble Up and Nesbitt’s.

Kickapoo Joy Juice was based on the newspaper comic strip “Li’l Abner,” which launched in the 1930s and continued until the 1970s. The drink debuted in the United States in 1965. Kickapoo Joy Juice was also the first brand Monarch introduced internationally, and is currently the number one citrus soda drink in Malaysia and Singapore.

The comic branded the mixture as a “volatile brew” that Al Capp, the cartoonist, described as “a liquor of such stupefying potency that the hardiest citizens of Dogpatch, after the first burning sip, rose into the air, stiff as frozen codfish.”

For fans of the comic, the drink’s recipe remained an enigma. Through the years, the comic-strip drink supposedly contained anything from live grizzly bears to panthers to kerosene, horseshoes and anvils.

That’s not the Joy Juice of today, or reality, however. The citrusy original debuted in 1965, has flavoring similar to Mountain Dew, is made with real sugar and has more caffeine than its soda counterparts.

Monarch Beverage marketing director Mariam Diallo
and U.S. sales manager Ted Hatcher in the company’s Buckhead office. (Jaclyn Turner)

In 2014, in efforts to revive the brand, Monarch released three cocktail-inspired varieties: Fuzzy Navel, Fruit Shine, a sangria flavor, and Maliblu, a blue piña colada soda.

Ramblin’ Root Beer began in 1979 with a commercial featuring a very young Sarah Jessica Parker. The Coca-Cola Co. originally distributed it, until they obtained the rights to Barq’s root beer.

Monarch acquired and revamped the brand in 2008, and recently added more flavors to the line-up, with rose cream, butterscotch and maple varieties.

“Craft soda sales, which is the market we are in, are rising,” said U.S. sales manager Ted Hatcher. “It’s not that people don’t want to drink soda. It’s that they are tired of the regular, everyday [flavors]. People are wanting a different flavor, and that’s where we come in.”

Monarch aims Kickapoo Joy Juice at three target audiences: the nostalgia audience that grew up with the Li’l Abner comics; craft soda lovers who are seeking an artisanal experience; and a young population wanting something unconventional.

“Part of the customer base is nostalgia, but sodas are also a young person’s drink. Mountain Dew works with extreme sports and connecting with young people. We chose the video games and geek subculture,” said Diallo.

A display of some of Monarch Beverage’s brands. (Jaclyn Turner)

The goal is for these young adults to think, ‘It’s a quirky, funny brand that speaks to me. I’ve made it my own and I share it with my friends.’”

“One of the things we struggle with as a small company is finding distribution,” said Hatcher. “We work with a lot of partners to get where we are. We’re really a niche in a hidden market that is somewhat saturated. We are having an interesting time in the

U.S. getting our products out there, because Coke and Pepsi are such big players, and there are others. We want to start in Atlanta and expand outwards.”

Kickapoo Joy Juice and Ramblin’ Root Beer now can be purchased on Amazon.com and through small merchants such as Rocket Fizz in Decatur, H-Mart in Chamblee, Cracker Barrels, and many package stores. Monarch is in talks to get its products sold through large chain retailers, such as Publix grocery stores and Sam’s Club big-box stores.

Monarch has also set up tastings at local festivals and promoted its drinks at Georgia Tech games.

After realizing that Kickapoo Joy Juice mixes well with alcohol, company officials have held events at bars and are a sponsor of Dad’s Garage, an Atlanta theater company, which offers a “Dad’s Juice” cocktail of Joy Juice, vodka and cranberry juice.

–Jaclyn Turner

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