By national comparisons, the Honey Pure natural soda company of Herndon, Va., is barely a sparkle compared with big bubbles like Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
But thanks to a devoted following, the five-year-old beverage maker will have a million and a half dollars in sales this year, 30 percent more than last year.
While Honey Pure has virtually captured the health store/health restaurant market on the East Coast, the drink is now also finding a place in the larger supermarket chains. Honey Pure will be available in the West when its California bottling operation begins later this month.
"We're riding a wave," said Guru Ganesha, Honey Pure's sales manager. "We went to a natural-foods convention and the response was incredible. People were swarming our booth."
Honey Pure is successful in the competitive world of soft drinks, according to its president, Gurujot Singh Khalsa, "because our product is simple and natural. We use nothing but carbonated water, honey and natural flavorings."
Low overhead--a full-time staff of fewer than 15--and almost no advertising expense are also important factors.
Natural or unprocessed food is not just company policy at Honey Pure, but an extension of its owners' Sikh Dharma life style as well. They practice a humanistic Indian religion that gained a following in this country 15 years ago.
The Sikhs, despite their disarming appearance--turbans, sandals and layers of white clothes--are skilled entrepreneurs. Members of the Sikh community are encouraged to go into business for themselves. And it is not unusual for community members to own stock in each others' companies. The Sikhs also manufacture shoes which they wholesale to distributors nationally. Until recently, the Golden Temple restaurant on Connecticut Avenue was another profitable venture. The restaurant was given up, according to Ganesha, when its lease ran out and rents were raised.
"We began Honey Pure because we liked soda as much as everyone else, but we wanted something without all the chemicals and preservatives that are commonly used," explained Ganesha. "A natural product just didn't exist."
Honey Pure began with four flavors--black cherry, lemon, English ginger and orange. By the end of the month, capitalizing on warm weather thirst, they will add root beer and cola to the list, as well as new packaging.
But the road to natural-soda success has not been all syrup and honey. The company was sold once (its previous owners were also Sikhs) and early overexpansion forced the company to sell its own bottling plant. That service is now contracted out to a company in Baltimore.
Despite such setbacks, Honey Pure has increased its market share over the years without Madison Avenue ad campaigns or supermarket shelf space.
Recently, the company handed out 4,000 bottles of ice-cold soda to the finishers of the Bonne Bell 10 Kilometer, the region's biggest 10K for women.
"Everybody wants to sponsor this event, but Bonne Bell only wanted us because they realize running is a healthy sport. They're aware that our soda is the healthiest on the market," Ganesha said.
In order to make a natural cola product, the company had to spell its new Cream Kola with a "k."
"To sell real 'cola' you must have caffeine in it," Ganesha explained, savoring the irony in the regulation. Honey Pure's root beer is clear but, Ganesha said, "people are shocked when they see clear root beer. They're so used to seeing the chemicals they can't believe it's the same flavor."
And the Sikhs get angry with competitors who claim to make natural soda while boasting that they use the sweetener fructose. Honey Pure says fructose is nothing more than corn syrup, a processed food.
To ensure that health-food standards are met in the giant natural foods industry, Honey Pure is helping to organize what will be the Health Food Association of America. A logo, much like the wool and cotton industries', will be stamped on products that gain association approval.
"We could be making lots more money if we put just a little fructose in our soda. Add preservatives, caffeine and artificial color . . . The sky's the limit," said Gurujot.
"We're a little smaller than we could be, but our hearts and minds are pure. We don't compromise or cut corners for profit," Gurujot said softly but confidently.