Kainoa Lopez, the 43-year-old president of Boise’s BuckSnort Soda Co., didn’t set out to become Idaho’s root beer guy.
The Olympia, Washington, native arrived in Idaho in 2001 and spent nearly seven years in Blaine County working as a database administrator and corporate trainer for a pair of software companies.
In 2009, during the Great Recession, Lopez was laid off. He pursued other jobs but didn’t find one that would allow him to stay in the Wood River Valley.
One night, he walked through the soda pop aisle at an Atkinson’s Market in Bellevue. He noticed several bottled root beers.
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A novice home beer brewer, Lopez had been interested in brewing root beer as well, but he didn’t have enough equipment to do both. That night he decided to give it a try. To start, he bought several bottles of the root beer.
“I took them home and started reading the labels and doing taste tests,” Lopez said. “What I found was they were made from artificial colors and flavors. It was all pretty much garbage.”
He began experimenting in his kitchen, combining sassafras, licorice root, wintergreen, molasses, vanilla, raw cane sugar and water, then infusing the mixture with carbonation.
“I’d have friends over for dinner, and I’d make a keg of this stuff and test it out on all of my friends,” Lopez said. “It became a tradition where, when I was invited over to someone’s house, I was told to bring a keg of root beer. I had the opportunity to try a bunch of different concoctions on people and get their feedback.”
Lopez said his friends told him his root beers were the best they had tasted. In the beginning, he wasn’t convinced. “I’m sitting there tasting this stuff and going, ‘This is horrible,’” he said.
Although he had no background in producing soda, his great-grandfather started Waialua Soda Works on the north shore of the Hawaiian island of Oahu in the late 1860s, selling fruit-based drinks to plantation workers.
He reached out to relatives in Hawaii to see whether any of his great-grandfather’s recipes had survived. They had not. But he sought advice and recipes from another Hawaiian who had resurrected the Waialua Soda Works, and from Dave Rooke, a Vermont man Lopez knew who had started selling all-natural root beer.
“I showed him the way, but I let him make his own recipe, so we don’t have the same root beer,” said Rooke, whose Rookie’s Root Beer is sold on tap at 80 Vermont bars and restaurants. “I let him learn on his own, and I let him know when he had it right. And here he is today, rocking and rolling.”
Jason Campbell, owner of Waialua Soda Works, said he gave Lopez suggestions on packaging and how to deal with distributors and beverage brokers.
“I basically helped him by telling him what not to do, going over some of the mistakes we made in the past,” Campbell said.
Lopez first sold his root beer at the 2009 Fourth of July Parade in Hailey. That led him to set up a booth that year at the Hailey and Ketchum farmers markets.
He named his brand BuckSnort, a nickname an aunt gave him as a child. Depending on whom you ask, the word may refer to the sound of a wheezing deer, the passing of gas, or any of several small hamlets in the South and Midwest.
Two years later, in April 2011, Lopez brought his root beer to the Capital City Public Market in Boise. He left Bellevue at 4:30 a.m. to arrive before the market opened at 9:30. Sales that day set a one-day company sales record, one that stood for several years.
“The support was absolutely unbelievable,” Lopez said.
Boise resident Drew Christenson, who grew up in the Midwest, where root beer floats were a family tradition, said he couldn’t find a root beer he liked until he found BuckSnort at the Capital City market.
“The deep licorice flavors found in traditional root beer are very pronounced in their root beer,” Christenson said. “They also use real sassafras, which brings out the real root beer flavor.”
Today, BuckSnort has five other employees and produces up to 100 kegs at a time at its headquarters off 37th Street in Garden City, where Lopez moved the company in 2012. Lopez said he owns 90 percent of the company, while investors own the other 10 percent.
Besides its root beer, BuckSnort makes draft orange, red and maple creme sodas, nonalcoholic ginger beer, and Black Sheep soda, which combines root beer and espresso from Boise’s Dawson Taylor Coffee Roasters.
Draft soda at the Capital City market and festivals costs $2.50 for 16 ounces. Canned four-packs of root beer and ginger beer cost between $5.99 and $6.49.
BuckSnort sodas have been available at M&W markets, at the Boise Co-op in Boise and Meridian, and at more than 60 bars and restaurants in the Treasure Valley. Now Lopez is making deals to expand his products’ reach.
Black Sheep is currently available only on draft, but Lopez said he hopes to have it available in cans by the end of the year. Boise’s Hayden Beverage will distribute it and BuckSnort’s other sodas in Idaho and Montana.
Albertsons recently began carrying BuckSnort sodas in its Idaho stores where Hayden delivers. The move to cans has increased BuckSnort’s availability and has led to increased sales, Lopez said.
Lopez also struck a deal with Payette Brewing Co., Idaho’s second-largest craft beer producer, to use an underused portion of its new Boise brewery at 733 S. Pioneer St. It will allow BuckSnort to create 200 five-gallon kegs of draft soda at a time, 400 to 600 a week.
Payette Brewing founder Mike Francis meets once a week with Lopez for breakfast to offer advice.
“Beer and soda are very similar, but also very different, when it comes to the way the industries work,” Francis said. “We talked about the direction he wanted to go with the company, helped him scale up things and talk about how distribution works.”
BuckSnort will continue to have its canned root beer and other drinks produced in Stevenson, Washington. Lopez said Idaho does not have a canner that offers the needed pasteurization. Soft drinks that contain fruit juices and other natural products are more susceptible to spoilage than colas.
There were times early on, Lopez said, when the challenges seemed daunting and he considered returning to the software industry.
“To be honest with you, there have been many occasions throughout this journey that I’ve definitely considered it, because this is a tough road to take,” he said. “I’m doing it the old-school way: I’ve done more than 200 events a year for years. We’d do the Eastern Idaho Fair — 10 days straight, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Then all the farmers markets, the arts and crafts festivals. I was constantly setting up a booth and putting soda in front of people, loading up the truck, unloading the truck for years.”
He’s still making less than he made in software, and he still owes money to family members who helped him build the business. But he is hopeful about his improving finances, and he likes his emerging identity.
“It’s built a band of people that I’m connected to who feel like it’s theirs,” he said.
What Kainoa Lopez has learned can help other business owners
Q: What advice would you offer budding entrepreneurs?
Lopez: Just don’t give up. Be patient and don’t ever give up. It would have been real easy for me to go back chasing money, but I never would have been able to find this kind of fulfillment in life. I’m a lot happier today. I’m a soda guy. I’m the root beer guy. And that makes me happy.
Q.: What helped you as your company grew?
A.: I had never done this before. But I’m smart enough to ask other people for their feedback. I humble myself when I say I need help. How do you talk to Albertsons? How do you hire a distributor? I didn’t know any of that stuff. That fear of not knowing I’ve seen paralyze a lot of people.
Q.: Who were some people you leaned on for advice?
A: One of my really close friends and business advisers is Debi Lane from Lunchbox Wax. She has nothing to do with my industry. She has no clue what my industry is about. But I needed some knowledge and direction to get enough courage to walk through the next door. She was there to provide it. There’s other people, like Debbie Winkler from the Small Business Development Center at Boise State University. That’s free advice that I can schedule any time. She’s tremendous. Just ask for help.