Payam Fardanesh mixed his love of travel, culture, and his Middle Eastern ancestry when he founded Silk Road Soda. The delicious minty sodas, or “Mediterranean refreshers,” are 100% organic and are based off a recipe that dates back to Hippocrates! Payam’s soda startup was inspired by his grandmother, who used to make the traditional drink with sugar and mint for him when he lived in Iran. The popular Persian recipe is growing more popular around the U.S. every day, and customers can’t get enough of the soda’s mix of “Old World” tradition and fizzy, modern taste.
From being endorsed by Oprah and The Huffington Post to giving complimentary drinks to rock band Queens of the Stone Age, Payam and his team have gotten their unique company some serious exposure. And no wonder everyone is buzzing– Silk Road Soda was even nominated for a sofi Award, the specialty food and drink industry’s most prestigious honor! The team’s enthusiastic work, backed by the soda’s one-of-a-kind flavors, make for a sweet business that’s in high demand and growing fast. As the company continues to expand and more drinks are bottled every day, we caught up with Payam to ask about past, present, and future of Silk Road Soda. This feature was photographed on site by Rachel Valley.
What was your dream job before launching Silk Road Soda?
I love culture, and have had the wonderful opportunity to travel around the world for both business and pleasure and to visit family. I am definitely a wanderluster. I love to immerse and connect with various cultures and people; it makes the world seem smaller and more manageable when you have friends all over the world. My dream job would be to unite and commune with various cullers. Andrew Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern have magical jobs in my estimation (culture and cooking). Both of their jobs would be dream jobs for me.
When did you first have your a-ha moment to launch Silk Road Soda?
As soon as we were in bottles, a-ha moments started happening. My lawyer and I were invited for lunch at Mulvayney’s and when Chef came in to try our drinks, he brought out 4 glasses for each flavor, and he was swirling and smelling each and trying to determine which glass worked best. I was blown away! I did not anticipate this type of reception. This was my childhood drink! Chef identified the drink as a bottled shrub and he told me that he made it similarly in college and that it created many memories for him. Additionally, Mike and Molly from Hawks restaurant, which is renowned in the Sacramento area, purchased Silk Road right out of my trunk. They were mesmerized by the flavors and wanted it right away. So basically in the same week, my drink was tried by two of the top five chefs in town and they both loved it.
Coincidentally, Patrick Mulvayney calls me Chef, which is a cool thing.
What were some of the challenges you faced when first launching Silk Road Soda?
One of the biggest problems was sourcing organic ingredients and then finding an organic facility that would bottle us. We got lucky when Langers Juices agreed to have us as a customer. Langers Juices is the second leading cranberry juice producer in the US, and them letting us run a small run (50,000 bottles) was a huge break.
What is it like to hire employees?
I waited too long to hire full time employees as I was scared and did not want to bring people along when I may have to let them go. I finally found perfect help from one of my top customers in The Briar Patch in Grass Valley. Haley Glasco came up to me, talked for a bit, and then said “I want to work with you.” What a great decision– she represents the brand perfectly and carries on the passion of the project. Then just one week later, the Grocery Lead at Whole Foods Market in Davis came up to me and said that he reviews hundreds of products per year and that he thought the Silk Road Brand was amazing. I then randomly saw him at the Galleria mall and he told me that he was sending out his resume. I told him to stop sending out resumes because I wanted him on the Silk Road team right away. So both started just a few weeks before the San Fran Show and have been huge assets to the company.
I love working with both of them. We text and email each other well into the night on most nights. They are entrepreneurs also, figuring out new ways to do things, and it is so fun to have full time friends to share this journey. The three of us work so hard because we want the party to continue and there is a strong passion in everything we are doing. Both Haley and Travis have decision-making authority and often override my thoughts. I love it and could not be happier with both of them. It’s always scary to hire, but man, I hit the jackpot with these two – they are a great base for what we are doing.
What moment for Silk Road did you know this was going to be a success?
There were a couple of reasons that I thought Silk Road would be a success. 1. Stores and restaurants were bringing in Silk Road one after another. It didn’t even seem like I was selling. I would load up my orange Subaru every day with 20 cases and hit the road, then I would return empty-handed. The success was huge! People liked the story and loved the product. 2. Everyone in the community wanted to help us, and in many cases help us for free. Word started spreading fast, and we received some great press in the Sacramento Bee and almost all local magazines. We even had a spot on News 10 and Good Day Sacramento.
The above is when we were local successes. Then a huge breakthrough happened at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. We were selected at a trendsetting brand, an award given to 5 companies, and there were 1300+ vendors at the show from all around the world. Then Oprah’s food editor called me and requested samples, and within 3 weeks we were on Oprah.com food section under “4 Foods You Have to Try in 2014.” The story was then sold to the Huffington Post, which tweeted our story to 3.5m in their community. Then the SF Chronicle covered our story and several other Bay Area blogs ran our story. It has turned life into a zoo, but the fun part of the zoo.
What advice would you give entrepreneurs who have an idea brewing, but are afraid to take the plunge?
I think you need to tell as many people about your idea as you can. The days of keeping your idea a secret is long gone. There is so much information out there that can be acquired very easily. I had a group of 20 friends that I would invite over for dinner and I would throw my ideas by them. It was open innovation. I can honestly look at the bottle and name people who were influential in every aspect of the Silk Road Project, from graphic design to flavors to tag lines. Get people involved, share ideas, support others’ ideas, and your project becomes a community. It is very fulfilling to conduct business this way, and it created a group of evangelists for your product and for new ideas.
Your Jalapeno Mocktails made with Silk Road Soda are phenomenal. What other recipes can others incorporate Silk Road Soda to make?
Yes, a slice of jalapeno with Pomegranate Mint (SRS) and either a dry sake or vodka has been incredible. I can’t take credit for the idea; it actually came from Mama Kim from Mama Kim’s eats. I was present while she was mixing and this has turned out to be a wild mix that people love.
I am just starting to try application with food. I love Thai food, only second to Persian food. Thai uses fish sauce and sugar, which has always been weird for me. So just last week, I stemmed the vegetables with cucumber mint. The vinegar and sugar and natural cucumber made an amazing dish. I loved it and so did my company. And at least a couple times a week, someone will send me a picture of something new they are doing with the drink. For example, several have sent in Silk Road wine coolers- POM with red wine and cucumber with white wine. It’s fun to watch Silk Roaders create. It is such a huge compliment!
You place a lot of emphasis on culture and history on Silk Road Soda. How has your own culture and history influenced your perspective on food?
My culture and history is the basis of Silk Road Soda. I spent the first 10 years of my life in Tehran, Iran. It was supposed to be my country of residence before there was a terrible 10-year war with Iraq. We left for America in 1982; my mom is a natural-born American citizen, so it was not a problem to integrate.
The Persian culture has a very strong heritage and it was once one of the largest and most powerful empires in the world. The rich history provides an even richer culture of foods, dance, literature, and poetry. Silk Road is a way for me to express my love of the Persian culture and help current perception of the Islamic regimes.
Additionally, I have had the opportunity to travel to 6 of 7 continents in my life and visited many countries and cultures: Western Europe, Dubai, Australia, Kenya, Thailand, China to name a few. I love to immerse when I visit these countries and I learned a lot about foreign cultures. I am able to share many of my experiences through the Silk Road site, so I’m not only sharing great flavors, but culture from around the world. It’s fun and it gives the brand some worth outside of just a great flavor.
We are sure your travels have inspired Silk Road Soda. Can you tell us some of the best fresh fruit you have tried during your travels?
I love seasonal, fresh and local. I can’t imagine eating an orange in the summer, and I wince to see them in stores. I have had some wonderful local fruits, like a white pineapple in Malaysia that was almost as big as a watermelon. It was truly a piece of heaven– so hard to describe but maybe the greatest fruit adventure of my life. In Kenya, I ate local bananas that were picked ripe. In one hour I ate 6 full bananas. I could not believe the flavor; it was a small miracle! I swore to never eat bananas in the US again, but I have relented while still holding onto the memory. My last experience was in Australia where I had a yellow hairless kiwi that was nearly twice the size of a regular kiwi. These experiences I used to share on my fruit blog “Fruitacular,” but now have a larger audience to share with. I am fortunate and blessed to have traveled to so many cultures; I almost feel it is a responsibility to share. I found my voice with Fruitacular and have transferred this to Silk Road.
We’ve tried all 3 flavors of Silk Road Soda and we are hooked. As the founder of such an emerging company, what would you say makes Silk Road Soda so unique?
The uniqueness is sharing the flavor of another culture. Throughout the Mediterranean and Asia, derivations of Silk Road Soda exist, but the West is not familiar with this combination of ingredients. The tangible difference is that we only use the best ingredients, which include organic cane sugar, organic fruits and vegetables, and organic apple cider and white vinegars. We also pasteurize our drink instead of using preservatives. All of these qualities are very expensive in the soda realm, but I chose not to pay attention to norms in hopes that the market would pay more for a better product, and it has. Throughout the project I would question: “Would my grandmother approve of this ingredient?” If the answer was no, I would not use it. That is why there are no artificial sweeteners, even if they are organic and natural. My goal was to share a culture, not create a business opportunity. If people liked my culture through a drink, the business opportunity would happen, and it has.
Which flavor of Silk Road Soda is your personal soda of choice? Pomegranate Mint, Cucumber Mint, or Original Mint?
Cucumber Mint is my favorite because this is how we drink it in Iran. My grandmother would slice cucumbers into the drink. It is my favorite because it reminds me of her. It reminds me of her back yard sitting under her mulberry tree and watching the fish in her koi pond.
Silk Road Soda is already sold in more than 200 locations in Northern California. Where do you see Silk Road Soda headed and can we expect something in store for the near or distant future?
Silk Road is headed to some pretty fun places, and we’re so excited about the support from present clients. Our initial focus was in the West, San Francisco, Napa, San Diego, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle. After the win and all the press from the fancy food show, Silk Road will be a National Brand much faster than we anticipated. We will be starting in the West, but there is interest from both coasts and many beverage industry experts believe that the brand has global appeal which is mind boggling.
As far as immediate future, there is a new flavor that I have already approved and another one in the works. We are also looking to upgrade the bottle and packaging. What the market has told us is that this is not a soda, but something better! With more thought, we have started to use the term “Mediterranean Refresher” and will be moving forward with this new descriptive phrase in the near future. Additionally, we have been able to reduce sugar by 15-20% while keeping the same flavor palate which is amazing and will be even more accepted in the “Better for you” drink category.
*Stay tuned for an exclusive Persian Jalapeno Mocktail Recipe made with Silk Road Soda. It will be posted tomorrow!
Photos by Rachel Valley