Ye old soft drink company on the Meander

2008-08-11 00:00

When you open the cap on a bottle of Frankies soft drink, it bubbles and fizzes satisfyingly, without spilling over completely. That is exactly what owners Mike and Paula Schmidt hope business will do for Frankies Olde Soft Drink Company: bubble and fizz satisfactorily without spilling over completely and taking control of their lives.

The Schmidts started their family-run business in the laundry of their farm house on Newstead Farm, Balgowan in 2006.

“Paula is Welsh, and I am South African but I spent 16 years overseas as a motor racing driver and entrepreneur. During that time we met, married and had two daughters. We came to South Africa in 2005 because we wanted Emily (12) and Jessica (11) to have an experience of country life — we keep horses and a small herd of Nguni cattle. We looked around for some kind of home industry to earn an income and realised that no one was producing soft drinks locally. I have memories of drinking gemmer bier on holidays in the Eastern Transvaal and I had an old family recipe for ginger beer, so we started to experiment until we got the taste right,” says Mike.

“I got some plans off the Internet to make vats, which are really just big cooking pots, and we started to produce 100 litres a week in our laundry, all by hand. We started very slowly selling through a few outlets on the Midlands Meander. Through Meander visitors our sales just took off and it wasn’t long before we couldn’t cope with the demand — we were spending all day making and bottling ginger beer. I found more plans on the Internet and rigged up a real Heath Robinson affair to help us with the bottling. We have been growing and expanding ever since. We owe our success to the effectiveness of two ‘marketing tools’: word of mouth and the Meander.”

Mike’s next step in 2007 was to build a bigger filling-head machine that could fill eight bottles at once and convert a farm shed to house it.

“That was a huge leap for us,” Mike says. An automatic labelling machine sourced in Cape Town followed next, as they were still labelling all the bottles by hand. Now, with the help of an automated filling line imported from China and five employees, Frankies produces 5 000 to 6 000 litres of soft drinks a week, and still has spare capacity.

“With our existing machinery, we could produce 25 000 to 30 000 litres a week. But at the moment, we don’t want to.”

In this comment lies the key to the Schmidts’ enterprise and an increasingly common phenomenon in the midlands: people who want to make a decent living, but also enjoy the benefits of living in the country, including a slower pace of life.

“That’s why we started slowly and have continued in the same way, letting our products find their own way. We want to let the business evolve naturally without getting out of hand. We came to this country to find a more laid-back lifestyle and we are keen not to let the business bring back all the pressures of city life,” says Mike.

Paula agrees: “We really enjoy life here and appreciate that our girls are growing up with lots of space around them. We will know, as a couple and as a family, when the business gets too big.”

Looking to the future, Mike says that they recently launched Frankies products in the Western Cape, through an outlet in Paarl.

“There is massive potential for growth in the Cape and Gauteng, where we also have some new outlets. We are also working to extend our product range with two more flavours.

“We have also had many requests for sugar-free versions of our ginger beer suitable for diabetics and diet-conscious people, so we are working on that too.”

Frankies has been nominated for the prestigious Eat In RMB Private Bank Produce Awards in the Best New Product category.

“We had nothing to do with it. Someone picked up some of our products on the Meander and took them back to Cape Town to show them to someone involved with the awards,” says Mike.

The results of the competition will be announced in September.

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