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Tens of thousands of soda bottles line the shelves, filled with liquids of every possible hue. Most of the beverage flavors are familiar—root beer, cola, strawberry. But some sound like a mad scientist’s concoction—buffalo wing, blue cheese-flavored. Located in the Minneapolis suburb of Spring Lake Park, Minnesota, Blue Sun Soda Shop claims to stock the nation’s largest selection of soda, ranging from popular craft brands to wacky novelties.
Photo Credit: Amore Fotography
Owner Mark Lazarchic didn’t intend to get into the soda business. Although he had a longtime interest in craft soda—he cites a documentary about Galco’s Soda Pop Stop in Los Angeles and the lack of quality non-alcoholic beverage options at local microbreweries as inspirations—his focus was on his software company. However, when he purchased the commercial building that housed his office, adding a small soda shop to his business portfolio made sense.
Initially, Lazarchic planned to staff the shop himself, stocking shelves, and getting up from his computer to wait on the occasional customer. However, it soon became apparent that unpacking thousands of bottles of soda was more than a one-person job, so he hired his friend Neil to help. Neil also happens to be a trained Ringling Brothers clown who appears in character as the shop’s unofficial mascot, Billy the Soda Jerk.
The shop’s grand opening was held on Small Business Saturday in November 2015. “I put up a Facebook event and some 2,000 people said they’d show up,” says Lazarchic. “On opening day we sold over 4,000 bottles of soda! The shelves looked like a bunch of orphans came through and cleaned the place out.”
“I worked the first 67 days open to close. After that time, I realized people were going to keep coming in, and I put Neil on full-time,” he says. “We got busier in the spring and I hired more people. We expanded into [selling] candy, we opened up a soda fountain, we have party rooms. It was all an accident!”
While Blue Sun Soda Shop’s target customers are families, Lazarchic is partial to the senior citizens that stop by.
“They see sodas they haven’t seen in 40 years,” he says. “They have an instant flashback to their youth, and they’re seeing something they didn’t realize was still around. That makes my day.”
The inventory at Blue Sun Soda Shop is ever-changing. Lazarchic says the most they’ve ever had on the shelves is over 1,300 varieties, and there are typically about 1,000 different types of soda available. Best selling sodas include Harry Potter-inspired Flying Cauldron Butterscotch Beer, Grape Nehi (Radar O’Riley’s drink of choice on the television series MASH), and Bubble Up, a lemon-lime soda introduced in 1919.
“Someone tagged me on a post on Facebook yesterday, about ‘I wish they still made blah blah soda’ and people were posting all these different ones—I thought, ‘We carry half of these!’” says Lazarchic.
The shop’s best-selling brand is Whistler Classic Soda, which offers over 35 flavors ranging from classic root beer and orange to more unusual options like caramelized pineapple and blood orange ginger. The 8-ounce sodas are bottled in-house on a 1952 Crown, Cork, and Seal Dixie Model F bottling line, making Whistler the only retro-style soda that’s still produced using 1950s technology. That’s not without its challenges: The bottling line “is constantly breaking down,” says Lazarchic. “There’s not a whole lot you can do besides accept the fact that’s going to happen. I’ve found a bottler that likes tinkering with old stuff—sometimes it’s a quick fix, sometimes it takes forever. The thing about [vintage] bottling machines, if you’re handy and know how to fix stuff, and you can make parts, they will run forever.”
Photo Credit: Stacy Brooks
Lazarchic purchased Whistler Classic Soda and its sister brand, North Star Craft Soda, in 2016 and got production up and running in January 2017. Prior to the pandemic, the shop offered behind-the-scenes tours of the bottling line (occasionally with a comedic guest appearance by Billy the Soda Jerk). “That’s been one of my more fun things to do, to let people see what’s going on,” says Lazarchic.
In addition to Whistler and North Star, Blue Sun Soda Shop produces several novelty lines. For instance, W.T. Heck includes offbeat flavors like dill pickle, blue cheese dressing, waffles and syrup, bacon, marshmallow, and even spaghetti soda. “It is so bad, the spaghetti soda,” says Lazarchic. “That was not a fun week of testing.”
There’s also a State Fair Soda line that includes kettle corn and mini donut flavors—Lazarchic says, “we’re trying to perfect a cheese curd soda”—booze-inspired Kiddie Cocktails, and Blue Line Super Sour Sodas. “I keep coming up with ideas,” he says. “I’ve got two more lines coming out this year.”
Unlike many business owners, Lazarchic was in a unique position to anticipate the effects of the pandemic. “We were over in Venice when coronavirus broke over there,” he says. “They were shutting down cities as we were leaving. I said, this is going to hit us and hit us hard—no one needs a soda in a pandemic. But then in May, all of the sudden the soda shop is as busy as hell. For the rest of 2020, we saw a drop in the number of customers coming through the door, but the customers that did come in were spending twice as much.”
“The best six-month period we’ve ever had was June through December 2020,” he says. “No one can do anything, they’re bored and frustrated—so [they think], ‘Let’s take the kids to the candy and soda shop and get some joy in our life.’”
Blue Sun Soda Shop recently opened a second location in Richfield, another Minneapolis suburb. Going forward, Lazarchic hopes to add a few more locations in the Twin Cities metro area as well as expanding to Rochester, Minnesota and Fargo, North Dakota. For soda lovers outside the Midwest, Blue Sun Soda Shop’s online store is scheduled to go live in April.
While nostalgia explains part of the shop’s appeal, there’s another important factor: the intoxicating power of near-infinite possibility.
“You walk into a grocery store and you’ve got Coke and Pepsi products,” says Lazarchic. “That’s fine and dandy, but I’ve had all that and it’s not interesting—people want choice.”
Plan A Trip
Fridley’s Forgotten Star Brewing Co. offers a variety of creative ales and lagers and is housed in a historic WWII factory. Indoor and outdoor patio seating is available, and there are often food trucks on-site.
In addition to working spaces for over 800 artists and over a dozen art galleries, the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District is home to craft breweries and distilleries, dive bars, and a diverse selection of eateries. Check out Hai Hai for Southeast Asian street food, enjoy Mexican specialties at Maya Cuisine, or stop by the Sample Room for New American fare.
The recently opened Rand Tower Hotel in downtown Minneapolis is a boutique, urban option. Located in a historic Art Deco skyscraper, the aviation-themed hotel offers a lobby bar and luxurious rooms and suites.
Stacy Brooks is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist focusing on food and travel. Her writing has been published in Hemispheres, Midwest Living, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Wine Enthusiast. She blogs at tangledupinfood.com.