Meet the Farmer Rethinking Your Restaurant Soda Fountain
Swing through the fountain soda station at most fast-casual dining spots, and you’ll see the Coke- or Pepsi-owned regulars. But now Chipotle, True Food Kitchen, Umami Burger, José Andrés restaurants, and a dozen other chains and universities across the country are serving up another option: organic Tractor Beverages. Founder, Idaho farmer, and dad Travis Potter shares why these green drinks are better for you and the planet.
RRIS: So many product creators come from food science, not farming. What inspired you to start Tractor Beverage Co.?
TP: My founder story starts with growing up on a farm. Most farmers I knew could barely make ends meet, so I wondered from a very young age if there had to be a better way to farm and make a living. This curiosity led my wife, Heidi, and I to leave our family ranch and work for farms and ranches all over the country in a quest to figure out a better alternative.
RRIS: What did you learn?
TP: Soon we realized, through first-hand experience, that organic ingredients are not only healthier, but profitable as well. These organic farmers were willing to grow more interesting crops that made better-tasting foods and drinks. We learned about organic, regenerative farming and gained an understanding of how to harvest, how to process, and how to make produce preserve naturally. For our ingredients, we ask questions like: “Is it easy to grow? Does it make sense to grow? Does it use a lot of growing inputs? Is it fun to grow? Is it nutritious? Can farmers make a better living growing it?” I wanted to make a drink option that’s good for the land, farmer-forward, and healthier for the whole family.
RRIS: Speaking of family, you have 11 kids! How did being a dad affect your journey?
TP: We were always picky about what we fed to our family. We stopped drinking typical fountain drinks when we realized what went into them and how those ingredients affected the health and well-being of both farmers and consumers, so whenever we would go out to eat, our kids would only drink water. As our family grew, we felt guilty every time our own kids wanted to drink what other kids were drinking. We realized that the most important opportunity in the food industry, while helping the farming community at the same time, would be to build a better beverage for everyone to enjoy.
RRIS: Between the carbonated and non-carbonated options, you’ve created some familiar flavors (iced tea, lemonade, root beer), and some really unique offerings (mandarin cardamom, strawberry rhubarb, cucumber, or lemongrass, for example). How do you conceptualize new flavors?
TP: Creating drinks is the fun part! Most of our drinks are built like a tree or a plant that includes something root, something bark, something sap, something leaf, something blossom, something fruit, seed, or rind.
RRIS: How do you also bring in flavors from all over the world?
TP: I look at a cuisine and think about what people in that culture drink and why. Our family spends a lot of time trying fun ingredients from around the world as well as seeing what grows well on our farm and in our greenhouse. Looking at where a crop is grown gives us insight on why it’s grown and why people consume it. Then it gets deeper into traditional uses for health. For example, if a crop is grown in India, latitude- and weather-wise, it might match the properties of Mexican, Caribbean, or North African drinks. Whether it’s hibiscus, tamarind, or citrus, each region has similar uses for those crops. They also have perceived health benefits for those ingredients. I also look at historical importance and emotional ties the drinks might have—like Birch Beer in the northeastern USA, compared to Birch and Chaga in Russia; or horchata, which is originally from Spain, but is made from different ingredients to today’s Mexican horchata. I also look at how it makes you feel. Does that drink create an emotion, like the first time you had a root beer float with your grandparents? Maybe it has an aroma that brings you to a happy place. With every beverage, I also want to make sure it hits the sour, sweet, salty, tangy, tannic, spicy, and umami effect when it’s paired with a restaurant’s food.
RRIS: You only sell Tractor Beverages to restaurants, not grocery stores. Why is that?
TP: Without the sale of beverages (a restaurant's biggest profit center), restaurants can’t stay in business. The food pays the bills and beverages pay the wages and profits. In every culture, drinks are an important part of hospitality and daily routine. Looking at the restaurant industry and watching it grow into better options, the typical drinks don’t fit. Whether it’s an Indian, Thai, Japanese, Italian, Mediterranean, or even a burger and pizza eatery, they all deserve better beverages.
RRIS: What does “better beverages” mean to you?
TP: Better beverages can’t just be different and culturally relevant—they also have to be highly functional. They must pair well with food while promoting overall health and well-being. That means no artificial colors or flavors or any chemical preservatives, ever. Their ingredients need to be grown by farmers who are prosperous and successful in using and dedicated to organic, non-GMO, sustainable and regenerative practices.