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Green River success runs deep for beverage company owners

Some sodproduced by WIT Beverage Co. includes Green River sod6.3-ounce 12-ounce bottles as well as Goose IslChicago Style Root Beer.

Some of the soda produced by WIT Beverage Co. includes Green River soda in 6.3-ounce and 12-ounce bottles, as well as Goose Island Chicago Style Root Beer. | Tina Johansson~for Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 9, 2013 5:43PM

While a beverage buyer for Walgreen Co. in 1991, Jim Akers rejected Green River, not knowing 19 years later he would buy the soft drink brand himself and turn it into a bubbling success.

“I didn’t know what it was when the distributor showed it to me. He did not do a good job to explain it to me,” the Libertyville resident said.

Over the years, Akers, who has a bachelor’s degree in food marketing from Western Michigan University, had all but forgotten about Green River until in 2010 when he was offered an opportunity to buy it bySethness-Greenleaf, a Chicago flavorings company (recently acquired by the Chicago-based Synergy Flavors).

“I was amazed. It was the same soda I had turned down before,” said Akers, admitting he was perplexed when he again crossed paths with the vibrant green beverage.

He and his partner, Paul Kaissis, owners of WIT Beverages Co., decided to give it a try. They bought the brand along with its secret recipe. They also agreed to buy the flavors used in making Green River from Sethness . .

The partners began to produce Green River in their bottling plant in Oak Creek, Wis., where they were bottling several other brands, including Jelly Belly Gourmet Sodas, under licensing from Jelly Belly Candy Co. of North Chicago.

Green River, according to Akers, traces its origin to 1919 when the Schoenhofen Edelweiss Brewing Company in Chicago began bottling the non-alcoholic beverage in the wake of Prohibition. It has commanded a loyal following since.

Sales of Green River took off for the two partners, and in time it became their biggest-seller among their six brands, with Goose Island Sodas coming in second. Other brands include Caruso’s Legacy, Claire Baie and Black Bear, which Akers says has “a big following in Wisconsin.”

Emerald green in color with a hint of lime, Green River is described by Akers as “easy to drink, refreshing and mixable.”

“You can make a margarita with it,” said Akers, 55, who had a stint as a bartender at Duck Inn in Wadsworth, before plunging into the beverage business. He had worked at Jewel Food stores for 10 years in Zion, Antioch, Grayslake and the Quad Cities area in Iowa.

With its distinctive green color, Green River became popular, especially on St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago, which traditionally dyes its river green for the holiday.

“We’ve been giving away 20-ounce Green River in downtown by the Chicago River on St. Patrick’s Day since 2010,” said Akers, adding, “We’re looking for the connection and people just love it.”

Last year, WIT, a private company, reached $15 million in sales. Akers projected 18- to 20-percent growth this year, regardless, he said confidently, how the economy bounces.

“There are a lot of emotions and loyalty attached to specialty beverages. People who love a certain brand will buy it any way,” said Akers. Locally, Green River retails at $3.99 to $4.99 for a 4-pack.

Long Hwa-shu is a local free-lance writer.

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