Wisco Pop: Beyond Business as Usual
By Wendy Allen | Photos By Hanna Agar and Neal Olson 0
A picture is worth a thousand words, they say, and one look at the Wisco Pop crew's photo above, and I probably don't need to write anything more. But I will. Because they’re cool cats. They’re friends as well as business partners, and they clearly don’t take themselves too seriously.
When I walked into the Wisco Pop facility, they were setting up for a bottling session and greeted me with smiles, coffee and a cheekily feminist coffee mug found at a rummage sale. The office wall had the beginnings of a long-term collage of movie quotes and photos of the friends’ fun times together that I expect will be filled in only few years. The crew includes Austin and Hallie Ashley, who kicked off the Wisco Pop adventure in 2012; Zac Mathes, sodaman and stunt driver (more on that later) who joined in 2013; and Neal Olson, who came on in 2016.
The Wisco Pop name was a collision of inspiration and irreverence. Austin shares that while talking to friend and renowned Uplands Cheese cheesemaker Andy Hatch one day, Andy said a food had “that Wisco-tang.” Austin loved the phrase. Hallie remembers reading the popular children’s novel The BFG and cracking up when the giant drinks a fizzy soda whose bubbles go down instead of up (with equally opposite effects on the body), and cries, “A whizzpopper! … Us giants is making whizzpoppers all the time! Whizzpopping is a sign of happiness. It is music in our ears!” And so “Wisco Pop!” came to be.
The folks at Kickapoo Coffee say that it’s not uncommon to pull into the parking lot at the Food Enterprise Center (home to a number of small food-based businesses in Viroqua) and catch the Wisco Pop team working on some new video stunt using Zac’s old Volvo or their turquoise Wisco Pop logoed canoe. An older favorite is “The Boat,” which cleverly showed some love to local businesses that supported them in their early days. A new and controversial video is “The Diorama,” an unabashedly raunchy little scene advertising their new Sparkle drinks. Austin says it saw a little backlash online, and they considered taking it down in the first few hours but decided to leave it up. They were proud of it, and hey, they thought it was funny. “Sometimes you have to bump up against an edge to figure out where it’s at,” says Austin.
The team’s delivery van has an interesting story, too. From Lusa Organics to Kickapoo Coffee and then to Wisco Pop, “Everyone in the building owned that van at some point,” says Hallie. They had local artist Pete Hodapp paint a giant ginger root, cherry and root beer barrel on the sides, and it became the Wisco Pop delivery van. After a couple years, the well-loved, elderly clunker developed a splutter that couldn’t be remedied, so the crew took it as a sign that it was time to get into a distributor. What to do with the van now?
Turns out, Zac had a long-time dream to be in a demolition derby. So in 2015, they put signs up around town saying to join them in the winner’s circle at the Vernon County Fair Demo Derby, started knocking out the van’s windows and…ended up in the emergency room. Folks were a little confused when they didn’t see Wisco Pop at the derby that year. The next year, they prepped the van much more carefully, put signs up around town that said “Wisco Pop Wins Again,” strapped a helmet on Zac and finally sent the old van out in Wisco Pop style. (You can see photos on their website—they’re pretty great).
There is a seriousness underneath all the play, however. They make a point to invest in their relationships, and to have weekly staff lunches with their part-time workers to show their appreciation. “Chopping ginger together for five hours is like a therapy session,” says Neal.
They’re passionate about their home, the Driftless, the issues that affect people here, the environment, local food, and of course, soda making. “No one cares in the soda industry,” says Austin. “We do it and we care.”
They use real ingredients—real lemons and limes, real ginger, real cherries and strawberries. It’s all real. Plus, cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, or none at all, in the case of their Sparkle drinks. And they’re certified organic. “We just knew it was the right thing to do,” says Austin.
“The comedians we like always have a bit of truth in their humor,” says Hallie. “They say with the hard stuff you can either laugh or you’ll cry. We choose to laugh.”
Wisco Pop is having fun, spreading humor and lightheartedness, and never taking themselves too seriously. “There’s more to business,” each of them says in slightly different ways. If you’re going to spend your life doing something, it should be fun.
Let's celebrate the harvest and welcome the cooler weather with some "Poptails"!
For most of these cocktail recipes, you could leave out the alcohol and play around with the ratios of other ingredients to find your perfect soda concoction.