Payam Fardanesh spent a decade in corporate sales, honing what he calls his "silver tongue."
Microbiologist Srijun Srinuanchan worked in pharmaceuticals.
The two spent weeks crafting the perfect carbonated beverage, based on a family recipe from Fardanesh's native Iran. Now, Silk Road Soda is selling in cafes and restaurants across the region, and a distribution deal is in the making.
Things are moving quicker than planned for the business partners, who met in the MBA program at California State University, Sacramento, in 2009. Fardanesh, who lives in Roseville, sold Srinuanchan on the concept a year ago. They incorporated their business in August, and produced their first batch 63,000 bottles in February at a Sonoma County facility owned by Langer Juice Co.
"We had thought about distribution. We thought it would come later, like maybe after six months, maybe after the summer," Fardanesh said. "We were given guidance to self-distribute. After we got started, our hit rate was 100 percent. We were totally surprised by that."
The product is based on a vinegary mint syrup that dates back centuries. It's called "sekanjabin" in Farsi and known as "oxymel" to the Greeks. Fardanesh's grandmother made the syrup routinely when he was a boy and served it with water. When home soda makers became popular a couple of years ago, Fardanesh started playing around with a carbonated version.
Fardanesh and Srinuanchan served a variation to friends, using store-bought syrup. The reviews were solid, so the two turned Srinuanchan's Del Paso Heights kitchen into a lab using his high-tech food scales and thermometers. They churned out formula after formula until they got the mint blend just right. They settled on three flavors (mint, cucumber-mint and pomegranate-mint), and worked with Venus Research and Development, a Santa Cruz food lab, to perfect the formula for mass production and gain organic certification.
The partners opted for pasteurization over preservatives and glass over plastic bottles, which explain why the sodas sell for $1.99 and up, they say. They also shied away from the beverage trends du jour, such as caffeine, low-calorie and vitamin-infused.
"If I put in stevia or saccharin or (vitamin) B-12, my grandmother would roll in her grave," said Fardanesh, who immigrated to the United States when he was 10. "We wanted the feeling of the food to be our vision, not just the taste."
Srinuanchan and Fardanesh have placed Silk Road Soda in 22 area venues so far, a mix of restaurants Hot Italian and Opa! Opa! in Sacramento and My Thai Table in Granite Bay, among others and health food stores.
Eric Barbee, manager of Sunrise Natural Foods in Roseville, was sold when Fardanesh brought the beverages in earlier this month. They are already selling briskly, he said. "He pulled them out and they tasted awesome. And anytime we can support a local guy, I'm all for that," Barbee added.
That they are both local guys has heightened their business appeal, the soda makers say.
Srinuanchan graduated from Grant High School in 1999 and completed his bachelor's degree at the University of California, Davis.
Fardanesh graduated from Rio Linda High School in 2000 and studied accounting at Sacramento State. He was a minority partner in a software and consulting business bought out by Hill International, the construction giant, in 2008.
Srinuanchan, meanwhile, spent seven years with Genentech, working in drug testing and training. Roche Holding AG purchased the company in 2009. Srinuanchan stayed on until 2011 and attended the MBA program at Sacramento State on weekends.
The two studied and socialized in graduate school, then became close friends on a study trip to Hong Kong and China. (Their company name comes from their mutual love of travel, and the role the Silk Road played centuries ago as a trade route.)
Both in their early 30s, they still look the part of college students, casually dressed as they poured soda samples for customers recently at Sunrise Natural Foods. Srinuanchan carries a backpack. They do much of their work remotely, though they keep an office at the Center for Entrepreneurship at Sacramento State for now.
The startup has meant 14- to 16-hour days for the duo, but they credit much of their progress to a solid core of friends and former classmates who've weighed in on everything from the company logo (a brightly colored, modern take on Middle Eastern design) to whether vinegar as a key ingredient should be touted in the label design (a unanimous "no").
Fardanesh and Srinuanchan are currently in talks with a local beverage distributor, though they declined to disclose specifics. They also say they have investors at the ready, and hope to soon be adding more flavors to their menu and four-packs instead of individual bottle sales. They have not yet drawn salaries from the business, but they are confident of its success.
"People want pure this. They want pure that. They're willing to pay a premium for it," Fardanesh said.
Just talk to Janet Sorce. The Granite Bay woman has had to change her diet in recent years, she said.
She tried Silk Road Soda while shopping at Sunrise Natural Foods earlier this week, drawn to the organic sugar cane and lack of preservatives. She was so smitten with the beverage that she took a couple of bottles to a nearby Whole Foods Market that afternoon and shared them with the store's buyers.
"Once you try this product," Sorce told them, "you will be sold.