The First-Person Project

Matt Seiler ’91

Austin, TX

Founder and CEO, Maine Root Handcrafted Beverages

Majors: Environmental Science and Geology

My family’s from Wilmington, Delaware. I spent my first ten years there; then we moved to North Hampton, New Hampshire. My education from a very early age was science-based, which gave me an interest in the physical world and how it worked. Making hypotheses and doing experiments at a young age really sparked my curiosity.

When I graduated from high school, I wanted to go to a smaller liberal arts school and take on the part of my education that I hadn’t really explored yet. But I also wanted a good science program. Keene State had a bachelor’s in environmental science, which covers a really broad spectrum of disciplines including geology, which I’d always been interested in. That’s what got me there. Plus, at a state school I was able to afford the tuition through a combination of student loans and summer work. Back then if you worked all darn summer you could save enough money to pay for your books and tuition and make up the rest with a small student loan.

My summer jobs always involved some sort of self-employment, like painting houses. My earliest summer job was selling popsicles on the beach. Figuring out costs, how much I needed to make, profit margins, dealing with money – learning about all that at an early age really helped me out a lot.

Keene State has such a great location. I really liked the small-town feel. The professors were great, too. I remember my biology teacher, Dr. David Gregory, kind of looked like Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead. My experience in college made me realize that you don’t have to wear a coat and a tie to be successful. It kind of shattered some of the thoughts about business and success and where you want to end up in life. Being exposed to different ideas and different ways of living out your life showed me that there are a lot of paths you can take.

When I graduated, I went right into the environmental field, consulting for a firm located in New Jersey. There was a lot of federal money available then for checking out underground gasoline storage tanks – updating the records and making sure they were up to code and not leaking into the ground water, and doing remediation and cleanup if they were leaking. I did that for a few years, and then I realized that I didn’t really want to spend my time in an office after focusing my education on being outside and studying the natural environment. Plus, my idea of the natural environment wasn’t really a gas station in Baltimore.

I revisited my goals and enrolled in a geology graduate program at Montana State University. But first I spent the summer in Alaska working for the US Forest Service. We did a delineation of old-growth trees and how they relate to the riparian ecosystem in southeast Alaska. The Forest Service was basically setting aside the trees in growth areas alongside the river system so the logging companies couldn’t come down and cut right to the water’s edge. That was a great summer. Then, to sum up a long story, I ended up bouncing around. I did some fly fishing and built a fly fishing boat, and that really interested me more than my graduate studies. I never finished the geology program. But I had an education grant that allowed me to enroll at the Landing School, a boat designing and building school in Kennebunk, Maine. That’s what brought me back to New England after all those years.

When I finished the program at the Landing School, a buddy and I opened and ran a boat shop just outside Portland for a few years. At the same time, as luck would have it, a friend from Keene State, Bobby Morgan, opened a restaurant called the Flatbread Company that offered all-natural, organic foods. I helped him build a clay oven and waited tables. That’s where I started making soda, just for the restaurant – just kind of a side project to see how people liked it. I’d been brewing beer for a few years, so I adapted that to soft drinks. Fourteen years ago, organic food wasn’t really a thing yet. So it was a good time to get into it and to start experimenting. So that’s where I got started with Maine Root.

Making root beer is just like brewing beer, except at the point where you pitch the yeast to make beer, you seal up the bottle to make root beer. Now we employ about 60 people, but I started out as a one-man band – sourcing the ingredients and perfecting the recipe and creating the graphics for the boxes and labels. The restaurant patrons liked it, and then the Flatbread Company opened more locations, so I started supplying them with soda, too. I was even delivering to the other locations personally before I got introduced to a distributor in New Hampshire, Associated Buyers. They picked up our line.

I had great conversation one day with the sales rep who drove down to meet me at the boatyard where I was working. He said he wanted to show the product to some other customers; one of them happened to be Whole Foods, which agreed to stock Maine Root soda. That got the ball rolling in New England, and the product got recognized in the stores in New York City. A couple of months later we had a call from Mike Hegedus from CNBC. He came and did a story on us. We gave him a full tour of our facility and showed him how we make soda. That got us some media exposure and we were off to the races.

Now we’re making over 100,000 cases a year, 24 bottles per case. We use organic fair trade sugar, and that’s what made the big difference in taste. I wanted to use a pure sugar, which is unrefined, untouched sugar, organically grown and fair-trade certified – meaning the workers and the farmers are all given a fair shake on the price and they are not exploited in any way. My environmental science background was a major part of going organic and fair trade – and it’s counter to the usual way of doing business, which is to source the cheapest ingredients you can and make a product at the lowest cost. Our sodas cost quite a bit more, and the end result is that you are getting a great-tasting beverage that’s been made in an environmentally and socially conscious way.

These days the Maine Root production and bottling facilities are still in Maine, but we do marketing and sales out of Austin, Texas. We had a chance to do some sampling and events in the Austin area with Whole Foods, which is headquartered there, and there are just a lot of opportunities for growth that we’ve been able to achieve by basing out of Austin. Also, I got tired of shoveling snow – you know how that goes. I still spend a lot of time up in Maine, though.

We have six base flavors – the number one seller is ginger brew, followed by root beer. We also make sarsaparilla, blueberry, lemon-lime, and mandarin orange. In the fall we offer pumpkin pie soda, which is kind of our take on the microbrew seasonal brews. We also supply soda fountains now. Our mixture of syrup and sugar comes in a lined cardboard box that’s mixed onsite at the fountain with carbonated water. We’re not looking to expand the flavors that we bottle, but we do make a few more flavors for soda fountains. We do a cola, a vanilla cream, a ginger ale. I do the mixing for the flavor profiles. It’s all trial and error.

My kids think I’m a big deal. They think I am the root beer king. My son is six and my daughter’s three and a half. On Friday nights we have root beer and popcorn, which they’re always very excited about. I teach my kids that, yes, I make soda, and, no, it’s not something you drink with every meal. It’s meant to be a treat. Having kids definitely changes your perspective on what’s important and how you manage your time. Owning and running my own business comes with a lot of responsibilities. The flexibility is invaluable; I see a lot of families where the parents have regular jobs and they don’t see their kids as much as I do. I’m also extremely grateful for the support of my wife, Signae. She works in real estate in addition to raising the kids.

So I followed a few different paths in life before I found something that really works for me. Starting a business takes a lot of time and risk and wondering whether you’re doing the right thing. It wears on you, until you finally figure it out. The best part about owning a business is that you’re always discovering new things, learning new things. It’s exciting. We’ve grown so much in the past few years; things are really looking great – knock on wood.