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Beer distributor's growth comes in 'dry' territory: Willmar plays big role in Madison Bottling

Tom Cherveny | Tribune Madison Bottling is marking its 100th anniversary this year. A decision made years ago that opened up Willmar and Kandiyohi County to the Madison-based wholesale distributor has played a big role in its success. From left are: Scott, Tim and Kay Roth and Tim Siegert. 1 / 4
Submitted / This undated photo shows one the Madison Bottling Company trucks decorated up for what appears to be a 4th of July celebration. The company was originally started by Henry Roth to produce pop, but he transformed it with the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 to become a wholesale distributor for the Schmidt Brewing Company. 2 / 4
Submitted / Henry Roth originally made soda pop in the basement of his house for sale around the community of Madison. He expanded into providing dray service when the pop business was not sufficient to support his family. The big opportunity came with the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, when he transformed the company into a wholesale distributor for the Schmidt Brewing Company. 3 / 4
Submitted Henry Roth started Madison Bottling in 1917, purchasing the equipment to make and bottle pop in the basement of his home in Madison for $500. He used a cart to sell his product around town. 4 / 4

MADISON - A beer distributor marking its 100th anniversary credits a big part of its success to the community that was among the very last in Minnesota to go "wet.''

The City of Willmar and neighboring Spicer represent one of the most important markets for the Anheuser-Busch products distributed by Madison Bottling Company, based in Madison, according to the company's leaders.

"We wouldn't be sitting here right now if we hadn't acquired that Budweiser territory,'' said Scot Roth of the Madison Bottling Company.

Voters in the City of Willmar voted to go "wet" and allow the sale of intoxicating beverages on February 28, 1966, or 33 years after the repeal of prohibition.

The Madison Bottling Company got its start in 1917, when Henry Roth plunked down $500 for equipment to make his own pop and sell it from a cart on the streets of Madison. He made his pop in the basement of a house on Main Street and relied on a hand-pump in the backyard for the water, according to Tim Roth of Madison Bottling. His father, Roland, was one of founder Henry Roth's four sons.

Madison Bottling remains an independent, family-owned business operated today by the third and fourth generation descendants of the Madison pop maker. The company has 17 employees with a combined 322 years of service.

It distributes products for over 20 suppliers, Anheuser-Busch being the largest. It also distributes Excelsior, Fulton Beer, Alaskan, Mankato Brewery and Bank beers.

And true to its roots, the company distributes a thirst-quenching lineup of soft drinks, including Sun Drop, its most popular. A wide range of craft teas, energy and sports drinks, sparkling water, and new age beverages such as coconut water are also among its offerings.

The beer is distributed to nearly 200 retail outlets in the service territory, and the soft drinks to as many and more.

The company is the exclusive distributor for Anheuser-Busch products in a service territory covering seven and a half counties in western and central Minnesota. The area ranges from Clinton in northern Big Stone County to Lake Benton in Lincoln County, and east to New London in Kandiyohi County.

Back at the start, Henry Roth discovered that he couldn't support his family on his pop business alone. He expanded to offer dray service, ferrying goods from the rail depot to customers in and around Madison, according to Tim Roth. When prohibition was repealed in 1933, Henry Roth began distributing beer for the Jacob Schmidt Company of St. Paul.

Being willing to embrace change, and making good decisions on the products to carry, had much to do with the company's growth and success through the years, according to Tim Siegert, the sales manager. But Tim and Scot Roth, and co-owner Kay Roth, the daughter of Henry Roth's second son, Mahlon, don't downplay the importance of having lady luck on your side.

She showed up years ago when Uncle Lauren was stopped at a traffic light on his way out of Willmar, his truck rattling with empty beer bottles. A guy drove up alongside him, honked his horn, and asked if he could deliver some Budweiser to the Air Force base located on the north end of Willmar at the time.

Lauren - the youngest of Henry Roth's four son - said he would. It eventually led to a decision by Anheuser-Busch to place the Willmar and New London area in the Madison Bottling Company's service territory, Tim explained.

One of the biggest moves for the company came before that trip to Willmar, when the company initially decided to carry Anheuser-Busch products. Kay Roth said she still remembers the anguished conversations when Henry Roth and his sons debated whether to distribute the national brand. The Jacob Schmidt Company-whose beer they were delivering- was a big market force at the time.

Anheuser-Busch did not have a big market share here at the time. And, acquiring the rights to distribute its products came with lots of costly, quality control requirements, including the need for an environmentally-controlled warehouse.

Another fortunate decision came when Henry Roth returned from a bottler's convention in Cuba sometime in the 1950's. "He came back with this pop he really believed in,'' said Tim Roth.

His sons were hesitant to take on the expenses of adding Sun Drop to their lineup, but dad prevailed. One of the early "golden colas,'' it quickly became a huge brand for the company, according to Tim.

The company is located on the east edge of Madison on Highway 40. It needed more space and moved into a former Case IH dealership facility there in 1999; it has added onto the facility three times since.

Regarding sales, some of today's growth is found in the innovation and growing diversity of the beverage industry. The growing lineup of everything from craft beers to sports drinks provide new revenues.

But Scot Roth said many of the company's best known products - such as Budweiser and Michelob Golden Draft Light - remain consistent and growing market leaders, and integral to the company's success.

The company's leaders said they are not going to allow 100 years of business success lead them to complacency. "My dad had a saying,'' said Tim Roth of the business principle he learned early. "The consumer can fire you any day of the week. He doesn't have to buy your product.''

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335