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How Nicole Tanner founded Swig

In this edition of the Founder Series, Nicole Tanner shares how she founded Swig, one of the biggest (and most well known) Utah soda shops.

The Founder Series is a column by and about Utah founders and how they got to where they are today. Click here to read past articles in the series.

I grew up on a dairy farm in Driggs, Idaho, and had an amazing childhood as the fifth of eight children. When you live out in the country, you have to create your own fun, so it helped that I had seven siblings to keep me entertained. I had a love for a good cold soda from an early age. I lived next door to my grandparents, and I have many fond memories of sneaking an ice-cold Coca-Cola out of their fridge and then also a Ding Dong or a Twinkie from their pantry. 

After high school, I attended Ricks College (now Brigham Young University-Idaho) and obtained my associate’s degree in office education. After that, I moved to Provo and worked in the marketing department at SirsiDynix.

Years later, my husband and I moved with our five children to St. George in the fall of 2009. There was a nationwide recession, and we had just left the family business in Colorado, so we needed a way to provide for our family. That’s when the memories of grabbing an ice-cold Coke from my grandparent’s fridge came flooding back. 

I knew many people in the nation had just lost their businesses and homes and needed a pick-me-up in their daily routine. People weren’t going out to dinner or vacationing as much because funds were limited, but they wanted to do something for themselves, even if that was simply going to get their favorite drink. 

We would go to Sonic all the time to get our drink fix. My drink of choice, by now, was a Diet Coke with lime. Though we loved it, sometimes the drive-thru wait was long, and our cups would smell like onions or be greasy. I was also tired of feeling like a number in the drive-thru lines, and I knew there had to be a better way to get our drink fix with friendly customer service and an exceptional product. So why not create a drive-thru drink business that had all of that? That’s how Swig got its start.

"My drink of choice, by now, was a Diet Coke with lime."

Once we had our idea, we found an old, worn-out building in St. George right by Utah Tech University that we thought would work for our first location. The building was only 700 square feet, but it had a huge parking lot, so I envisioned lines of cars wrapping around the building to get their drinks. 

I shared the idea with the landlord, who thought it was crazy because everybody sells fountain drinks, so how would we be different? But I knew Swig would be much more than just a drink—it would be a destination and the best part of people’s day.

After we got our landlord on board, we fixed up the building and opened the first Swig on April 2nd, 2010. We served $1 drinks for the first couple of months just to get people to try us, and within the first six months, things really started to take off. By the end of the first year, we had lines wrapping around the corner—that’s when we realized that this crazy idea was actually working. 

In this edition of the Founder Series, Nicole Tanner shares how she founded Swig, one of the biggest (and most well known) Utah soda shops.

IMAGE APPEARS COURTESY OF NICOLE TANNER AND SWIG. 

Opening our second Swig location 

Toward the end of year two, we decided to open another location in St. George. We found a location only a mile from our first store, an older building that also needed a lot of work. We fixed it up, painted the building, and opened the second Swig location in March 2013. 

We immediately became busy because it was spring break, and both stores had lines wrapped around the corner. 

To my surprise, we were highlighted by KUTV News as the top place to hit by spring breakers. A reporter reported live from our original Swig location, explaining what Swig was and showing the long line of cars. He interviewed some of the customers, and one girl said, “I drove four hours for a Swig!” 

That news segment brought great publicity and interest from more customers and investors. We brought on partners in June 2013 who had some great ideas and expertise about how to grow the brand. They also brought on a consultant to help us refine our procedures inside the stores to ensure we could grow and do it efficiently so that every Swig would look and feel like that original Swig.

I believe partners bring great insight. I think too often, founders get stuck in their way of doing things and think that change and others’ opinions aren’t good. Change can be scary, but change can also be amazing because you learn something from it—it’s what you learn along the way that makes you successful.

In November 2013, we expanded to northern Utah with a location in Provo directly across from the LaVell Edwards Stadium at BYU. The Provo store was busy right from the start, so we decided to hit the gas and open stores in Bountiful, Draper, Lehi, Orem, Logan, Murray, and many other locations. 

"One girl told me, 'I drove four hours for a Swig.'"

By the beginning of 2016, we had 16 locations, but we were spread pretty thin because our office staff was small so our stores and teams were not getting the support they needed. This was when it sank in that we needed some experienced restaurant partners to provide that support and help us with expansion.

I was introduced to Andrew and Shauna Smith of Four Foods Group, now known as Savory Restaurant Group, in the summer of 2017. We had an instant connection and I knew we had found our ideal partners. We solidified our partnership in December 2017, and Savory took on a lot of the heavy lifting so I could focus on what I love: the teams and the customers. We refined many policies and procedures to help the stores and the brand excel. 

Coining the term “Dirty Soda”

Today, we have a total of 41 locations across Utah, Idaho, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Texas. We also have plans to expand to many more states in the coming years, which is incredible when I think back to how it all started 12 years ago. 

When we first started in 2010, we called one of our drinks a Dirty Dr. Pepper—which is just coconut syrup in a Dr. Pepper. People thought it was the coolest thing that they could make their Dr. Pepper drink “dirty.”

In 2013, we started seeing other drink concepts open up, doing exactly what Swig was doing, including copying our Dirty Dr. Pepper. We knew we had originated that term, so we got a Utah and a federal trademark so that “Dirty Soda” belonged to Swig.

In this edition of the Founder Series, Nicole Tanner shares how she founded Swig, one of the biggest (and most well known) Utah soda shops.

IMAGE APPEARS COURTESY OF NICOLE TANNER AND SWIG. 

A few months ago, Olivia Rodrigo visited one of our locations in Salt Lake and posted about it on her social media. Regular customers were also doing TikTok videos while going through the Swig line, and one of them got around 1 million views, and it spiraled from there. Over the last couple of months, Swig and “dirty sodas” have been trending in a big way on TikTok and social media. 

Because of this, several magazines and newspapers (from the New York Times to People) were talking about Swig and dirty soda. I even received a phone call a month ago from the Today Show—it was so amazing to see Swig on my TV screen with Al Roker and the other hosts!  

Creating more than just a drink

Before creating Swig, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2009. I was 37 years old. My bills after treating the cancer were over $12,000. Dixie Regional Medical Center had a program that, if you qualified, your bills were paid by a generous donor. I qualified and still remember to this day the hospital employee telling me that my bill was paid and I owed nothing. What a blessing and a huge relief!

We wanted to give back and do it the same way I was helped 11 years earlier with my breast cancer, so we created a nonprofit called Save the Cups to pay the medical bills of women fighting breast cancer. We find deserving women and surprise them with a check to pay for their medical bills and lift that financial burden. We surprise them at their homes, Publishers Clearing House-style, with a big check. Here is a clip of one of the videos.

Customers can come to any Swig in the month of October to help out. We have breast cancer stickers, specific drinks, and tumblers they can buy that help the cause, but a lot of customers just donate money. We even had one customer donate $1,000! So far, we have helped 22 women pay for their medical bills and are hoping for an even bigger turnout this year. 

"We got a Utah and a federal trademark so that “Dirty Soda” belonged to Swig."

And surviving a pandemic

When Covid hit in 2020, Swig was one of the fortunate concepts that not only survived but thrived because we had drive-thrus. Customers could stay safe in their cars and still get their drink fix. 

Because of our success through Covid, we had to pivot really quickly to increase our staff and become very efficient in our line-busting skills to handle the additional customers now coming to get a drink. We also had to adjust to health guidelines that were ever-changing. In 2021, we started to see the supply chain breaking with shortages in so many things from cups to lids, straws, syrups, and fruits.

What we learned from the pandemic is the power of pivoting, problem-solving, and never quitting—but we had been doing that from the start of Swig. Starting and owning your own business is amazing but also very hard. There are wins and there are losses, but it’s what you learn through both of them that makes the difference. Success comes from problem-solving with a positive attitude. Some things are out of your control, but if you have a positive attitude, you’ll get through them a lot better and learn a lot more.

I always tell my team to find people who care like they do, then you can teach them to do everything else—they will handle it perfectly because they care. Care, integrity, and hard work are our core values at Swig. It’s very humbling for me to see where this amazing business is today. And to think it all started with the love of good Diet Coke!

In this edition of the Founder Series, Nicole Tanner shares how she founded Swig, one of the biggest (and most well known) Utah soda shops.

IMAGE APPEARS COURTESY OF NICOLE TANNER AND SWIG. 

I am a mom of five beautiful children that are my everything! The oldest is 28 and is married to the love of her life and lives in Mesa, AZ with her two babies. My son is 26 and is married to his sweetheart, and has a beautiful daughter with another little one on the way in January. My daughter Hailee, is 24 and recently got married last summer to her dream guy. My daughter Sydni just returned home from a LDS mission to Houston Texas South. She is going to esthetician school in South Jordan and looking for her dream guy, and my baby who really isn’t a baby just graduated from high school and is leaving on an LDS mission to Lubbock, Texas at the end of September. I love to hike and be in nature but not sleep in nature.  I love a good Diet Coke with some chips and salsa or popcorn. I love spending time and playing games with my family and just being together. I love my Heavenly Father because I know I have all of this from him. I am blessed!

Comments (2)

  • Bubu Crichton

    Such an Amazing story. We’re trying to do the same at Honolulu Grill. Needed this inspirational story.

  • Terry Bergeson

    I love reading this amazing story. I have known Nicole and her great family from clear back in our growing up years in Driggs Idaho. I live in St George and have watched her business thrive through the years. Nicole is amazing with all she has been through with her cancer but you would have never heard a complaint. Very upbeat, grateful and willing to help in anyway possible. She had good parents that were the very same. Thank you Nicole for sharing your amazing story. Good old hard work, integrity, and loving and caring for others can get you a long ways.

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