Roanoke science fair project turns into business for high school sophomores

Lukes' Kombucha brews at Sweet Donkey Coffee

ROANOKE – A science fair project turns into a business for two high school sophomores.

Luke Gardner and Luke Suess are both high school sophomores. They own Lukes' Kombucha, a growing business.

"Kombucha is fermented tea. It's basically sweet tea with a bunch of bacteria in it and it ferments for a while, gets fizzy and sour," said Gardner.

"I never thought I would actually have a product. I'm not really a business-oriented person but it doesn't really feel like a business. It's more of an art where we get to create something that's really beautiful and then we get paid to share it with others," said Suess.

This all started as a science fair project last year at the Roanoke Valley Governor's School for Science and Technology.

"Luke had the really cool idea to test the effectiveness of E. coli on Kombucha. Previously I had never heard of Kombucha. I had no clue what it was," said Suess.

After the project was over, they started brewing their own flavors using herbs and fruit like fresh ginger and lemon. The whole flavor process is trial and error, much like proving theories in science. But not every experiment is a winner.

"We tried doing a cream soda flavor. We added vanilla and molasses and I think it was something with the molasses. It was the worst flavor. It was probably one of the worst things I've ever tasted. It was extremely sour and bitter at the same time," said Suess.

You can buy four flavors at Sweet Donkey Coffee.

They now have four core flavors:

  • Fruit and Root: what they describe as classic Kombucha
  • Herbal Eclipse: a mellow and laid-back flavor
  • Dragon's Tea: a spicy flavored Kombucha
  • Hipster Hop: which has notes of grapefruit with hoppy flavors

Business is booming so much they needed to move into a commercial kitchen. Now they brew in Sweet Donkey Coffee upstairs and sell the four flavors downstairs.

"I'm glad people can enjoy it. That's what makes it better than just getting a part-time job is that people have enjoyed us that's a good thing," said Gardner.

The plan is to sell in other local stores too, expanding in the Roanoke Valley.

Right now, they reinvest everything they make into the business to pay for supplies and hope to break even by the end of the summer, finally making profit.

About the Author:

You can see Jenna weekday mornings at the anchor desk on WSLS 10 Today from 5-7 a.m. She also leads our monthly Solutionaries Series, where we highlight the creative thinkers and doers working to make the world a better place.