Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
Small soda companies are having their moment in the sun.
Foxon Park soda has been a fixture at New Haven pizzerias since the Great Depression, when Matteo Naclerio started sweetening and carbonating the bottled water at his East Haven factory. Locally bottled, locally bought, it endured the end of Prohibition, the astonishing rise of globalized soda, and the crisis of American manufacturing.
Then, about five years ago, the company began to expand. Now, as it celebrates its 90th birthday, Foxon Park soda is available not just around New England, but in Colorado, Florida, California, Maryland, and Nevada; not just at craft shops and trendy restaurants but at supermarkets and chain stores.
Foxon Park and its peers -- Moxie (Maine), Cheerwine (North Carolina), Vernor's (Michigan), White Rock (New York), Big Red (Texas), Boylan’s (New Jersey), among others -- were the sodas that time forgot. As the exhaustive consolidation of small brands produced standardized American consumer products from coast to coast, they remained, against all odds, regional favorites. Coca-Cola and Pepsi became titans of the American soda market, and yet these bubbly icons of regionalism endured. Locals treasured them, former residents pined for them, and the rest of us hardly knew they existed.
"Moxie brings people together—the memories, the nostalgia," says Frank Anicetti, who runs the Moxie Museum in his general store in Lisbon Falls, Maine, and supervises the annual Moxie parade each summer. The soda, though founded in 1884 in Lowell, Massachusetts, is Maine’s official soft drink. "It’s what Maine is," says Anicetti. "Maine is Moxie."
But Moxie is now also in Washington. Boylan's is in 23 states. You don’t have to go to the Carolinas to find Cheerwine anymore. The culture of regionally based soda may be coming to an end.
"This is spreading all over," says John Nese, who owns Galco's Soda Pop Stop in Los Angeles. Nese is the West Coast apostle of small-name sodas—he once accused L.A. City Hall of suppressing his rights because their vending machines would only sell Coke and Pepsi products—and sells over 400 brands of fizz.
He says that small businesses benefit from the association with small sodas, and vice versa. Among his buyers, he said, "I’ve had toy stores, record stores, food trucks -- they put sodas in there and it helps the sales of their other products at the same time."
Some of what makes small sodas successful in this regard is their spunky history. Most of these brands -- excluding relative newcomers Jones, Gus, and Blue Sky -- are much older than the local-interest craft beer movement that has carried them across state lines. Only one of the top ten U.S. craft breweries predates 1980. But Gloria Vanderbilt was baptized in White Rock soda water; President Calvin Coolidge sipped Moxie at his inauguration. And Dr. Brown's has been around since the Johnson administration -- the Andrew Johnson administration.
Tom Barbitta, the Senior VP of Marketing at Cheerwine, founded in Salisbury, North Carolina, in 1917, says the popularity of Cheerwine and other unique soda brands should be credited to consumers looking for a beverage that "goes beyond refreshment alone."
"Most soft drinks are pretty good," he admits. "Coca-Cola is pretty good. It’s cold, it’s on display, it’s got nice labels. But Cheerwine has a rich authentic backstory, independence, family, Southernness. Being born in the South gives the brand a sense of place -- the South is known for sensations."
The fuzzy sense of local flavor plays well all over. Little-known sodas fit right in to the American aesthetic of the moment, one that prizes the local, the obscure, the old and the family-owned. Drinking Coke, like wearing factory-made clothes at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, used to be a sign of cosmopolitanism. But today’s consumers like finding their own brands, brands that show their roots, or their taste. Consumers want "the badge quality of someone who can discover a soft drink that’s not ubiquitous," Barbitta says.
But what if it becomes ubiquitous? Foxon Park is no Dr. Pepper, but Jay Brancati, the vice-president of sales and distribution for Foxon Park, says he's heard complaints. "We’re in a ton of groceries we’ve never been in," he says. "I’ve got people coming up to me, saying, 'Used to be you could only get Foxon Park in a few places, now you can get it anywhere, it’s not fun anymore.' You have your people who are like, 'Oh you got big -- you sold out.' But we’re just trying to grow." The company is still family-owned, and the soda still mixed with cane sugar.
Local reputation can disappear before you know it. Where AriZona Iced Tea was brewed was once a rhetorical question—New York, of course, where the company was founded in 1992. But in 2010, activists erroneously called for a boycott of the beverage company after the Grand Canyon state passed its controversial immigration law. But such are the perils of success. No one associates Pepsi with North Carolina anymore.
John Nese says the new markets are nothing but good news. While locals see geographic exclusivity as a mark of authenticity, and brands see it as a marketing tool, he sees it as a barrier to Americans enjoying good soda. When I ask about Moxie’s New England associations, he seems to think I'm implying its appeal is limited to that region. "Moxie is really good!" he exclaims. "There’s people all over the country who drink it!"
For now, anyway, the taste remains place-based. Big Red is a fixture of the Juneteenth celebrations in Texas that commemorate the abolition of slavery. Like Proust’s madeleine, a sip of Moxie recalls the pine-shored lakes of Maine. And Cheerwine may be available in Pennsylvania, but, says Barbitta, "for a lot of people, it’s a taste of home."