The Magazine for
Soda Collectors Everywhere
By Blair Matthews
It's been 23 long years since one of the most famous national soda brands in beverage history has last been enjoyed. And chances are at least some packrats out there still have a few old plastic cases of empty stubbies collecting dust in their basement with faded red and white logos that have seen better days. Well, the familiar logo is back, the dust has been swept under the rug and The Pop Shoppe is back in business. And if new owner, Brian Alger has anything to say about it, the brand is back to stay.
When the chain last saw the light of day, Ronald Regan was president, plaid pants were still considered cool, and Pepsi was on the brink of winning the cola wars against Coke.
Venturetek International Ltd., the parent company of Pop Shoppe International Inc., had fallen on hard times. It had seen fame and fortune in the '70s the likes of which the original Pop Shoppe entrepreneurs from London, Ontario (Canada) had never dreamed possible. It was considered by many to be a popular staple for soda pop lovers. Most loved it because of the more than 30 flavors of pop that you could mix and match in cases of 24 returnable stubby bottles - complete with plastic red cases. It was cheap pop and had a simple concept that quickly caught on famously across North America.
Rapid franchise expansion across Canada, a promising venture into the U.S., and a record setting year made 1977 an unforgettable time for Pop Shoppe drinkers. Nearly every town in Ontario had a Pop Shoppe depot as the chain stretched from one end of Canada to the other. But less than five years later, its storied journey was coming to an end.
Sales plummeted, trading of Pop Shoppes shares was halted on the Toronto Stock Exchange, and the red ink was quickly becoming embarassing.
To this day, marketing people still try to pinpoint the reason for the chain's demise. It wasn't a simple explanation. The consumer's love affair with convenience was dawning and with Coke and Pepsi selling their products at reduced prices in supermarkets where consumers could do their grocery shopping and pickup soda pop in cans for less money, popularity of the Pop Shoppe had seemingly run its course. Company mismanagement and misdirection has also been cited as a reason for Pop Shoppe's downfall.
The company slowly slipped away and embossed itself into beverage history much like its discounted pop had done in a sometimes unpredictable marketplace.
Fast-forward to 2005, and enter Food and Beverage Entrepreneur, Brian Alger.
Alger knew the history of the Pop Shoppe chain well and for years had thought, in the back in his mind, about bringing back a little part of his '70s childhood. Though his expertise wasn't specifically rooted in marketing fizzy drinks, it was something he knew he wanted to do if the circumstances were right.
Alger started the trademark process of bringing back the Pop Shoppe brand in the spring of 2002, a process that took about 18 months. Up to that point the Pop Shoppe trademarks had been abandoned since the brand had folded up shop in the early 1980s and the registration expired in 1994, Alger says.
The logos and trademark names laid dormant for more than 10 years and when Alger discovered they were available, the wheels started turning.
So why try to bring back a popular 1970s soda from the proverbial recycling bin more than 20 years after its heyday? Alger says it's all about nostalgia. "Like a lot of people my age, we kind of grew up on the Pop Shoppe and have a lot of fond memories of it. I was surprised that no one held the trademarks and I felt there was a tremendous amount of brand equity still with the brand," he says. "I thought there might be an opportunity there to resurrect what I think is one of the best known Canadian trademarks."
As a teenager growing up in Burlington, Ontario, Pop Shoppe soda was the pop of choice in the Alger household. "That's what we had at our school dances," Alger remembers. "When I was in school I was a person who was a bit disruptive in class so there was a period in time that they would give me my lessons in the morning and then they would send me up to what I call a storage room to do my work so I didn't bother anybody else. The room was a storage room for the whole school and there was no light inside... so they had to have my desk face the back of the room and leave the door open so there could be some light," he says. If the desk had faced towards the hallway, Alger would stop people and talk to them. At the back of the room the student council had stored all of their cases of Pop Shoppe pop. "I would just sit there for hours on end and of course I wouldn't do my school work - I would just stare at Pop Shoppe all day long. Who knows how that affected me later on down the road," Alger says.
"Unfortunately they were pop-off tops back then rather than twist-tops so even if I wanted a pop I didn't have an opener with me so it was a bit like torture."
Of the nearly 30 different varieties of Pop Shoppe soda available in the golden age of the company, Alger was partial to cream soda, and root beer. It's just a coincidence, he says, that those were two of the first four flavors he brought back to the market in late 2004. "When we looked at the pop market, we looked at what was really selling. Orange and root beer are top flavor sellers and I wanted to look at flavors that were distintive to the Pop Shoppe and that's where we came up with Black Cherry and Lime Rickey."
The Pop Shoppe's porfolio of four flavors will grow by three more this spring when Alger adds Grape, Orange and Pineapple. One flavor absent from the line-up is Cola, a flavor that Alger and his flavor consultants are still working on to recapture the exact recipe that the chain originally used in the 70's. Since there was no recipe book handed down to him when he bought the rights to the brand, it was up to him to find original bottles of Pop Shoppe (which he primarily found on eBay), then dissect and analyse the contents of each flavor. It's taken countless hours of research to come up with the tastes that do the original flavors justice.
And the lack of a cola flavor is by no means because of Coca-Cola and Pepsi's dominance in that market. "When the Pop Shoppe was around the first time, it was born out of necessity... Coke and Pepsi really dominated the market and consumers were paying a high price for soft drinks at the time. When Pop Shoppe came around," Alger says, "it really filled that void." These days, every grocery store chain has their own brand but in the 1970s that wasn't the case. "Pop Shoppe filled two areas - they gave you a great tasting soda and they gave you value for your money."
At first, Alger toyed with the idea of going back to the Pop Shoppe's original concept of store front locations where consumers could drop in and mix and match their cases of 24 bottles for one price in returnable glass bottles. But after doing a lot of research and talking to people in the beverage industry he decided the stand-alone beverage store - using refillable containers - was an inconvenience for people; it was concept that had run its course years ago and just wasn't economically feasible.
Alger is quick to point out though, that Pop Shoppe's store-front concept wasn't the reason that the chain self-destructed back in the early 1980s. It was mainly due to mismanagement within the company, he claims.
When the store-front idea fizzled out, he decided that he could market the soda through a distributor much the same way that other gourmet and specialty sodas are done. So with a working model started and the trademarks secured, plans began to take shape. While flavors and recipes were being researched, Alger considered the packaging that they should use. "I looked at doing 2 L bottles and 600mL plastic but that really doesn't do justice to the Pop Shoppe heritage. I'm a big believer that soft drinks should be drank from a glass container - you're getting the pure taste of the pop. If you drink pop that's been sitting in a plastic 2 liter for six months, it's not very good at all," Alger says.
The problem he immediately found with going to a glass container was the cost involved. But, he figured with the power of the trademarkbehind it and the wave of nostalgia that people are currently feeling for the old brand, it was a worthy investment.
"The response has been tremendous," Alger proudly declares. And to build on the nostalgic flavor he's also currently working on bringing back the familiar design of the stubby glass bottle with the diamond embossing. "What my goal has been all along is to really make it as close to what it was as possible. We've certainly got that on the formula side of things and if we can work on getting the package back to that now, it would be great."
Old Pop Shoppe In Your Neighborhood Might Not Be the 'Real' Stuff:
And for those soda connoisseurs out there who've been able to find old style Pop Shoppe soda for sale at their neighborhood corner store (in the old worn stubby bottles), Alger says you're likely not getting original Pop Shoppe pop. When the Pop Shoppe declared bankruptcy back in the 1980s they liquidated all the assets of the company - including all the familiar old red cases and stubby glass bottles. Anyone who wanted to purchase the equipment or property was free to do so.
Some locations (at least one in British Columbia and a few scattered around the United States) bought the assets of the local bottler in their area and continued bottling soda pop using those same old Pop Shoppe glass stubbies. "They're not able to market it under that name or say that it's Pop Shoppe brand soda, but you still get it in those original bottles," Alger explains.
And based on the analysis of the pop that was still being filled in those original bottles (Alger paid a company to analyse what was being put in them for him), it was most certainly not any soda pop that Alger would bottle. "It was absolutely horrible. The flavor profile was terrible - it was like someone made it in their bathtub and bottled it from there. I could not believe how bad it was."
'Bootleg' pop in old Pop Shoppe bottles is an issue that Alger figures he'll deal with somewhere down the road since he now owns the U.S. trademarks for Pop Shoppe as well. Though it's within his rights as trademark holder to restrain bottlers from packaging their sodas in those old reuseable Pop Shoppe glass stubbies, it's also a costly issue to try to curb. "My focus is getting the brand back out in the market and out into as many stores as possible and then we'll look at doing something about that later on. For me, it's an issue, but not a priority right now."
A Pop Shoppe Collector is Born:
Before he began his venture into the beverage world, Alger admits he wasn't much of a soda pop collector. Once he knew what his plans were for the old brand, his attitude about collecting changed drastically and a Pop Shoppe memorabilia collector was born. "I just wanted to secure as much memorabilia dedicated to the Pop Shoppe as I could."
Alger has bought nostalgic items like bottles, openers, signs, and even a replica Eddie Shack Pop Shoppe jersey as seen in many of the old ads for the soda pop.
Which begs the question: will there be a new spokesperson named for Pop Shoppe and would Alger ever consider trying to bring Shack, the original spokesman for the brand, back into the fold?
"We've had some conversations with the design team and there's no doubt about it - he was a huge part of that at the time. It may be something we do down the road but nothing immediate," Alger confesses.
"But it is a consideration."
For the most part, Alger says he has more of an in-store marketing philosophy for the brand with most advertising and promotion done with point-of-sale materials and in-store specials. "Let's face it, people are coming in ready to buy something - a lot of people don't have their mind made up specific to a brand or a flavor so if we work hard on the inside of the store P.O.S. material than I think we can really grab the attention of people and let them know that the brand is available there."
For Alger, the big kick-off for 2005 will be at this year's Canadian International Food & Beverage Show in Toronto where Pop Shoppe will be well-represented.
Taking the brand into the electronic age:
The website for Pop Shoppe has created new buzz among soda drinkers and collectors alike who remember the brand with fond memories. "Lately I've been getting e-mails and calls from people who have memorabilia and photos of Pop Shoppe - it's absolutely fantastic to see these things. Some of the e-mails I get from people that are so excited to see the brand back in the market are great. They see that trademark and they get a flood of memories and emotions. They'll see that logo and it'll take them right back to a summer at the cottage or whatever. I think that's unbelieveable that a trademark and a brand can hold that kind of equity for somebody."
Chatting With the Original Founder of Pop Shoppe:
Someone who can certainly relate to Alger's situation of starting up a beverage company from scratch would be Gary Shaw, one of the original founders of Pop Shoppe when it was still a young fledging start-up company in London.
Alger was thrilled to have the chance to chat with Shaw recently about Pop Shoppe's early days.
"This was a man that started something and didn't realize how big an impact it would have. He and his partners began with $40,000 and it sky-rocketed from there. For them to have the vision to take it to where it was and to be able to identify the definite need in the marketplace for it was brilliant," Alger says.
When Alger broke the news to him that he was about to bring the brand back from the dead, Shaw was excited.
"He's a guy that says once he closes the chapter on something he moves on and from there he started up 'Grandma Lee's' (another well-known Canadian company). He certainly speaks proudly of the accomplishments they made with the Pop Shoppe."
If anything, Alger adds, Shaw was a little surprised that no one had attempted to take another run at the nostalgic favorite before now.
More Pop Shoppe Memorabilia Coming:
Alger urges Pop Shoppe fans to be on the lookout for some retro memorabilia that will soon be launched to coincide with the return of the brand. "We're going to start working on some stuff - we're going to look at some of the things that Pop Shoppe did in the past and look at doing some of those things. We'd kind of like to go retro like frisbees or yo-yos or things that fit in with that '70s time," he says.
Personal acquaintances of Alger and his fiancee got a special treat at their wedding back in November when they received a commemorative Pop Shoppe bottle produced especially for the wedding guests. It featured a wedding graphic on the corner of the label and came packaged in a giftbox.
Should the brand ever reach the levels of sales that it once did, Alger is mindful that some of the wedding guests may want to cash in on its success by putting their special wedding bottle up for bids on eBay. So he numbered each bottle and recorded who was given which bottle, just so he knows who to rib should he ever discover that someone is selling their special gift.
Currently there are about 70 bottles present and accounted for.
So what's been the toughest part of bringing back a legendary soda pop? Alger says it's the fact that he's doing the entire project on his own - from distribution deals and financing to marketing and product development (which is rare in the cut-throat beverage industry these days). And dealing with a brand that most people remember means there are big shoes to fill with little room for error. "I take it quite seriously and I realize that there are a lot of people that have a fondness for that brand. I want to bring it back as original as it was and give people that 5 or 10 minutes in a day when they can think of a fond memory of Pop Shoppe and whatever else they were doing at the time," he says.
But at the same time, he recognizes that his core audience is still that 13 to 17-year-old group of consumers that will inevitably make or break the Pop Shoppe venture. So far, Alger says he's amazed that the kids are buying up Pop Shoppe - perhaps because everything retro from the past seems to be cool again, including clothes and hair styles. "I think the kids get de-sensitized by all of these other marketing companies that put these hardcore graphics on their packaging... when they see something like Pop Shoppe, it's simple, but it's got that nostalgic look to it. It's just simple soda. I don't want to market this like 'if you're able to drink this you're going to be able to snowboard better or you're gonna be able to jump off cliffs' or whatever. It represents a simpler time," Alger stresses.
And what about all of those packrats who still harbor cases of 20-year-old Pop Shoppe bottles in their garage or basement? They've already started coming out of the woodwork.
"We had somebody that called us saying she had a couple cases of those empties and wanted to know how she could get refunded for the deposit. What can I say... if I had a need for them I'd certainly take them back. I told her that her best bet was to try putting them up on eBay," he says with a laugh.