The fizz biz is notoriously competitive. But that didn’t stop a little London, Ontario, soft-drink start-up from bubbling to the top of the North American market. The Pop Shoppe disappeared for two decades, but since a recent revival, it’s been reclaiming the hearts of soda-drinkers across Canada.
In 1969, two young London entrepreneurs dreamed up the idea of a no-frills soda company that would sell nostalgic flavours like orange, root beer, and cream soda in stubby bottles with a distinctive red-and-white label, and put together a company with four other friends.
Whether they realized it or not, their distribution scheme was pure genius. They sold directly from small bottling plants, charging a $3 deposit for their red plastic crate that held 24 bottles. Apart from the fact that Pop Shoppe soda was a bargain at 10 cents a bottle, people loved getting to pick out their own flavours.
“It was strategic,” says Stefan Kergl, vice-president of Stoney Creek-based Beverage World, which now owns the Pop Shoppe. “You would walk in through one door, and you submitted your crate with your empties to get your deposit back. You couldn’t just hang a quick right to get out; it was like IKEA: you had to walk all the way through this maze, through and around all the pop, and nine times out of 10 you would grab another crate.”
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By 1972, the company was adding franchises so quickly that the original founders sold out to a Toronto venture-capital company, Venturetek International. In 1975, Pop Shoppes International Inc. opened 11 U.S. outlets, and in Canada, the brand was outselling heavy-hitters like Orange Crush and Hires Root Beer.
It was in 1976 that the Pop Shoppe hired former Toronto Maple Leafs hero Eddie Shack as their spokesperson (and even those who never drank a drop of the soda can remember his TV commercials). The next year, the company was offering 26 flavours and selling 1 million bottles per day.
But at the same time, big-box supermarkets were proliferating and luring the public with bargain cases of brand-name soft drinks in pull-tab cans. Suddenly, it no longer seemed worthwhile to make a special trip for soda. In 1981, the Pop Shoppe pulled out of the U.S., and the company stopped trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange in 1983.
But in 2002, 33-year-old entrepreneur Brian Alger became curious about the brand. When he discovered that the trademark had lapsed, he acquired it and slowly began putting together the pieces to relaunch the beloved company. One of the most difficult tasks was to recapture the formulations that people remembered: Alger resorted to buying unopened bottles on eBay and analysing the contents to figure out the recipes.
The Pop Shoppe returned in 2004, and in 2005, Alger signed a distribution agreement with Beverage World. Costco, Kitchen Table, and Hasty Market were among the first retailers to pick up the brand, which now offers cream soda, cola, root beer, black cherry, lime rickey, orange, grape, and pineapple. Alger even invested in custom stubby bottles.
By 2009, the new Pop Shoppe, having been reimagined as a premium soft drink brand, was selling better in Canada than similar retro-style U.S. brands Dad’s and Stewart’s and was even nipping at the heels of Jones. In 2016 Beverage World took over the brand entirely.
Kergl (whose favourite flavour is orange) says the company will continue to add new flavours, starting with cotton candy. They’re also doing well with alcoholic versions of the cream soda and lime rickey, and he hints that more flavours will be appearing over time.
What makes people love the Pop Shoppe? For baby boomers, there’s the appeal of recreating something they remember from their youth. For millennials, “what was cool then is cool now,” says Kergl. “It’s nostalgic, retro, iconic.”
Sarah B. Hood is a freelance writer and the author of We Sure Can!: How Jams and Pickles Are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food.