The politics of pop and one man's lip-smacking soda stand
Ever found yourself bitching about the cable company's decision to jack its rates simply because it could? Blood ever boiled at the thought of major labels keeping indie musicians down? Thrown your hands up in despair at the piss-poor choices on the ballot for any given American political office?
Take heart, comrades: John Nese is here to lead the revolution.
The owner of Galco's Soda Pop Stop in Los Angeles' Highland Park, John trades in hard-to-find (if not impossible-to-find) soda, carrying over 500 varieties. I walked into his store assuming I'd be writing a fluff piece about fizzy sugar water, but I walked out with a vivid illustration of corporate oppression and the effect it has on every aspect of our lives.
I start by asking John, 'Why soda?' He answers with a smile: 'I got mad.'
John's story is an American fable. He inherited the family grocery business from his father but found his store struggling to compete with the price clubs and supermarket chains. He started carrying a few rare varieties of soda just to keep the business afloat.
Then one day a Pepsi representative came in to convince him to stock the brand. At the price the rep was offering (remember: no bulk discount for a small shop), John would have had to charge more than the chain store down the street. So he told the rep he'd rather refer customers to the chain.
The Pepsi rep said, 'You can't do that.' John replied, 'Watch me.'
I listen as John explains the politics of soda pop. Since soda industry giants have the money and the clout to purchase shelf space in all of the major chains, there ends up being no space -- and little incentive -- for stores to stock drinks produced by independent bottlers, even though hundreds exist. As consumers, we're left with merely the illusion of choice, our only options being two mediocre colas that basically taste the same.
John begins the tour of his shop by telling me about Red Ribbon Root Beer. Until the '60s, he explains, root beer was made from sassafras root oil, taken off the market because it causes cancer. Red Ribbon uses benign sassafras bark to give its root beer the most authentic taste possible. It even changes flavor as it ages.
Next, John lets me sample a mint julep, because unlike most of you 19th-century Southern plantation owners out there, I've never had one. It's so refreshing that I've since found myself walking around saying, 'I could really go for a mint julep right about now.'
'Have you ever had a pomelo?' John asks, uncapping a bottle of Quench. Down another aisle, he holds up a bottle of Manhattan Special Orange to show me the pulp. He tells me about the elderflower soda he's waiting on, and the rose-flavored soda he ordered for Valentine's Day. The possibilities and permutations seem endless.
He sends me home with a bottle of Moxie Original Elixir, which he cautions I might not take to right away, claiming that it will change flavors as I drink it. It does: Each sip starts as a cola, morphs into a root beer, and leaves the aftertaste of some sort of evil black licorice potion from Satan's private reserve. I can't say I wasn't warned.
On a return trip to the Soda Pop Stop -- to share the joys of a mint julep with a friend -- I try to get John's attention but customers are coming at him from all sides, asking for recommendations the way they would ask a seasoned sommelier. I realize that we're all there because we've had a door opened for us to a whole world of fun, adventure, and taste. It's a door that should have been open to us from the start but was barred by capitalism gone sour. 'If it was about nostalgia, it would have been over in five years,' John says. 'It's about freedom of choice.'
I ask him, 'Do you still get mad at Pepsi and Coke?'
'No,' he says. 'I thank 'em every morning.'
Reprinted from Swindle (No. 7), a bimonthly cultural almanac founded by Shepard Fairey and Roger Gastman. Subscriptions: $50 (6 issues) from 3780 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 210, Los Angeles, CA 90010; www.swindlemagazine.com.