Foodie Friday: The Sweet Pop Of Vintage Soda

IMG_1069By Jim McLauchlin

It isn’t just beautiful old architecture that falls to the wrecking ball. Sometimes tastes do, too. The sweet tang of Nesbitt’s, the “finest orange soft drink ever made.” The crisp bark of Bubble Up. The surprisingly different flavors of Dad’s and Hires root beers.

But there’s a place where those old tastes live forever—in Los Angeles, of course. John Nese has created a haven for more than 750 different sodas, many of which you were sure had gone the way of the dinosaur. It’s called Galco’s Old World Grocery.

Nese is no fool. He knows it’s tough to fight the Krogers and Albertsons and Wal-Plexes of the world. That’s why, in the mid-’90s, he converted his family-owned grocery store to a super-specialized soda stop. You won’t find regular ol’ Coke or Pepsi here, but you will find Faygo Red Pop, Brownie Caramel Cream Root Beer, and Delaware Punch.

“What the general public doesn’t know is that supermarket shelves are bought and paid for,” Nese says. “Coca-Cola and Pepsi buy up all the space, and Coca-Cola doesn’t care about anything unless they can do a million cases. We don’t do that here. We care about one case. We care about what you want.”

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“‘I thought this was gone,’ [they’ll say]. Sometimes, they’ll cry. It evokes memories.” John Nese, with cases of vintage soda for a backdrop.
What people often want are memories. “People will come in, see something they haven’t in 20 years, and freak out. They’ll tell you the first time they tasted it. They’ll say, ‘My grandmother used to give me this. But that was many years ago. I thought this was gone.’ Sometimes, they’ll cry. It evokes memories. We hear it a lot.”

Tears of joy are only part of the ambiance at Galco’s. About one-third of the floor space is devoted to storage and a burgeoning mail-order business. Nese’s grocery is down to soda, beer, candy, a sandwich counter, and a few bags of chips. Three plastic tables are inside for folks who want to lounge with a sandwich and soda, while a small patio area outside boasts a few more picnic tables.

Be sure to look up while you lounge. The tops of display cases are mini-museums, home to cool original pop bottles and cases of yesteryear.

Nese thinks part of his mission is making sure that yesteryear crashes into today. That’s what happened a few years ago when he clamored for Bubble Up, a then-defunct lemon-lime soda.

“The manufacturer said, ‘Why [should we bring back Bubble Up]? No one’s gonna buy it.’” Nese says. “I told him, ‘You’re right. If I don’t have it on my shelf, no one’s ever going to buy it. So let’s fix that.’ He hemmed and hawed around, and I said, ‘If you do it, I’ll take your entire run. But it’s gotta be done right—cane sugar, a glass bottle, all of that.’ He agreed. I didn’t even know how many cases I’d have to take, and in he end, I still took them—I just said I’d have to do it over the course of six months. In the meantime, he tried to sell some locally. A month later, it was flying off the shelf for me. I called him up and said, ‘Hey, Mike, send me the next batch.’ And guess what? He was sold out of my six-month supply! He said, ‘You’ll be happy to know the next run of Bubble Up is next week. It’s back.’ He found it had a pulse, and if he put it out there, people would find it and want it. We brought it back.”

Galco’s dabbles in beer as well, and true to their soda mission, it’s hard to find a Bud Light there. They carry mostly regional breweries such as Rogue Ale and Anchor Steam. And wouldn’t you know it? Schlitz—regular ol’ Schlitz—is back. Why?

“I complained,” Nese says matter-of-factly. “They told me it couldn’t sell. I told them to fire their salespeople. They finally brought back their original brewmasters and used the 1960 formula. They brewed a 30-day supply of Schlitz, and rolled it out in Milwaukee. Guess what? It was gone in three days. Now we carry it here.”

And they recognize Nese’s contribution. Schlitz just did three prototypes for a new 16-ounce can. Nese has can No. 2, a gift from Schlitz.

The candy case at Galco's. (Jim McLauchlin photo.)
The candy case at Galco’s. (Jim McLauchlin photo.)

At the urging of his daughter, Nese has added old-time candy to the mix as well. If you want a Pearson’s Nut Goodie or a Zagnut, Galco’s has them. They also have Nese’s favorite.

“The Goo Goo Cluster, from Tennessee,” he says, almost falling into a Homer Simpson drool. “Oh, my goodness. I tried the peanut, and I thought it was the best candy bar I ever tasted. Then I found out they have the supreme, with pecans! You eat that on a hot day. It melts in your mouth, and it’s great.”

Memories and melts-in-your mouth come surprisingly cheap. Most sodas and candies are $1.29 at Galco’s. Nese says the average price for an item is about $2; some imports and very hard-to-find items might run you a whopping $5. Nese is always looking to add more—and to drop some of his encyclopedic soda knowledge on you.

Vintage soda memorabilia is also part of Galco's ambiance. (Jim McLauchlin photo.)
Vintage soda memorabilia is also part of Galco’s ambiance. (Jim McLauchlin photo.)

“People are looking for Afri-Cola right now,” he says, speaking of a little-known German brand. “It’s a dry-finish cola that’s really good. We had Afri-Cola in the United States from 1898 ’til about 10 years ago, with bottling here in the U.S., but then they went away. But now it’s making a comeback in Cologne! We have no way to get it now, but maybe soon. I really like that one.”

And if Galco’s can’t fulfill your taste off the shelf, you can make your own soda. Their “Creation Station” dispenses carbonated water, and you can make your own mix. Nese has anywhere from 60 to 100 flavors on a given day, including coconut, watermelon, and even habanero lime.

“People enjoy making things,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be pre-programmed. Up here behind me, we have this sign. It says ‘Freedom of Choice.’ People should have choices. You take choices away, and you get little robots. We don’t do that.”

Galco’s Old World Grocery is located at 5702 York Blvd., in Los Angeles’ Highland Park neighborhood. They’re online at www.SodaPopStop.com

And you can, should you so desire, “follow Jim McLauchlin on Twitter,” as the kids say. It’s @McLauchlin.

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