Deep in the soul of every veteran soft drink bottler there must be a little six-ounce bottle of Grapette. Spunky little Grapette -- the grape-flavored soda that people could enjoy "thirsty or not" - epitomized the American soft drink industry of the 30's, 40's, and 50's. Those were the years of the corner grocery, with paint-chipped wooden cases rattling with favorite regional brands. Grapette was one of those hometown soft drinks that made it big. It was also one of those brands gobbled up when the Age of Acquisitions dawned in the late 60's.
The story of Grapette begins with the birth of its founder, Benjamin Tyndle Fooks on July 15, 1901 in Paducah, Kentucky. Like his father before him, he was in the lumber business until 1925 when he lost interest and purchased a service station in Camden, Arkansas. At that time, Camden had a population of less than 3,000.
The service station business wasn't bad, but it wasn't good, either. So, when Henry Furlow, one of his local customers, stopped for service, Tyndle Fooks pumped gasoline and listened with interest to Furlow's talk of business in general and his desire to sell a small soft drink bottling plant on one of the town's two main streets. Before closing time, Fooks (pronounced like "folks") had gathered and appraised all details, inspected the bottling plant on Adams Street, and made a momentous decision. Borrowing $4,000 from Charles Saxon, a friend and local business man, Tyndle soon became the newest entry in the nation's growing soft drink industry.
Being entirely unfamiliar with the beverage business, Tyndle studied it diligently, reading all that he could about it. In 1928, he began experimenting with the manufacture of soft drink flavors. Until 1930, all of the flavors that he manufactured were used in his own plants and by close friends in the soft drink business. The early years of the company were experimental ones, especially in the area of flavoring.
When the struggle to pay for his bottling plant began to ease, he "pioneered" into southwest Arkansas as the first bottler to make regular truck deliveries into the rural areas. It wan not easy - graveled roads were almost non-existent on the country routes at that time, and dirt roads, sand beds, and chuck holes really beat up his second-hand trucks.
In 1927 he bought a second small bottling plant in Arkadelphia, about 60 miles from Camden. The second plant was so successful that it paid for itself in its first year. In 1928, a third plant was purchased in nearby Hope, Arkansas. But the depression hit and times turned tough before the third plant could ever be put into operation -- it was used only as a warehouse.
For some time, Fooks had experimented with flavors -- changing, adding, correcting; steadily improving formulas that he had purchased in order to cut his flavor expense. With the stock market crash in 1928, he began in earnest to develop a quality line of flavors. During this period, he mixed, bottled, and drove trucks. In the winter, when the demand for soft drinks was low, he made peanut patties and coconut brittle along with his drinks -- anything to keep his plants open and running.
Business was terrible, and in order to pull the Camden plant through the depression he sold the Arkadelphia building and machinery, and closed the warehouse at Hope. With a selection of "Fooks Flavors" in his car, he began to travel in Arkansas, Louisiana, and east Texas, taking orders from other bottling plants for his flavors. Following each trip he returned to Camden and mixed the flavors which he had just sold. His "factory" was the syrup room of the bottling plant.
Unable to purchase new containers, he bought and sterilized used gallon jugs and cleaned reclaimed shipping cartons. "Fooks Flavors" grossed $4,500 that year and the "B.T. Fooks Manufacturing Company" was enthusiastically, if not somewhat shakily, established. In the second year, still doing the selling and manufacturing himself, Fooks doubled his sales -- and bought new containers and shipping cartons.
Through the years, the B.T. Fooks Manufacturing Company became widely known as a producer of unusual blends and high quality concentrates and its products were sold throughout the United States. Flavors manufactured were either sold as "Fooks Flavors" or for private labels. He never attempted to duplicate existing franchise drinks. Among the many flavors offered was a popular blackberry punch flavored drink, and the company's slogan was "Particular Folks Drink Fooks Drinks".
In 1936, Fooks chose his first group of permanent helpers. For salesmen, he added his father T.D. Fooks, his brother J.D. Fooks, and two close friends -- Hubert Owen, and W.W. Davis. T.D. and J.D. Fooks each had only very brief experience in bottling plants. Owen was manager of a Camden grocery store. Davis was a hotel clerk in Shreveport, Louisiana. The faith that Tyndle placed in them was amply repaid -- they built his flavor business.
It became evident from sales reports that grape flavors were by far the most popular with customers. A study by the Grapette marketing team revealed that there were also not very many grape flavored drinks on the market, probably because a good reproduction of the taste of fresh grapes had not been developed. So, in 1938, with the help of a group of trusted employees, Tyndle began experimenting with grape flavors in an effort to produce a flavor that matched the taste of fresh grapes. Many experiments were made with fresh grape juice, but the pasteurization process necessary for bottling inevitably foiled each attempt. It was eventually decided that the true flavor of fresh concord grapes could only be duplicated with the help of artificial flavoring. Many experiments were made with aroma producing esters, subtle acids, dextrose, and other ingredients, along with natural elements of grape juice. In the process, several unusual and desirable grape flavors were produced and marketed to others as open-stock concentrates. After nearly two years of experimentation, the special taste that was to make Grapette distinctive was finally developed.
At the same time that Tyndle began experimenting with grape flavors, he also decided to search for a new product name for the grape soft drink that he was developing. He charged Hubert Owen with the task of coming up with the new name. Owen and an assistant conducted a local contest in an effort to come up with a suitable name, but that effort was unsuccessful. In 1939, Owen went to Washington, D.C. to search the U.S. Patent Office's trademark files for a suitable name. There, he learned that a man named Rube Goldstein had filed a trademark registration for the names of "Grapette", "Lemonette", and "Orangette". Further research revealed that Goldstein owned a bottling company that operated in Virginia and North Carolina, bottling a soft drink by the name of "Tiny" which used one of Fooks' grape flavor concentrates and was bottled in a six ounce bottle. However, Goldstein had never actually used the Grapette, Lemonette, or Orangette names for his products. In March of 1940, Tyndle and Owen took the train to Chicago, where they met with Goldstein and purchased the Grapette, Lemonette, and Orangette trademarks for $500.
In the spring of 1940, the newly developed flavor was officially named Grapette and put on the market. It was an immediate success, primarily because of the authentic grape taste of the drink.
Also, the six ounce Grapette bottle itself was very innovative. It was very lightweight and clear, allowing the attractive purple drink to show through the glass. The majority of soft drinks at that time were sold in six or seven ounce bottles. Grapette was produced in six ounce bottles, but a much smaller bottle. The small size of the bottle was made possible by eliminating half of the glass normally used in similar capacity soft drink bottles. Because the bottle was thinner and had less glass, it chilled much more quickly than other bottled soft drinks. Also, the small size allowed more bottles to fit into refrigerators, ice boxes, and coolers. Bottlers were also pleased because the Grapette bottles were less expensive to purchase than those of other soft drink franchisers.
Bottled Grapette was sold in a 30-bottle case for $1.00 wholesale, whereas other soft drinks were sold in conventional 24-bottle cases for 80 cents wholesale. The Grapette case had many advantages over other cases. It was three inches shorter, yet held 25% more bottles. When filled, it weighed only 30 pounds. Competitors' 24-bottle cases typically weighed 40 to 50 pounds when filled. This allowed Grapette bottlers to use ¾ and 1 ton delivery trucks instead of the heavier trucks required by other brands.
The company's first slogan to appear on bottles, "Close to Nature", was challenged by the U.S. government because it implied that the product was natural. Hubert Owen went to Washington D.C. and met with the head of the department responsible for the challenge. It became apparent to Owen that the man was firm in his decision, so Owen asked if the man's superior might reverse the decision. The man replied that "he might, but he would call me first and see what I think". Realizing that this was a lost cause, Owen returned to Camden.
With the loss of its slogan, Tyndle began searching for another one. In less than a year, the slogan was changed to "The Reason is in the Bottle". This slogan lasted for about 6 months, being followed by "Made Just Right", then "Thirst's Best Bet". In 1944, Bryan and Bryan, a Shreveport advertising company, came up with the slogan "Thirsty or Not" which was to be used by the company up until the sale of the company in 1972.
When World War II began, Tyndle dropped many of his other flavors, including Botl-O and Sunburst, and put all of the company's efforts into the manufacture and promotion of Grapette. Even though the war caused many restrictions and shortages of materials, the sale of the Grapette product soared. In fact, the company was so successful that they added an export division in 1944.
Sugar was rationed during the war years and was particularly difficult to obtain for items considered as luxuries, such as soda pop. Tyndle is reputed to have worked around this by cleverly working with his sugar supplier. The supplier re-liquified granulated sugar by simply adding water. This allowed it to be passed as syrup, which was not rationed.
The B.T. Fooks Manufacturing Company was renamed The Grapette Company in 1946. It remained a privately held corporation.
In 1946, a new fruit flavor was added to the line to complement Grapette. Lemonette, a drink containing a considerable amount of real citrus juice, was introduced. Lemonette received a very favorable public response. Orangette, another true flavor drink containing a large portion of real orange juice, followed in 1947. The Botl-O and Sunburst lines were reintroduced in 1948, each having over 14 flavors in a single style of bottle, with the bottle cap denoting the flavor contained inside.
The original 6-ounce bottle gradually gave way to a 7-ounce, then 8, 10, and 14-ounce bottles. The "twist" was added to the previously smooth-sided bottles in 1950. The twist was added so that the consumer could distinguish a Grapette bottle submerged in an ice chest from competitors by feel.
In 1962, Grapette mounted a challenge to the Coca-Cola when it introduced the Mr. Cola line of soft drinks. Mr. Cola was immediately accepted, and was very popular. Its popularity came in large part because it introduced the 16-ounce size bottle to the public. Mr. Cola was also available in 10 and 12 ounce bottles.
In 1963, the Lymette product was added. However, Lymette never achieved the popularity of the other flavors.
At its peak, Grapette had over 600 bottlers in 38 states. A popular drink of the Grapette era was the "purple cow" -- a float made with Grapette and vanilla ice cream.
Grapette introduced its syrup product line in the fall of 1948. The original syrup product was sold in 8-ounce containers for 33 cents. A consumer could produce a very tasty non-carbonated soft drink at home by mixing one part of the syrup with seven parts of water. For 33 cents, the consumer could make a gallon of beverage.
The container itself was made in the shape of a sitting kitten or cat. The metal screw-on cap had a slot in it so that, after the container was empty, the cardboard seal under the cap could be removed and the container used as a bank. This novelty greatly added to the appeal of the new product. Because of a shortage of glass at the time, Grapette also, for a brief period, purchased and used a bear-shaped bank from Snow Crest.
However, the kitten-shaped bank turned out to have serious problems. The opening in the top of the bottle was not centered on the axis of the base, making the bottle difficult to fill with automatic filling machinery. Its irregular shape also defied machine labeling. Special 12-bottle adapters had to be built to hold the bottles in the proper place during filling. The adapters had to be loaded by hand, taken to the filler, then moved to the delivery conveyor. The caps had to be started by hand, and the labels had to be applied by hand. With all of the manual effort required, production was limited to only about 2,000 12-bottle cases per day. In the meantime, sales were so encouraging that the company began to consider national distribution of the syrup product. However, the kitten bank was an impediment to increased production that would be required to meet the demand. Therefore, the kitten bank had to be replaced.
In 1950, a new syrup bank was developed and marketed locally. The new bank was in the shape of an elephant. However, the new bank was made of much thinner glass. The result was that the bottles were very easily broken, making a sticky mess on grocers' shelves. Thus, very few of these bottles - known as "slick-eared" or "stippled" elephants - were actually produced, making them a very valuable collector's item today.
In 1953, new banks were finally introduced. These were in the shape of an elephant and a clown, and were made of much stronger glass. These were very well accepted and enabled production to increase to over 10,000 cases per day.
Tyndle first considered placing the Grapette Company on the market in 1969. However, the most aggressive suitor was the Monarch Company -- his arch rival bottler of NuGrape. Tyndle could not allow Monarch to gain ownership of the company, because he knew that would be the end of Grapette, so he withdrew his attempts to sell the company at that time.
In 1972, Fooks sold the Grapette Company to the Rheingold Corporation, which marketed Rheingold, Ruppert-Knickerbocker, and Gablinger's beers, along with several regional soft drinks in California, New Mexico, and Puerto Rico. Several major changes occurred with the sale. Rheingold changed the company name from Grapette to Flavette, and relocated the company headquarters to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The Grapette bottle was changed to a smooth side with colored dots, and the slogan was replaced with "The Juicy Soda".
Grapette's advertising had always placed a surcharge on each unit of raw syrup sold by distributors, and this surcharge was to be spent by the distributor for advertising only. Rheingold dropped this plan, placing responsibility for advertising solely in the hands of distributors. This resulted in an almost immediate drop in product sales.
In 1975 the Pepsico conglomerate began a hostile takeover of Rheingold, acquiring 80% of the company's stock. The Federal Trade Commission decided that Pepsico would control too many soft drink companies, and, as a condition of the acquisition, ordered that Pepsico divest several prominent soft drink lines. When the takeover was completed in 1977, the Grapette line was sold to Monarch, which shelved the product in favor of their own NuGrape brand.
The Monarch Company still owns the domestic rights to Grapette. In 1991, Grapette was released in a few areas to again compete against its old rival NuGrape. The Grapette product also made a brief reappearance, being sold by Walmart stores under the name of "Ozark Farms Sparkling Grape" and "Walmart Grape". It has also been reported that Grapette is currently being marketed with the name "Mello Moon" by a bottler in Paragould, Arkansas. It has also been reported that Monarch itself is again marketing a drink called Grapette Grape Soda, but that it is not the formula known by true connoisseurs of the "real thing".
Grapette became internationally known in 1942 when R. Paul May, a wealthy oil man, persuaded Tyndle to let him develop a market in Latin America. May sold his first franchise in Guatemala City in 1945, and other Latin American franchises soon followed. Armed with his bottling know-how and the foreign rights to market Grapette, May formed Grapette International in 1962. Grapette International has continued to sell and market internationally. Still a popular drink abroad, 70 million bottles of Grapette and other Grapette products are sold annually in South America and Pacific rim countries.
Grapette International is now owned by the Brooks Rice family, and is headquartered in Hot Springs, Arkansas.