Arts & Life
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Which pop do you pick when you pick a pop? For many Winnipeggers, the answer to that question, especially in bygone days, was not Coca-Cola or Mountain Dew, but appropriately enough, Pic-a-Pop.
In its heyday of the 1970s and ’80s, Pic-a-Pop, with its bevy of bright-hued varieties — apple, black cherry, blue razzberry, cola, cream soda, grape, grapefruit, lime rickey, orange, and strawberry, among others — became one of those "Winnipeg" things, akin to Jeanne’s cake, Kub rye bread, and honey dill sauce. Perhaps it was simply the rainbow of colours that caught the eye and enticed a buy.
Getting Pic-a-Pop was a bit more involved than just plucking it off a grocery store shelf. There were dedicated depots around the city, wholesale stores ’Tobans toted orange trays — filled with glass bottles — to so they could select the exact variety of pops they wanted.
The brand was the brainchild of Helmut Sass, a Winnipegger who, in 1971 along with his father-in-law Joseph Lepholtz, "innocently ventured into the soft drink industry… to compete with the giants," a 1973 Free Press feature on the then-burgeoning business said.
By 1974, an ad in the Free Press boasted six locations in addition to the bottling plant at 33 Stapleton St. in East Elmwood. The plant was turning out 3,500 cases per day and the franchise was selling 500,000 cases annually.
I visited the Facebook group "If you grew up in Winnipeg Manitoba you remember…" to see what people a few years his senior remembered about the drink. I quickly discovered a weekly outing to these stores was a ritual anticipated by many.
There’s certainly a palpably nostalgic association with the brand; my post garnered more than 100 comments and stories in just a few hours.
"I was a tween in the mid-to-late 70s and early 80s," commented Murray Hudon. "Our local shop was on Main and Burrin. The Pic-a-Pop was an at least weekly visit, partly for the pop, partly because my Mom became friends with one of the owners."
"They would stack cases, floor-to-ceiling, in the plastic totes, row upon row," he explained of the stores. "It was rare for them to be out of any particular flavour."
Hudon’s favourite was cream soda, "despite being so sweet your teeth would hurt," with black cherry being his second pick. Hudon also reported lime rickey as being perfect for what he called the "North End version of a gin ricky, with lemon gin."
Using Pic-a-Pop as mix was a bit of a recurring theme — another commenter, Lee Tavares, said her dad would cut his "very strong" homemade wine with Pop-Up, Pic-a-Pop’s version of 7Up.
Carol Townsley, Lisa Thompson, Donna Hurd, and Erin Hilderman shared similar memories.
"I remember the excitement of driving to the store on Salter to pick out the flavours for a case to take out to the lake on holidays," Townsley commented. "It was a huge treat as we never had pop in the house."
"I was always excited to go to my brother’s and sis-in-law’s," Thompson said, as they always were well-stocked. "If my brother picked me up early on a Saturday it would just be me and him going to get Pic-a-Pop. As a child it was the most fun shopping trip. We never came back with just one case as my brother always let me pick and always told me you need to get at least three of each flavour you pick.
"You were always the coolest kid on the block walking around outside with a Pic-a-Pop."
Hurd’s memories are so fond, the company even factored into her wedding.
"My grandpa would always get a barrel full of Pic-a-Pop for our cabin’s yearly picnic," Hurd said. "The memories are so wonderful that my husband and I gave Pic-a-Pop favours to our wedding guests."
Pic-a-Pop was a special treat for Hilderman on Saturday nights when her folks would go out and leave her and her siblings with a sitter.
"Add some Old Dutch chips and you’ve got an award-winning combo," she commented. "Sarsaparilla was the best. The biggest thrill was going with Dad to the Pic-a-Pop store to pick the flavours."
Charlene Gray, who reached out from Devils Lake, N.D., said her mom and two of her aunts were Pic-a-Pop store managers. Her mom ran the Ness Avenue and Roseberry Street location in the mid-’70s and early ’80s.
Of course, Gray and her siblings worked there too. Charlene started when she was sixteen.
"I think my mother and I both enjoyed meeting people," she recalled, reporting cola, grape, and Pop-Up as her favourite flavours. "My brothers, sisters and I learned to give and promote good customer service from both my parents. That work ethic is still with us today."
Kelly Anne commented she and her brothers used to save up the empties and redeem them at the Kingsbury Avenue and McPhillips Street outlet for penny candy.
Alan Slusky — who worked at that very location as a teen between 1980 and ’82 — and his co-workers enjoyed a mix of youthful tomfoolery and working "our tails off on the weekend," he told the reporter.
Slusky began at the William and Isabel location in 1979 at the tender age of 15, landing the gig thanks to his school guidance councillor, before moving to the Kingsbury store.
"Minimum wage was $2.10 and it felt like a king’s ransom…" he said. "I remember a few games of baseball with the broom and some of those Pic-a-Pop-branded stoppers for the bigger (750 ml) bottles." As an aside, some commenters mentioned the stoppers would fly off the bottles if left on too long.
"Our manager would always ask us how come she was finding these strewn about in the pallets of cases throughout the store," he said. "Of course, we always played dumb."
Slusky’s favourite flavours were orange and lime rickey, but when he worked the morning shift, he’d start his day with a grapefruit one. He said cola and Pop-Up were the biggest sellers.
Janie Forest was also a Pic-a-Pop store employee in high school, working the Henderson Highway outlet near Leighton Avenue. Like Slusky, she drank her fair share of the stuff.
"One of the ‘perks’ of working for Pic-a-Pop was drinking as much pop as you wanted while you were working and I considered myself a Pic-a-Pop connoisseur," she commented. "I guess I overdid it and to this day have a hard time drinking any pop except the occasional ginger ale. Pic-a-Pop ginger ale was and still is the best ginger ale I ever tasted."
Perhaps the reason so many made Pic-a-Pop their sweet drink selection was because it was cheap and cheerful in a wholesale town. In 1972, a case of 24 10-ounce bottles was a paltry $1.60 (that works out to less than seven cents each.)
Pic-a-Pop, at its height, had 15 Winnipeg locations and another 15 scattered around Manitoba, and also established a presence in western Canada. However, it was eventually done in by expanding supermarket house brands, with some commenters opining the widespread availability of two-litre bottles also contributed to its demise.
In 1996, the bottling plant closed. For a decade thereafter, Pic-a-Pop was out of sight, but not out of mind.
Pic-a-Pop was revived in late 2005. That’s when Bart Hruda — who owned the now-defunct Sugar Mountain candy stores on Corydon Avenue and in the train car at The Forks and kept getting requests from the customers of his retro sweets shops to revive the brand — acquired it from a man in Texas.
Hruda, who received recipes for more than 40 flavours — and even unopened Pic-a-Pops from before the shutdown — had success with it, despite marketing it as a premium soda that cost about $1.50 per bottle.
Dale Doucette, a Sugar Mountain manager at the time, recalled the drinks flying off the shelves upon relaunch.
"We really underestimated Winnipeg’s desire for its return," he said. "We sold out of 10,000 bottles in only a couple of hours and the only reason it took that long was because Bart had to keep making runs to pick up from where it was stored and I am only one person and I was the one selling."
By 2008, Pic-A-Pop was in 135 Manitoba retailers and a few dozen in Saskatchewan and Ontario with Hruda hoping to sell 50,000 bottles that year.
Unfortunately, the bottler, Angostura Canada, shut down its Winnipeg plant in 2009 and that halted Pic-a-Pop’s production once again.
Hruda didn’t give up. The second revival began in 2014 when Hruda sold the brand to Peter De Jong, owner of Canadian Gold Beverages in Marchand. It’s stuck around for six years now.
De Jong is not like the longtime Winnipeggers who have childhood memories of Pic-A-Pop. He emigrated to Canada from the Netherlands in 1997 — the year after Pic-a-Pop ceased production — but said he heard a lot of people talking about it.
In 2012, De Jong restarted a shuttered bottling plant in the southeast Manitoba community and was approached by Hruda shortly after. One thing De Jong found attractive about Pic-a-Pop was that it had always been Manitoba-produced.
A test batch in October 2014, distributed to various local retailers, sold out in less than a week and they’ve never looked back. Currently, you can find Pic-a-Pop at Manitoba Food Fare, Giant Tiger, Red River Co-op, Safeway, Save-On-Foods and Sobeys grocery stores, and at Co-op stores in Saskatchewan and Alberta too.
De Jong has tried to preserve the things that made Pic-a-Pop so popular in the past.
"We didn’t change the formula at all," he said when reached by phone at the bottling plant. The soda is even made with natural cane sugar, "as it was before," instead of high-fructose corn syrup.
He’s also tried to preserve the low price point. Most stores carry it for 99 cents per bottle (not quite as cheap as 50 years ago, but still pretty affordable.)
"We know Manitobans like a good deal; it’s simple," De Jong said.
However, not quite everything is as it once was. The bottles, produced in Manitoba, are plastic rather than glass, and the cap is a twist off.
De Jong explained the move to plastic was partly because of safety concerns about people breaking bottles and leaving broken glass around, and partly because many store owners don’t want to carry glass bottles. Although some commenters expressed that Pic-a-Pop in plastic just isn’t the same, when Canadian Gold did a limited run of glass bottles, they didn’t sell well.
Canadian Gold produces 11 flavours. In addition to the classics, the company introduced a few new tastes — Canadian maple and Tahiti fruit delite — and are still looking to expand the selection of original flavours based on customer comments.
De Jong said the most popular three are blue razzberry, black cherry, and lime. His personal favourite is orange, "maybe because I’m Dutch," he laughed.
De Jong was tougher to crack than a glass bottle without an opener when it came to exact sales numbers. He did reveal that every year, production increases by seven to eight per cent.
Overall, De Jong is happy to produce a drink so many in the province are nostalgic about. He enjoys when customers reach out when they’re making slushies and floats at home or otherwise enjoying their favourite fizz.
"We get a lot of positive response… people send pictures on the beach and when they’re relaxing on the deck with a drink and that’s really nice," he said. "I’m a proud Manitoban and we like to have some things from Manitoba… my goal as an owner is not to be a big corporation. We’re happy where we are."
While the new generation won’t get the chance to go to Pic-a-Pop stores like folks did in the ’70s and ’80s, young people have embraced it too.
"There’s a lot of young kids sending pictures, oh!" De Jong exclaimed. "There’s a ton of teenagers sending picture with Pic-a-Pop. Amazing."
So the question off the top remains: which pop do you pick when you pick a pop? Perhaps next time you’re in the grocery store you’ll pick Pic-a-Pop, either to relive fond memories or create new ones.
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