Happy 100th Birthday Faygo; Flavorful soda made POP-ular in Detroit still has kick

Detroit – March 2nd 2007 – Which way did he go? Which way did he go? He went for Faaaaygooooooo!”

That jingle takes many baby boomers in Metro Detroit back to those black-and-white, animated Faygo Kid television commercials of the 1950s.

Then there’s the “Faygo Boat Song,” a memory for another generation. That 1970s commercial featured everyday people on a Boblo Island boat singing “Remember when you were a kid? Well, part of you still is. And that’s why we make Faygo.”

These are among the lasting memories of Faygo Beverages, a Detroit brand that celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Faygo was founded by two Russian immigrants — bakers — who adapted cake frosting recipes into a unique carbonated soft drink that’s still sold today.

Faygo is more than a Detroit icon. Its beverages are bottled in Detroit and at plants across the country. Redpop, Rock & Rye, Creme Soda and up to 42 other flavors are sold in most states east of the Mississippi River. Its all-time best-seller? Redpop.

Over the years, Faygo has held onto its niche in the competitive beverage market, up against giants like Coke and Pepsi and a wide array of new drinks, from bottled water to energy beverages.

“It’s not unusual for a soft drink company to be around for 100 years. Coke, Pepsi and Cadbury Schweppes have done it,” said John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest. “The soft drink industry is a very old industry. It’s been around for a long time. It’s an industry that has brands with very deep roots into the American culture.”

Faygo remains a small brand with a loyal following.

“Our strength continues to be our flavors,” said Al Chittaro, executive vice president of Faygo in Detroit. “Colas are decreasing in popularity while flavors are increasing. The Faygo consumer is looking for us to come up with fun flavors every year.”

Faygo keeps its appeal fresh by sometimes adding two or three new blends each year, said Chittaro, who has been with the company 33 years.

It began as family affair

Brothers Ben and Perry Feigenson began bottling fruit punch, strawberry and grape soda at a factory on Pingree in 1907. They made a batch one day and sold it the next — 3 cents a bottle — from a horse-drawn wagon.

Initially called Feigenson Brothers Bottling Works, the pair changed the name to Faygo in 1921. Their surname was too long and too expensive to fit on a bottle label. In 1935, the company moved to a new bottling plant on Gratiot, which is still in use today and employs about 400 workers.

The brothers ran Faygo until the mid-1940s, when they turned it over to their sons.

Faygo remained in the family until it was sold to National Beverage Corp. in 1987. The Florida company, which also sells Shasta, LaCroix and PowerBlast brands, has about 2.4 percent of the non-alcoholic beverage market. The company declined to divulge production or sales figures for Faygo.

Until the late 1950s, Faygo was marketed only in Detroit and Michigan because its products had a limited shelf life, said Matthew Rosenthal, director of marketing for Detroit Faygo and grandson of founder Ben Feigenson.

The company tapped chemists to figure out the reason. It turned out ingredients in the water — while not harmful — limited the life of the fizz.

So, the chemists designed a filtering system that purified the water and stretched the shelf life to more than a year.

Besides the filtering system, Faygo is credited with creating the twist-off cap, now used industrywide.

The company also was the first to refer to soda as ‘pop,’ inspired by the pop sound when the cap is removed.

Faygo’s popularity exploded regionally in the late 1960s, when the company began advertising during Detroit Tigers broadcasts.

“That’s when it ballooned into other states,” Rosenthal said.

Over the years, packaging has changed from returnable bottles in wood crates to throwaway bottles to plastic containers, said Forest Bryson, vice president of store delivery and a 38-year employee.

And today, Faygo trucks transport more than Redpop.

They deliver non-carbonated items and other products from National Beverage Corp.’s catalogue.

It’s a way of staying competitive in the industry, he said.

Now, it’s a family tradition

Collin LaLonde, 44, of Birmingham, grew up drinking Rock & Rye, his dad’s favorite flavor. Now, his wife and four children enjoy Faygo.

“It’s sort of a tradition in our family to drink Faygo,” said LaLonde, who owns a recruiting firm. “Not only do I enjoy Faygo, but it gives me a warm feeling inside — it’s one of few things left that can take you back in time to reflect.”

The family of Leroy Burgess, 35, of Auburn Hills, all drink Faygo.

“It’s an institution in Detroit,” said Burgess, a computer help desk technician. “Although it’s available in many states, we know where it all started right here in Detroit. That makes a difference to my family.”

Faygo flavors

As part of the company’s 100-year celebration, Faygo held a contest to design a new label and create a new taste.

Almost 10,000 entries were received. A fourth-grade teacher from Ohio was chosen as the winner and received a $2,500 prize.

The new flavor will be out in about a month.

Company officials said it will be called Centennial Soda, but they would not hint at its taste.

Advances in technology have enabled Faygo chemists to deliver almost any new taste. And customers send new ideas for flavors every day.

A flavor panel meets quarterly to mull suggestions for new tastes and to evaluate existing flavors, sometimes pulling not-so-popular sellers off the market.