World War I had a dramatic impact on the soft drink industry in North Carolina. The war years presented a hardship to Pepsi-Cola but opened a window of opportunity for Cheerwine.
Pepsi was created in 1893 in New Bern by Caleb Davis Bradham, who owned a pharmacy downtown. At first, it was simply called “Brad’s Drink,” a flavored sugar-water sold at the soda fountain.
By 1898, the beverage had become known as Pepsi-Cola, as Bradham professed the drink with its secret ingredients was more than a refreshment but also aided digestion, known as dyspepsia.
Everything was going swimmingly for Bradham in the new 20th century. He formally formed the Pepsi-Cola Company in 1902, and by 1910, there were 240 Pepsi bottling franchises in 24 states. The company was on the move.
Beginning about 1917, however, during the peak of World War I, sugar rationing in the United States took a big bite out of Pepsi profits. The company tried using other sweeteners to make its syrup, but the taste was always inferior to the original. The future looked bleak.
About the same time, along came Cheerwine, a new soft drink product with a unique flavor.
When Kentucky’s Maysville Syrup Company, the producer of Mint Cola, went bankrupt, Lewis D. Peeler bought the company and moved it to his hometown of Salisbury in 1917.
That same year, Peeler purchased a recipe for a black cherry flavored soda from a St. Louis salesman who had come calling. The formula was high in carbonation but low in sugar, ideal during the wartime sugar shortage.
Peeler named his new beverage Cheerwine. “Cheer” was for the pleasure it induced, and “wine” was for its deep red or burgundy wine-like color.
After the World War I ended in 1918, sugar prices in the United States initially soared from 3 cents to 28 cents per pound. Pepsi’s Bradham gambled that sugar would only go up in price, so he purchased a vast inventory of sugar at top-dollar.
As the market corrected itself, Bradham realized he was in a serious bind and could not dig out. Pepsi-Cola went bankrupt in 1923. Assets were sold to Craven Holding Corporation. A merger with Old Dominion Beverage Company of Richmond, Va., formed the new Pepsi-Cola Corporation.
Over the years, the new Pepsi company soldiered on, becoming an international corporation, far exceeding its Southern raising. This was good news for shareholders, as Pepsi and its chief competitor, Coca-Cola (Georgia-born), are now global giants.
So be it. Cheerwine, however, has stayed loyal to the South and takes great pride in being “the oldest continuing soft drink company still run by the same family.”
Peeler’s great-grandson, Cliff Ritchie is now running the show as CEO at Cheerwine. He said the company gets no respect as a soft drink manufacturer, because people think Cheerwine is some sort of a wine product.
In 1992, The Wall Street Journal reported federal regulators “were accusing Cheerwine of encouraging teens to drink alcohol. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms quickly backed off after a preliminary investigation. A bureau spokesman acknowledged, “Cheerwine is wine like root beer is beer.”
Cheerwine’s centennial celebration in 2017 reveled in the fact that consumers in all 50 states across America now had access to Cheerwine products.
Jimmy Tomlin, writing for Our State magazine, doesn’t have the same enthusiasm for Cheerwine’s expansion. He said: “Here in North Carolina, we can’t help but feel a little possessive when it comes to Cheerwine, and that’s especially true for those of us who grew up drinking it. We’re proud to claim it as our own, and we’re not sure we want to share what we have … with anyone else.”
“Even as the soft drink reached all 50 states, there’s one thing we can claim about our Cheerwine that the rest of the country cannot. It tastes like home. It tastes like North Carolina,” he said.
Author Liz Childers, a regular contributor to Thrillist.com, simply says: “Cheerwine is the nectar of North Carolina.”
Cheerwine has diversified. The company has teamed with Food Lion, the Salisbury-based grocery chain, to introduce Cheerwine ice cream products in Food Lion super markets, Childers noted.
Furthermore, she said, every now and then, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, also rooted in North Carolina, will produce a batch of Cheerwine Kreme doughnuts to sell in its stores for limited time only.
Krispy Kreme is Another N.C. Staple
Krispy Kreme Doughnuts came to Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1937, relocating from Paducah, Ky.
At age 18, Vernon Carver Rudolph went to work in a Paducah doughnut shop owned by his uncle who had purchased the business in 1933 from a French chef from New Orleans named Joe LeBoeuf. With the assets came the secret yeast-raised doughnut recipe.
Seeking a larger market in which to base their operations, the family first moved its doughnut company to Nashville, Tenn.
In 1937, Rudolph set out on his own and arrived in Winston-Salem, where he rented a small building across from Salem Academy and College in what is now historic Old Salem.
His plan was to sell Krispy Kreme Doughnuts exclusively to grocery stores … but they smelled so good.
People began stopping by the little factory to ask if they could buy hot doughnuts. The demand was so great that Rudolph opened a retail business by cutting a hole in the wall and selling doughnuts directly to customers, marking the beginning of Krispy Kreme’s retail service.
(It may have been America’s first “walk-up window.”)
Here’s the essence of Krispy Kreme: The dough goes through the company’s proprietary air-pressurized extruder and gets formed into perfect rings, which then must “proof” for about 30 minutes.
Proofing occurs in the proof box as the doughnut shapes circulate up and down and round and round at a temperature between 95° to 100°.
Then, the doughnuts are allowed to dry off at least 5 minutes before frying. They are floated into shortening that has been heated to 375° for about 1 minute, before being mechanically flipped to let the underside attain a golden brown color.
Next comes the parade of doughnuts through the Krispy Kreme waterfall of warm sugar glaze. At this point, the Krispy Kremes are an ideal temperature for immediate consumption. The chief baker commands that the “hot doughnuts” neon sign be flashed on, and everyone who is connected online begins streaming to their nearest KK store.
There are more than 1,000 KK retail outlets now in the United States, and the company began to expand internationally in 2001. At last count, you could buy Krispy Kremes in two dozen foreign countries.