When Mary Jane Zdila got married in 1974, her wedding guests guzzled cases of Natrona Bottling Co.’s Red Ribbon soda pop.
“I grew up on the stuff,” she says.
For the last 15 years, the Natrona Heights native has served as office manager for the company, which started manufacturing suds in 1904. It still operates out of the same modest building on River Avenue.
On a recent morning, the place teemed with activity. Phones rang off the hook, semi-trucks idled outside and glass receptacles clinked and clanked on their journey down the archaic bottling line.
The vintage equipment – which is one of only a few such contraptions left in the country – cranks out about 50 bottles per minute using pure cane sugar and “pinpoint carbonation,” a method that utilizes dry ice to create tiny, Champagne-style bubbles. It’s a slow process, but a time-honored tradition instituted by founder Ed Welsh and overseen by Master Bottler Steve Vokish, who has worked at Natrona Bottling Co. for 43 years.
“I’m a very nostalgic person,” says President Vito Gerasole, 35. “We come from a time when each town had their own brand of soda pop. We’re the last of a dying breed and I like it like that.”
Gerasole, of Aspinwall, can often be seen riding around in his 1964 Ford Econoline, a green van with the words “Drink Red Ribbon” hand painted on the side in white letters (never mind the fact that the company once touted itself as the “Mercedes Benz of Soda Pop”).
Industry giants Coke and Pepsi started driving out mom-and-pop soda businesses in the 1960s. During that era, longtime owner Paul Bowser, who died in 2008, was able to keep the business afloat thanks to a steady stream of loyal customers, old-timers who wanted to recapture their youth one sip at a time.
Today, the retro look and taste of the pop is attracting a new generation of consumers.
“What’s old is new,” Zdila says. “Old-fashioned cocktails like Moscow Mules and the Dark and Stormy are making a comeback. Breweries and distilleries have made a remarkable difference as far as craft pop is concerned. They’ve gone hand-in-hand.”
Natrona Bottling produces 14 different effervescent flavors, ranging from Pennsylvania punch, grape and almond cream to cherry, mint julep and three styles of ginger beer. A cola and a lemon beverage currently are in the works.
The fizzy drinks are distributed in grocery stores, restaurants and bars throughout the contiguous United States. During local craft beer festivals, designated drivers (or attendees who just need a break from quaffing brews) can enjoy one of Natrona Bottling Co.’s non-alcoholic elixirs.
“It’s a niche product,” Gerasole says. “It’s fun to be able to say we are one of only a handful of companies like this in the country.”