In July 2017, Picture this

By Marc Barnes

Let’s start with the name. What’s emblazoned on the iconic glass bottle isn’t precisely what’s inside — Cheerwine, the soda with a cult following, has zero alcohol. What it does have is the same cherry-flavored proprietary recipe crafted in Salisbury in 1917. Long before Cherry Coke, L.D. Peeler was the first to bottle cherry soda.

Beating back hot North Carolina summers for 100 years, Cheerwine still tastes the same. The concentrate is still made in Salisbury, where Peeler’s great-grandson, Cliff Ritchie, oversees three companies with about 500 employees across the Carolinas. Cheerwine owns the trademark and manufactures the concentrate; Carolina Beverage Corp. supplies soft drinks from 10 company-owned distribution centers; and Independent Beverage Corp. makes private-label soft drinks for grocery and drugstore chains and does contract bottling for various other soft-drink companies.

Ritchie, 62, has moved up considerably from his first job at 14 when he sorted and washed returned bottles. His second cousin, Mac McQueen, is vice president for trade development, responsible for private-label business. His two oldest children, Carl Ritchie and Joy Ritchie Harper, are the fifth generation to work in the family business. Their great-great-grandfather bought into Kentucky-based Mint-Cola Bottling, but like all soft-drink bottlers, Peeler was facing sugar shortages because of rationing during World War I. He found that substituting wild-cherry flavoring would make soda sweet enough to keep consumers happy. Pre-Prohibition fervor inspired the name — it’s no coincidence that soda titans The Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo, not to mention competitors such as Mountain Dew, Dr Pepper, Barq’s and Big Red, were born in the South as alcoholic beverages largely fell out of favor. Thus, you also had the rise of root beer and ginger ale, which have about as much in common with beer and ale as Cheerwine has with wine.

But soda isn’t the only product Salisbury exports. “The biggest thing we sell by far is the original flavor,” which can be found in barbecue sauce, ice cream and cake mixes, Ritchie says. Cheerwine paired with a Triad-based company to create a Cheerwine-flavored Krispy Kreme doughnut and, vice versa, a Krispy Kreme-flavored Cheerwine soda that led one fan to tweet, “This is big news for you if a diabetic coma is on your #bucketlist.”

Ritchie doesn’t disclose sales or production totals of any of his products. Beverage Industry magazine estimated 2015 sales at $182 million, placing the company at No. 78 on its list of top 100 beverage companies with distribution in the U.S. Ritchie says 2016 was Cheerwine’s best year by sales and volume, even as soda consumption slipped. “The markets are saturated with Coke and Pepsi,” he says, “so where are they going to grow? We are not as mature, and we’ve gotten into new markets.”

Cheerwine’s regional exclusivity has been part of its success and cult-like reputation. Before the rise of online shopping, homesick Southerners living in other parts of the country had to stock up on trips south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Today, thanks to distribution agreements, sometimes with rival PepsiCo, the “nectar of North Carolina” can be found in all 50 states, though there is wide variation in its availability. Buyers in the Midwest, for example, can find it in Kroger grocery stores, but in other parts of the country, fans must seek out Cheerwine at specialty stores or restaurants with roots in the South such as Tennessee-based Cracker Barrel.

Cheerwine has faced Coca-Cola and Pepsi at the fountain in the complicated and competitive business of offering products at restaurants and movie theaters, exclusive contracts that may cover a restaurant chain’s nationwide footprint. If Coke or Pepsi installed the fountain equipment at a restaurant or theater, those businesses typically are required to use their products.

Soda makers are fighting a different battle as more Americans turn away from carbonated drinks — for the first time, sales of bottled water surpassed soft drinks last year. The American Beverage Association has begun a campaign to demonstrate to consumers concerned about sugar’s health effects that reduced-calorie choices are available. Ritchie, who is on the board of the trade group, supports the effort because of what he terms an unfair attack in the form of soda taxes on the entire industry. A better solution, he says, is to enjoy soft drinks in moderation. Cheerwine saw flat sales of its diet soda last year while sales of its traditional flavor grew 15%.

Given  the challenges, will Cheerwine consider selling out? Cliff Ritchie’s response is a quick no. He points out that it is rare for a family-owned company to survive past the third generation, much less the fifth.

So will there be a sixth generation coming in to take over? “I’d bet on it,” Ritchie says.

Historic photos courtesy of Cheerwine; 2017 photos by Mike Belleme

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