Sunday, April 19, 2009

'Soda kingdom' helps the little guy

When John Nese talks about freedom of choice, he is not talking about politics, he is talking about soda.

“Our choices as free people are being taken away and we don’t even know they’re being taken away,” Nese said.

Nese, the owner of Galco’s Soda Pop Stop in Highland Park had an idea that some thought might never work, but 11 years and 500 varieties of sodas later he has become a success.

One of the several aisles in the store, this aisle includes everything from vanilla soda to birch beer, a soda made from birch trees.

Galco’s, which started in 1897 in Los Angeles as an Italian market, has for 11 years been the place to go for great sandwiches and of course unique drinks and candies. Nese said that business as an Italian market was going downhill because the area’s population of Italians was disappearing so he looked into something else to do to stay open.

He turned his Italian market into the Soda Pop Stop. The original focus of the new Galco’s was bringing the old soda brands back, but now the assortment has grown to more than 500 different sodas, new, old and all unique.

Nese’s father, who, at the age of 8, used to sell newspapers outside the original market in Los Angeles, became partners with one of the original owners in the 1940s. He moved the store to its current location in Highland Park in 1955 and he ran the market until he was 95. Nese’s mother worked at the store until she was 90.

“We open avenues for little companies to be creative and get their products out,” Nese said. “There’s a lot of gratification in what we do.”

Nese said that the big companies such as Coke and Pepsi buy shelf space in the big chain stores and therefore dictate what products are sold. By doing so, they eliminate the smaller competition and the little bottlers have nowhere to go to sell their products.

“They’re chopping out creativity and ingenuity,” Nese said.

Nese pulls out a bottle of one of the unique sodas, the rose soda, available at his store. Nese said the Rose soda is something not typically found in the United States.

“I thought it was an interesting concept and idea,” Robert Spector said.

Spector is the author of “The Mom and Pop Store,” scheduled to be released later this year and he is best known for writing “The Nordstrom Way.”

His new book is about small businesses and he is including Galco’s. Spector said he did interviews with about 40 small businesses for his new book.

“It’s kind of like a jewel in the neighborhood,” Charles Villalobos, a longtime customer said. “It’s like an institution.”

Villalobos said he has been frequenting the store since he was 8. He remembers when the store was an Italian market and he did not think that the new store would work.

The grocery sign still stands tall next to the store. Galco's still offers a selection of delicious sandwiches and salads.

“I used to think ‘yeah right, whose going to buy your sodas,’ now I want to go there even more,” Villalobos said.

“He turned that place into the soda kingdom,” Villalobos said.

Spector said he found out about Galco’s after reading an article about the store in the “New York Times” food section.

“For stores like his to survive, they have to be able to change and adapt,” Spector said.

“People like John Nese are the heroes of the community,” Spector said. “ They give us a connection to the community.”

“He said he was going to go down doing what he loved,” Spector said. “I found that charming and heroic.”

“Would you rather hear about Main Street or Wall Street?” Spector asked.

When Nese graduated from college his father asked him what he was going to do and he replied that he wanted to work at the market.

“He looked at me and said ‘go for the money,’” Nese said. “I said ‘no pop, I want to work here.’”

“Everybody says ‘you’re a workaholic,’ but how can I be a workaholic when I’m enjoying it?” Nese said. “I’m playing all the time.”

“Sometimes I get tired, but I remember that at the end of the day I’m pretty much free to call my own shots,” Nese said.

“Very early on it was the nostalgia,” Nese said. “Now kids are bringing their parents.”

The assortment of candies is displayed in produce displays along the wall. There are many old favorites such as bubble gum cigarettes and wax bottles.

Nese said that he will guide his customers in the store, but he never tries to influence their decisions.

“There’s not just one way to look at anything,” Nese said. “There’s more than one best.”

“I’ll point the way, but I won’t make the decision for you,” Nese said.

“The whole idea is that the choice is yours,” Nese said. “That’s why we sell by the bottle.”

One of the companies that Nese buys soda from could not get his product on the shelf anymore because of the big companies like Coke and Pepsi.

Nese said his store is different because he tells the companies he works with not to be afraid of the competition.

“That has been key,” Nese said. “I let them know they don’t have to fear the guy next to them.”

He said that because all of the products are so unique a customer may be looking at one drink and then see something else totally new and buy that too. It is a win win situation for both products.

“You’re not going to find egg creams in the grocery store,” Nese said.

An egg cream soda is not the only unique soda shoppers will find at Galco’s Soda Pop Stop.

Other flavors include birch beer, made from birch trees, rose soda, cucumber soda, celery soda, banana soda and blackberry soda with pieces of blackberry at the bottom of the bottle.

And do not forget about all of the other things available at Galco’s. Nese’s store also offers more than 470 different beers and a variety of old fashioned and hard to find candies including Mallo Cups, Candy Buttons and Charleston Chews.

The next time you have a craving for soda or candy, go to Galco’s and you will find exactly what you are looking for and maybe something you would have never thought of.

Gas: About $2
Parking: Free
Sodas, candy and sandwich: About $20
Total amount spent: About $22