Brian Alger has the gleeful air of a kid in a candy factory as he watches bottles of Pop Shoppe soda roll down the production line. The noise of machinery and clinking glass is deafening as he strides around the snaking conveyor, pointing out how the bottles first go through a rinser before being filled with fizzy liquid—Black Cherry at the moment—capped, rinsed again and finally plopped onto trays of 12. These are then loaded onto 132-case pallets that rise in rainbow-coloured mountains by the shipping bays.
“It was touch and go if we could do the run,” Alger yells over the cacophony, “because we weren’t sure we’d get the bottles in time.” The clear “stubbie” bottles were custom-designed—at the cost of a quarter-million dollars—to resemble those used by the original Pop Shoppe in the 1970s.
Back then, the Canadian discount soda was a staple of family life, requiring weekend runs to neighbourhood Pop Shoppe depots to refill two-fours with Lime Ricky and Cream Soda. What Alger is doing today is bottling nostalgia. Eight years ago, on a lark, the now 41-year-old entrepreneur started to re-register the lapsed trademarks for the Pop Shoppe. Two years later, he relaunched it—sans shoppes—as a premium brand, tapping into boomers’ and Gen-Xers’ fond memories and appealing to kids’ penchant for retro cool.
And he pulled it off: Last year, the Pop Shoppe sold more than six million bottles, making it Canada’s second-best-selling premium soda, ahead of Dad’s and Stewart’s and just behind Jones—all of them U.S. brands, and all of them, it bears noting, mere drops compared to the oceans of sugar water peddled by Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo.
Even given his surname, Alger’s bootstrap success story is downright improbable for at least three reasons: 1) Alger knew absolutely zero about beverage production or sales when he started; 2) soda is about as cutthroat a business as you’ll find; and 3) Alger is a one-man operation—no employees, no headquarters, just him directing his various suppliers and partners out of a lakeside home office in the fruit-belt town of Grimsby, Ontario. Most days, he’s done by 1 p.m. Stefan Kergl, vice-president of sales at Beverage World Inc., the Pop Shoppe’s national distributor, laughs at the mention of Alger’s extreme outsourcing. Asked if, in his 25 years in the business, he’s ever seen such a bare-bones operation, Kergl answers, “Never.”
But that’s Canada; the entire premium soda market here is worth only about $25 million. Alger’s manifest destiny from the start has been to invade the United States. Just how challenging is it to launch a new brand of this quintessential American consumer item? “Very,” says Darin Ezra, the CEO of Power Brands, a Los Angeles-based beverage consultancy. “Very. And one more ‘very,’ just for luck.” There are some 200 premium sodas in the U.S., most of them regional products. And most have seen their sales hammered by consumers’ recessionary belt-tightening. The best-known, Jones Soda, is bleeding red ink and has rejected a low-ball offer from a competitor that is also losing money.
A stroll around the production plant that manufactures Alger’s pop doesn’t inspire great confidence about international expansion. The 60-year-old facility in North Toronto starred as a South American bottling plant in the 2008 flick The Incredible Hulk (that’s Lime Ricky on the line behind Ed Norton), and it’s easy to see why: The pools of water on the concrete floor, the rattling equipment, the faded green walls are all “Third World factory” out of central casting.
Alger’s well aware of the unimpressive surroundings and, as we circumnavigate the massive metal vats of water and sugar and step around pools of red soda swirling into a drain, he explains, somewhat apologetically, that this is one of very few plants in the area that still bottle in glass. And the new stubbie is a key part of the packaging that Alger wanted to nail down before tackling the States. A rep from the bottle manufacturer is here today, checking how the glass performs on the line. Eyeing a bucket of broken bottles, she says, “That’s normal.” Perhaps, but it’s tempting to read it as a metaphor for Canadian entrepreneurs’ American dreams.
Brian Alger may be smart, enterprising and shrewd, but he’s also damn lucky. In fact, there’s an element of Forrest Gump-like serendipity in the man’s soda adventure. He’s the first to admit that he knew nothing and no one when he got it in his head to relaunch the Pop Shoppe. Yet the first person to offer him encouragement and contacts was none other than the late Don Watt.
A trade magazine editor had suggested that if Alger wanted a consultant, Watt would be a good guy to try. Only after Alger had made the call did he look up Watt and discover that the man who’d just invited him over to his house was the legendary graphic designer who, with Dave Nichol, kick-started the private-label revolution by introducing President’s Choice at Loblaws. Over coffee and macaroons, Watt told him, “You have something here, true brand equity.”