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Brian Alger, the 41-year-old entrepreneur who re-registered the lapsed trademarks for the Pop Shoppe. (Hamin Lee/Hamin Lee)
Brian Alger, the 41-year-old entrepreneur who re-registered the lapsed trademarks for the Pop Shoppe. (Hamin Lee/Hamin Lee)

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Retro cool: Entrepreneur revives the Pop Shoppe Add to ...

Yet Alger doesn’t hide the fact that what he’d like best is to get taken out. He speaks enviously of Zico, a California maker of coconut water that sold a minority stake of itself to Coke and a team of investors for $15 million (U.S.). “It drives me bananas to see the companies [Coke and Pepsi]are going after,” says Alger. “Who’s going to drink coconut water? And that guy is now sitting on an island with a big stack of money with ‘Coke’ written on it.”

Alger has had high-level discussions with the big pop makers in the past year, but they passed. “I have a rejection letter from one of the big players that I’m going to frame and put up: ‘Great brand, keep us in the loop,’” he says. “But Canada is such a small market, they don’t want to bother. If we had the same market penetration in the U.S. as here, we’d have had our acquisition.”

If he went the IPO route, Alger says he’d lead the U.S. expansion himself. He admits, however, that the challenge feels overwhelming at times. And, after a successful five years guiding the Pop Shoppe, he’s eager to move on. “I’m an entrepreneur. I never got into this thinking, I’m going to sell pop for the next 30 years of my life,” he says. “I want to make this a success, and then move on to the next thing.”

He already has the next thing lined up: Mother’s Pizza Parlour & Spaghetti House, a defunct Burlington-based restaurant franchise. As with the Pop Shoppe, he’s bought a brand in a business—chain restaurants—where he has zero experience. But he knows that, unlike with his pop venture, restaurants are “a big investment, really big risk and very long hours.” He’s hoping to draw an existing chain into a joint venture to bridge his capital and learning-curve needs. Still, he adds, “I sometimes wonder if [in leaving the Pop Shoppe]I’d be taking an easy gig and turning my life into a living hell.”

That easy gig, however, could turn into a struggle if market trends continue. Sales of carbonated soft drinks are declining as consumers grow more health-conscious. Taking the Pop Shoppe into the U.S. should help sustain the sales volume for a time, says Kergl. “The wider distribution we get, the longer we’re selling Pop Shoppe. But eventually nostalgia will wear off.”

That’s the risk with any brand that plays on past associations but doesn’t have a compelling sell to new consumers. “A brand can’t survive based on awareness alone,” says Mark Thomann, CEO of River West Brands LLC, a Chicago-based company that specializes in resurrecting dormant brands. “The revitalization has to have an innovation to make it relevant to a new audience.” For example, later this year River West plans to reintroduce the coffee brand Brim (“Fill it to the rim…”). But it won’t be just the old decaf instant; the new Brim will feature a patented process that infuses the coffee bean with a nutraceutical, playing to consumers’ susceptibility to health claims. The key, Thomann emphasizes, is “to use the iconic brand as an accelerant and marry it with innovation.”

Alger’s attempts to update his product haven’t panned out so far: Two diet varieties were terrible sellers, and he’s phasing them out. Ironically, refillable bottles could play great in today’s environmentally conscious marketplace, but Alger would have to persuade a national retailer to take on the logistical challenge. He waves off the idea as near lunatic. Thomann—whose company revived a competing soda, Soho Natural—nevertheless tips his hat to Alger for what he’s accomplished. The Pop Shoppe certainly has the iconic brand, says Thomann, who remembers it from his childhood. “But it’s a tough category and it’s going to be much more challenging in America because it’s not as well known here.”

Alger, of course, has faced naysayers before. He has a framed article from Marketing magazine in which a marketing professor says that most retro brands are flashes in the pan and the Pop Shoppe will likely be no different. That was in 2004. He’s proven his longevity, Alger argues, and he’s done it by putting all his effort—and the money he saved on office space, furniture, employees and warehousing—into marketing and brand promotion. After growing at 200% year over year, this year, he predicts, the Pop Shoppe will be the No. 1 premium soft drink in Canada. “And I did that from my house,” he says. “I’m proud of that.” He’s used to being underestimated, and likes it that way. “I’m a bit like the Wizard of Oz. I don’t show what’s behind the curtain.”

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