pepsi
photograph by Black Horse Studio

No, they are not the same. Not one and the same, not the same difference. Let that truth trickle through your brain like a fizzy fountain drink filling a cup of crushed ice.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was once among the philistines who knew not what they drank, who blindly grabbed a Coca-Cola with a pack of Nabs, or a Pepsi with a Little Debbie. I scorned, mocked, and rolled eyes at my sister-in-law, who swore to drink Coke and nothing but Coke, so help her Georgia-beating heart. Her blood runneth red and white, and you don’t dare defile her fridge with that “P” word trimmed in blue.

Puh-leez. Don’t pop your top, I’d say. They’re both bona fide products of the South, they’re both the color of the Black River, and they both go great with peanuts or pork rinds.

• • •
 

I grew up in that pie slice of a state wedged between North Carolina and Georgia, where ACC meets SEC and barbecue turns a curious mustardy cast. Atlanta, with its World of Coca-Cola, was just a couple of hours down the interstate. But I distinctly remember the billboards around my hometown: “Pepsi, the Taste Born in the Carolinas.” I never knew where in the Carolinas, exactly; it could be anywhere from Myrtle Beach to Maggie Valley. I figured this was just another attempt by marketers to lump the two states together. (Note to marketers: North and South Carolina are not the same.)

For all those years, I’d just as soon reach for a Pepsi as a Coke. But now, all these years later, standing on a wooden floor next to a marble counter in New Bern, cold carbonation in my hand, I finally saw the light and heard the voice of God. Well, not God, exactly, but Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, narrating a documentary about Pepsi past and present.

I had come to The Birthplace of Pepsi-Cola (a k a The Pepsi Store), the very site where pharmacist Caleb Bradham crafted the formula in 1893, originally calling it “Brad’s Drink.” The building, anchoring the corner of Middle and Pollock streets in downtown, is a replica of the Bradham Drug Company. (The original wooden structure burned down in 1931.)

Don’t call it a museum. “This is an experience,” said Sabrina Bengel, managing partner of the site, which is owned by the Ayden-based Minges Bottling Group. I confessed to her my soda sins, how I’d been a habitual offender of branding Pepsi and Coke as interchangeable. To commit such slander is akin to saying barbecue is the same in Goldsboro as it is in Lexington. The red sauce belongs to the red-clay Piedmont, just as the red-and-white label with loopy letters belongs to Georgia. “There’s such a difference,” Bengel insisted about the Southern soda rivalry. “Oh my goodness, there’s absolutely a difference. Pepsi has a sweeter, more syrupy-type taste to it.”

I ordered another one. And another. Bengel’s right: It was sweet and syrupy — sweeter and creamier and bubblier than I had ever tasted Pepsi before. How could I have so blithely bounced between beverages all these years?

The smell of the Store’s popcorn maker hung thick as butter in the air. A bag of popcorn, an ice-chocked cup of Pepsi, a TV playing ’80s-era Pepsi commercials — hey, there’s the one with Michael Jackson moonwalking! — compelled me to loaf around the Store for most of an afternoon. All things Pepsi permeated this place. Pepsi glasses. Pepsi pens. Pepsi bibs. Pepsi lanyards. Pepsi onesies. Pepsi T-shirts.

Bengel spoke devotedly about the native son who fathered the flavor known the world over: “What I love about it is that this is just a little ol’ town, and he was just being a little ol’ pharmacist who wanted to see what he could create.”

• • •
 

Whatever one fancies to call it — a pop, a cola, a soft drink, a soda — the history of the carbonated beverage goes back more than a century before the likes of Pepsi and Coke spilled onto the scene. Natural mineral water, which contained sodium (source of the word “soda”), was reputed to have curative powers. Bathing in sodium and drinking it were hailed as healthy habits.

A creamy Pepsi float is the most frequently requested item on the menu. • Photo by Lissa Gotwals.

A creamy Pepsi float is the most frequently requested item on the menu. • Photo by Lissa Gotwals.

Carbon dioxide creates all those bubbles in soda. The thinkers and tinkerers of the 1700s figured if someone could just invent a machine to infuse carbon dioxide into water, thirsty throngs would be frothing over it. A Swedish chemist did it. Two inventors in Charleston, South Carolina, did it. A Pennsylvanian named Samuel Fahnestock did it and received the first U.S. patent for the soda fountain in 1819.

In those days, soda fountains were found mostly in pharmacies. A drugstore with no soda fountain was like a barbershop with no mirror — a fountain was essential, the object of everyone’s attention. And like barbershops, soda fountains had the power to draw a crowd. It’s not uniquely Southern, the soda fountain, but down here, where the wet, warm, weighty air so easily saps our spirits, the sweet effervescence of a soda just tastes more refreshing than it does in, say, Green Bay, Wisconsin, or Wichita, Kansas.

Forget what you know of today’s pharmacies: the dueling chain stores on opposite street corners, the crisply efficient staff who know you by date of birth rather than by name. Before federal regulations and “ask your doctor about” TV ads, the druggist had more freedom to experiment and was known for making a good pick-me-up concoction. Mix a little of this with a pinch of that and, here, see what this does for your heartburn.

“Back in the day, doctors were few and far between. So if you came in and said, ‘My toe aches, my scalp itches, my stomach hurts,’ you actually went to the pharmacist. He pulled something off the back shelf,” said the blue-aproned fellow holding court behind the marble counter. Phil Buffa’s speech is unmistakably un-Southern — he grew up in New York, on Long Island — but he has that small-town, Southern-marinated congeniality, engaging everyone in conversation.

“Hi, folks, how you doin’ today?” he asked a couple who wandered in. “Where are you vacationing from?”

“Illinois.”

“Very cool!”

He delivered one-liners that fell flat as a week-old open Pepsi, but with a badda-bum, you can’t help but chuckle. Like the other employees in The Pepsi Store, Buffa spends a few hours each day serving up Pepsi and Pepsi floats and Pepsi lore, all flavored with his peppy personality. On this afternoon, he greeted 20-somethings from New Jersey, a middle-aged couple from Minnesota, a mother and four adolescent girls from Atlanta. A 65-year-old native of Raleigh, Hayes Hanley, walked in with his wife, Karen. “This is my childhood,” Hanley said, thinking back to the days of riding his bike to the Hayes Barton Pharmacy. “The drugstore had nickel Pepsis with crushed ice.”

He and the other guests sat at little round tabletops, each with an old-timey Pepsi-Cola bottle cap motif. For many visitors — and there are thousands every year — The Birthplace of Pepsi-Cola is a point of interest, something to see while vacationing at the coast. “Then there are the people who live in Kalamazoo, Michigan, who’ve been lifelong Pepsi drinkers, and they’re making the trip to mecca,” Buffa said. “This is hallowed ground. I didn’t know there were so many No. 1 Pepsi drinkers in the world.”

• • •
 

One woman, clearly not from around here, strolled in and got straight to the point: “So why is it called Pepsi?” She guessesd that it’s because the name sounds so lively, so cheery. The dictionary does define the word “pep” as something that has energy and high spirits. And anything that ends with the “-ee” sound does have a happy-happy ring to it. Yipp-ee! Whoop-ee! Pep-si!

But in truth, the name originates deep down in our digestive system. When Caleb Bradham concocted his drink, he added pepsin, an enzyme that breaks down proteins during digestion. Bradham figured it would help treat dyspepsia, another word for indigestion. His formula called for sugar, carbonated water, caramel, alcohol (just a little), oil of lemon, oil of orange, and some other so-called “rare oils.” In August 1898, Bradham changed the name from “Brad’s Drink” to “Pepsi-Cola,” a nod to both pepsin and kola nuts, the caffeine-laden tropical fruit that he also included as an ingredient.

In 1902, Bradham founded the Pepsi-Cola Company in the back room of his pharmacy. Pepsi’s popularity kept growing among the locals, and in 1903, he registered Pepsi-Cola with the U.S. Patent Office, using effusive words to promote his drink: “Exhilarating.” “Invigorating.” “Aids Digestion.” One ad boasted that the beverage had “a delicious combination of pepsin, acid phosphate and the juices of fresh fruits.” When you’re feeling hot, tired, or thirsty, go to the nearest soda fountain, “Lay down your nickel and say PEPSI-Cola.”

By 1905, Bradham realized he could bottle the stuff and sell it everywhere, and he opened two bottling franchises in Charlotte and Durham. The next year, he awarded 13 more franchises. In 1910, Pepsi-Cola had 250 bottlers in 24 states. Bradham no longer had time to operate a small-town pharmacy; he had a big-time soda business to run.

• • •
 

With the onset of World War I, sugar prices shot up like soda from a shaken bottle. Bradham banked that prices would keep rising, and he stockpiled sugar. “He mortgaged everything he owned to buy the sugar,” Bengel said. But he lost the gamble: Prices plummeted after the war — from about 28 cents a pound to 2 cents — leaving him with an overpriced inventory that forced him to declare bankruptcy in 1923. “He lost it all,” Bengel said. “He just went back to being a pharmacist, and never saw or received the benefit of the rise and glory of Pepsi.”

A candy company executive propelled Pepsi to prominence and profits. Charles Guth was president of the Loft Candy Company when the Coca-Cola Company refused to make any concessions on prices for syrup. Guth abandoned Coke and began selling Pepsi, eventually buying Pepsi in 1931 after it declared bankruptcy a second time.

The Loft Candy Company tweaked the recipe more to Guth’s liking, but the cola still failed to become a commercial success. To grab the attention of the marketplace, he started selling the drink in a 12-ounce bottle for the price of six ounces — two for one, essentially. The strategy paid off resoundingly: By 1936, Pepsi had become the second largest soda company in the world.

• • •
 

To this day, New Bern remains keenly loyal to Pepsi. Around town, bumper stickers read, “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink Coke.” Richard Blythe, another employee at The Birthplace of Pepsi-Cola, said his mother viewed Coke as a four-letter word. “My mama better not catch me drinking anything but a Pepsi-Cola,” he said, and then proceeded to tell the story of an uncle who moved to Atlanta. “She’d just chew him up one side and down the other: ‘Your Daddy worked all them years to put you through school with Pepsi-Cola, and I come down here and you don’t even have one in your house. You go out and get me some Pepsi-Cola!’ ”

• • •
 

Pepsi would rise to international pop stardom promoted in splashy TV commercials by a celebrity-studded cast: Billy Crystal. Lionel Richie. Madonna. Michael Jackson. Britney Spears. Despite its 19th-century Southern small-town start, it would become the “Choice of a New Generation” and “Generation Next.” Unlike the other cola from the other Southern state, Pepsi’s logo has been fluid, changing with our free-flowing tastes in style, from standard all-caps to contemporary all-lower case, and from the standard red, white, and blue to an edgier midnight blue.

These days, one can grab a Pepsi in Poughkeepsie and Portland, in Riyadh and Johannesburg, in corner grills and white-tablecloth restaurants. Like Mayberry and NASCAR and The Allman Brothers, Pepsi has become another of the South’s great exports. Yes, sweet tea and grits are manifestly Southern staples, but good luck finding them north of the Potomac or west of the Brazos.

Pepsi is a universal drink. That said, I’m still convinced that it tastes better down here. Just as hot coffee tastes better on a cold winter morning, Pepsi tastes better when the humidity is high and the pines are electric with cicadas. And if it’s paired with a peanut butter cracker or a Slim Jim, well then, all the better.

• • •

I walked out of The Pepsi Store with a slender glass bottle of New Bern’s celebrated soda. There’s hardly a more satisfying sound than a bottle opener popping a top and releasing the hiss of pent-up carbonation. Pshh! I walked along Middle Street, past Christ Episcopal Church with its deodar cedars bearded in Spanish moss, beneath the lamppost banners proclaiming, “Cheers to Where It All Began,” and sat on a sidewalk bench.

My Southern accent has become watered-down since my childhood, but at times it bubbles to the surface and gushes out in all its native purity. This was one of those times. Lazing away on a bench, watching the moss in the trees, and swigging a Pepsi made every last ounce of my Southernness saturate my every salutation. “How ya doin’?” became “How y’all t’day?”

I drained my bottle and declared it the best Pepsi ever.


The Birthplace of Pepsi-Cola
256 Middle Street
New Bern, N.C. 28560
pepsistore.com
(252) 636-5898


 

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Mims is a reporter for WRAL News. He was the 2012 Television News Reporter of the Year.