I promised to share the story I wrote for my real-world journalistic debut. It made newsprint earlier this month, in the Highland Park News:
From Italy to the Internet: Galco’s Soda Pop Stop in Highland Park
By Murphy Horner
A small revolution has been bubbling up right here in Highland Park. At a time when large corporations and everywhere-you-look name brands are squeezing out all other options, John Nese has created a new business for his store on 5702 York Boulevard. He sells soda pop, and in a big way.
Galco’s Old World Market began over 100 years ago as an Italian grocery store. John Nese runs the store after his father Louis, who can still be found on the premises keeping an eye on things. Nese is proud of what his dad had done for the store. He tells stories of how his father started the first buying co-op to get better prices for their goods.
But things began to change for the next generation. The bigger supermarkets were taking over. They used their huge buying power to cut smaller businesses out of the market. Small shops could no longer get the discounts that supermarkets enjoyed. It was becoming very difficult for locally owned grocery stores anywhere to compete.
John Nese knew he would have to get creative to keep his store open. He noticed micro brewed beers were becoming popular. He liked the idea of the microbrewers. They were small businesses creating a product that emphasized quality, just like himself. But alcoholic drinks were only for people over 21. What about all the younger people or others who did not want alcohol?
In 1995 John decided to listen to his heart and do what felt good. In Nese’s own words, “What makes you feel good? Drinking a soda!” He began stocking hard-to-find sodas in his grocery store. As he tells it, the soda manufacturers were doubtful about whether the soda would sell. But he stocked them anyway, and even bought more varieties. He also began to seek out and buy candies from small candy companies. His philosophy at the time, in his own words, was “to go find little brands…and do what makes me feel good.”
He began to look for all the little brands that were around, and buy their products. After he had stocked 150 different kinds of sodas, people began to take notice. The Los Angeles Times came to Highland Park to see this new Soda Pop Stop and write a story. Apparently the story was so interesting, it was picked up by a news syndicate and published all over America, even running internationally.
Nese’s daughter contacted KCET’s program California’s Gold, and Galco’s Soda Pop Shop received a visit from the ever-enthusiastic Huell Howser. He filmed a show about John Nese’s store, which aired in 2000. A few months after, Sunset Magazine did a story about the Highland Park store that was now becoming a phenomenon.
Now that the word is out, customers are beginning to show up from all over the place. The Saturday I was there, I spoke with Kay and Bob Trevana. They were visiting California from Bloomington, Minnesota. Having seen the Soda Pop Stop on the Food Network, they came to check it out. Kay said, “It’s kind of amazing to see that there are that many pops out there.”
This is music to John Nese’s ears. He says, “The one thing I can do is offer the customer a lot of variety.” He works hard at bringing customers variety. By his calculations, if a customer tried out a new soda from his shop every day, it would be a year and a half before they would run out of new flavors.
But where does he find all these sodas? He listens to his customers. This business makes a huge point of asking the customers what they would like to buy. The proof is lined up on the shelves, in neat glass rows. Nese said, “Like the Manhattan Special. All of these things are from customers’ suggestions.”
The story of how Nese found the Manhattan Special (www.manhattanspecial.com) line of sodas is a classic example of how he runs his business. A number of New York City transplants had been requesting this coffee-flavored soda, so Nese called up the company to place an order. The woman who answered the phone was quite surprised. She wanted to know how the Los Angelino had even tasted the soda. When Nese answered that he had not tried it, she was having a hard time taking him seriously. Nese told her that he had a stack of requests from his customers who wanted Manhattan Special, and that was good enough for him.
She reluctantly agreed to let Nese place an order, but on one condition: he had to come get it. The Manhattan Special Company had been in business since 1895, and this is how they had always done it. If he was serious, he could pick it up himself.
Nese took up the challenge, arranged for a truck to go to Manhattan Special’s door and pick up the soda. He now stocks Manhattan Special in his store, and ships orders from his website (www.sodapopstop.com). His contact with the Manhattan Special Company must have had an affect on their policy, because now they also offer to ship orders to customers from their webpage.
Nese’s goal is bigger than just offering variety. He wants to sell high quality soda pop. In his experience, quality soda is bottled in glass and made with a cane sugar recipe. He feels strongly that the current use of corn syrup as a sweetener in soda is a bad thing. He explained that corn syrup is cheaper than sugar, but the quality of the soda suffers. He has gone to great lengths to get soda made with sugar.
It is hard job. He is a small business. Most of the manufacturers he buys soda from are small. He feels that maintaining high quality product is the best way for a small business to survive in a predatory market. He says, “Make a better product and the people will buy it.” Since he is in direct contact with the people who are buying the product, he has made a point of calling the manufacturers and demanding they use cane sugar and not corn syrup. He has to go all the way to Mexico for some of his sodas.
Customers who visited the store to buy milk and sugar 50 years ago would find it very different now. John Nese and Galco’s have come a long way. There is no milk or sugar on the shelves. But a lot remains the same. There is still a helpful person behind the counter. The owner still cares about the customers. And they still sell their famous blockbuster sandwiches. An Italian deli at the rear makes meat and cheese monstrosities that keep people coming back. Customers feel pretty good when they visit John Nese’s store. And that makes John feel good.