Tuesday, September 02, 2014

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Made in the Carolinas: Cheerwine

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Crack open a bottle of Cheerwine, pour it over ice and you are about to taste something unique in the crowded soft drink universe.

"It's got a great effervescence. Its bubbles are different, its flavor is different, it's not an on the nose cherry soda pop," said Tom Barbitta, of Cheerwine.

There’s no harm in asking how Salisbury-based Cheerwine is made but those who know the formula are determined to hold onto that information.

"That's something we do not share with anybody," Cliff Ritchie, head of the company, said.

Ritchie represents the fourth generation of family ownership, dating back to even before Cheerwine was a brand.

"My great-grandfather started Cheerwine. He was in the soft drink business in a small way with a brand called Mint Cola,” he said. “And then World War I started and there was a sugar shortage, so he started experimenting with flavors to try to use less sugar but to make it seem as sweet."

There are plenty of reasons to celebrate the past at Cheerwine.

"We think we're the last soda company in America still run by the same family, so we have this thing called authenticity that you just can't make it up," Barbitta said.

As the company approaches its 100th anniversary, there's a greater emphasis on the future than what happened during those first 95 years.

"We love our back story, we love our history, we love the authenticity and we love our hometown, but that's not where we focus," said Barbitta.

"What we want to do is spread the good cheer, in other words, to expand the brand to more and more people," said Ritchie.

Cheerwine wants to go from being a regional product to being available in all 50 states by its 100th anniversary in 2017.

"Our strategy for growth is one shelf at a time, one market at a time,” Barbitta said.

A recent distribution deal with Pepsi Beverages will help in the quest, but the target is still very ambitious. Whether or not Cheerwine is in all 50 states by 2017, the brand is healthy and continues to grow.

"You'd have to believe he'd be very, very pleased that what he started is still around,” Ritchie said of his great-grandfather.

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