Last week, I went to Galco's Old World Grocery. I hadn't been there in probably eight years -- not because I wasn't impressed enough (in fact, I was bowled over by how absolutely wonderful it was), but it just isn't convenient to get to. It's in area called Highland Park, which is a convoluted 30-35 minute drive for me, a ways northeast of downtown Los Angeles. And that's a long distance to go for a grocery store. Though in fairness this is unlike any grocery store you've been to. (Something I feel confident saying, whoever "you" are.) I've always intended to go back, and even have had a reminder in my Outlook, which I keep moving forward in the calendar, so that I will "someday soon." Eventually I got tired of someday and said "to heck with it" and went.
Galco's truly is not a typical grocery store. It was once -- it's been around over 100 years -- but no longer sells the basic groceries you'd find in your supermarket. Mainly, it sells soft drinks. Yes, soft drinks. Small, local, uncommon brands from across the country, and some from around the world. Brands you may have grown up with and thought they'd long-since gone out of business. Over 200 brands and over 750 varieties. (Its website is sodapopstop.com.) They also sell uncommon beers and interesting wines, and have a similar candy section and some sandwiches -- but mainly, it's soft drinks.
Trust me, this doesn't do it justice. The place is the Disneyland of soft drink stores. Keep in mind, too, that if you saw a layout like this in your local supermarket, 90% of these bottles would be from Coke, Pepsi, 7-Up and Dr. Pepper, since they control shelf space. These, again, are from 200 different brands.
(And yes, they also have Coke -- but not the Coke your supermarket will most-likely have on its shelves. Theirs is from Mexico, which still makes Coke with cane sugar, not corn syrup.)
It just goes on and on and on. A wonderland of soft drinks. And yes, they're all in bottles.
I first became aware of the place around 2009 when host Huell Howser did an hour-long episode about Galco's on his Visiting with Huell Howser show on local L.A. public television, where he went around finding fascinating places throughout the Los Angeles area. (For readers of Mark Evanier's website, yes, this is the Huell Howser he was waxing eloquent about and calling the "cheeriest person on the planet" a couple of weeks ago in several postings, like this one here.) And yes, Galco's is so wonderfully interesting and fun, Huell Howser was able to fill a full hour on it, a grocery store that largely sells soft drinks. As a result of that show, I was so taken with the store that I had to make the trek and track the place down. It was as joyous as I hoped -- but as convoluted to get to as I feared.
But even when you do come here, even if you live close by, that's not the real challenge at all. The problem with coming to Galco's is that you don't know where to start. Do you take one bottle of each interesting-looking brand? Well, that alone would empty your bank account since there are SO many brands that are interesting. (Most individual bottles -- and yes, you can buy just a single bottle -- cost in the $1.50-$1.80 range. Some may be more, I came across one that was over $3; a few less, I bought one under a dollar.) Or instead you can pick a particular flavor and try all the ginger ales or all the wild cherries or all the root beers, lemon-limes, colas, orange or orange creams, or on and on and on to compare them. But that risks your wallet, too, since there will be a dozen or two dozen of each, if it's a normal flavor. (No, they don't have a dozen cucumber sodas. Though it's worth nothing that they started stocking Mr. Cucumber five years before it was named Soft Drink Flavor of the Year -- or whatever its award was.) And if you decide to go this way get just one flavor it leaves out all those rare varieties, it's hard not to try.. At the very least, you can get all the different flavors of one brand alone to check it out. That's workable -- most brands with multiple varieties may only have three or four -- but which of the 200 brands do you want to try? O what to do??!
And when I say "on and on and on" with the flavors, seriously, I'm not kidding. There's peach soft drink. And espresso coffee soft drink. And sarsaparilla. And there was huckleberry soft drink. And...and...okay, you get the point.
Yes, that's mint julep soft drink.
And as you shop, wafting through the air is music from the '50 that helps put you in the proper frame of mind to wander the aisles here.
But Galco's doesn't even limit itself to these 750 varieties -- there is a "make your own soft drink" stand where the combinations are near-limitless. And by "near-limitless" I'm not exaggerating. There are about 30-40 bottles of syrup which you can use separately or combine to make your own special flavor. You get a bottle, fill it three-quarters of the way with either light fizz or heavy fizz soda (your choice) and then take 8-9 pumps of whatever syrups you want. (If you want single pumps of nine different syrups, that's fine. Hence me saying "near-limitless.") Then, take it to the bottle capper on the far right of the area, and finally add a label for your personal soft drink.
I made a banana-strawberry soft drink, with light fizz. I haven't had it yet, going through a few of the bottled brands first, as a sort of control. But I can't wait. (When I went to check out, the knowledgeable guy there -- he said he's tried about a third of the product in the store -- was curious what flavor I'd made. I could tell he was wary, since I assume so many people probably make either one-flavor or exceedingly weird combos. When I told him -- strawberry-banana -- his eyebrows raised. "Oh. That sounds good!" So, here's hopping.)
But the real expert there is John Nese, whose family has owned the store for a great many decades, back when it was a regular grocery store, and he's the one who turned into it the "Soda Pop Stop" in 1995. He's also the fellow I saw on that Huell Howser broadcast and who stopped me in the aisle when I finally showed up at his palace eight years ago. Seeing me almost bewildered by the choices, he came over, "Can I help you with anything?" And his love of his store and its product was palpable. He spent almost 10 minutes talking with me about all the brands and flavors, and where they came from, their history, and who the packer was, and more and more details that was like a joyful history lesson of Beverage University.
And he was there last week when I showed up -- and again asked me, "Can I help you with anything?" when he saw me wandering. And yes, I took him up on it. Because I knew how much he seemed to love what I was doing -- which I told him, adding how I had been there about eight years earlier and spoke with him. He saw I had Green River in my cart (a brand from Chicago) and happily said that it was much better these days since they went to a new packer a couple years ago who uses the original formula and explained the differences. He asked what flavors I like, and pointed out several brands that he thought were particularly good. I mentioned how I wasn't a fan of orange soda, even though I love the fruit itself, but my last time at Galco's I'd decided to try some orange cream soda which was delicious. He couldn't believe I didn't like orange soft drink (as opposed to orange cream) and showed me a few brands I had to try. (I got one.) And then took me over to the refrigerator section where he stocked Bundaberg's Blood Orange. I was tempted, since it was his recommendation, but I said I really don't care for blood oranges -- I find it too bitter -- however I did get a Bundaberg's Peach. He said you can't go wrong with anything from Bundaberg's.
It is a heavenly, joyful place. In fact, in one news video about Galco's that's embedded on the site, John Nese comments that people regularly come up to him and say, "'You know, you have the happiest customers I've ever seen.'" -- and then he adds on camera with a big smile, "Everybody's happy!." They are. It permeates through the store. The few people I spoke to were quite simply in the cheeriest moods, happy to come over to ask about brands or flavors they'd found or were looking for. I was in a cheery mood, too.
Happy though I was, I unfortunately won't be back soon -- it's still that trek -- but I got enough bottles to last me a while, since I don't guzzle soft drink, though now that they're back home it's been hard not just swig them all down over a weekend. But now that I'm more comfortable knowing the drive there after two trips, it definitely won't be eight years before I return. Once a year perhaps, or at least every other year -- I hope.
This is just a small sample of the 14 bottles I ended up getting.
It's probably a great place to take kids, for the sensory overload, the overflow of history, the fun of seeing all the artistic labels and unique beverages. The problem, of course, is that your children would likely be on a sugar high for the next year from just one trip. (They do have some diet soft drinks here, it should be noted.)
Galco's Old World Grocery is otherworldly and unique. Alas, most people can't get there, but you can at least check it out online, and watch the great many news story videos about the place I mentioned that they have embedded there.
In fact, here is that original hour-long Huell Howser show that introduced the place to me. (If you read about him on Mark's site, this is your chance to see him in action at his up-beat best.) If you don't want to watch the whole thing, jump to the 7:30 mark, past the pre-soda history of the place and get directly to John Nese in his enthusiastic glory. (That's him below in the yellow shirt.) And all of Huell Howser's intricate details about the place and its various sections (including the sandwich-making that Nese's mother does, and has for 50 years) that he digs out.
One note: in the video John Nese refers to the "aisle" with soft drinks. Big as that aisle is, it's more than just one aisle. There are at least two, though one is smaller, plus all the boxes sitting out, plus the soda creation booth.
And if you want to watch something shorter, here's a six-minute piece on Galco's that MSNBC did when they used to have a business-hour show. It's very good, and focuses wonderfully more on John Nese from a business perspective and his philosophy: "Not fewer suppliers, less choice. No, no, no, no. More choice. Just overload 'em, continually overload 'em...and you'll win. Simple." But if you watch this MSNBC one instead, do at least also check out a few minutes of Huell Howser's enthusiasm for the place, too...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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