Feature: Homegrown in North Carolina

Brief histories of Cheerwine, Krispy Kreme and Pepsi

 Intro by Corbie Hill   Stories by Meagan Burgad

Bellywashers. Papa called soda bellywashers. Of course, he didn’t say it like that. He pronounced it “bellywarsher.” The important thing to do is to over-pronounce the “warsh” sound, which can involve stretching your cheeks a bit if you’re not accustomed to the dialect. Papa was my mom’s dad, and he was born in rural Oxford, NC, during the Great Depression. He was barely old enough to fight in World War II, but he got drafted anyway. Afterward, he worked in scouting until retirement. He had three sons and a daughter. He played the cornet. He grew a red beard for the Bicentennial. If we’re being honest (and we are), he was an irritable dude. Retirement took him to Oriental, in Eastern NC. But the important thing here is that he would give you a hard time for drinking bellywashers. Then again, he would give you a hard time for just about anything. And I think he knew as well as anyone that bellywashers taste good. He knew, too, that two particularly delicious bellywashers – Pepsi and Cheerwine – were, like him, native to North Carolina. And I think he knew that a third sugary treat – the Krispy Kreme doughnut – was a native of North Carolina as well. So he would give you a hard time, sure, but that was his thing. And his irascibility certainly didn’t stop Pepsi, Cheerwine or Krispy Kreme from being three of our state’s most celebrated native treats. So here’s another treat: On the next few pages, enjoy Meagan Burgad’s snapshot histories of these three products (and thanks go to Cheerwine, Pepsi and Krispy Kreme for providing images to go along with her excellent writing). As for Papa, I’ll bet you a Cheerwine he drank his share of bellywashers and ate his share of donuts. He was human. Of course he did.

Anyone anywhere can reach for a Pepsi on a hot and humid summer day, but only a real North Carolinian will appreciate the syrupy sweetness of a bottle of Cheerwine. 

Born in 1866, L.D. Peeler got his start in the soda business much later in life compared to Pepsi-Cola creator Caleb Bradham. After trying his hand at a few different ventures Peeler began to focus on the soda business in 1913. It was around this time that the Maysville Syrup Company of Kentucky went bankrupt. Peeler bought the company and brought it back to Salisbury, North Carolina. He then changed the name of the company to the Carolina Beverage Corporation and continued to make its trademark mint-flavored cola – which may have been a clue as to why the Kentucky-based company went bankrupt in the first place. After meeting a traveling salesman in 1917, Peeler decided to create a cherry-flavored drink. The hint of sweetness from the black cherry flavor was helpful during WWI when other sodas, like Pepsi-Cola, struggled to keep their product recipe unchanged despite sugar rationing. It may have taken awhile, but in 1926 Cheerwine was trademarked. 

Cheerwine continues to be the oldest bottled cherry flavored soda, outdating Wild Cherry Pepsi and Cherry Coke by more than 60 years. While its name may hint otherwise, Cheerwine contains no alcohol, only delicious, burgundy-colored, cherry-flavored soda with an extra dose of carbonated fizz. The Carolina Beverage Corporation continues to produce Cheerwine, so not only does the same North Carolina company produce Cheerwine, but the same family has owned the company since L.D. Wheeler concocted the first cherry flavored drink over 100 years ago. Today the Carolina Beverage Corporation is run by L.D. Peeler’s great-grandson Charles Clifford “Cliff” Ritchie, making the company the oldest continuously family-owned soft drink company in the United States. 

For diehard Cheerwine fans, a trip to the local Food Lion (a Salisbury, North Carolina based grocery store chain) means not only soda but Cheerwine ice cream treats. Still can’t get enough of your favorite beverage? Head to Amazon and buy the unofficial Cheerwine Recipe Book by Sandy Sider, a longtime fan and Cheerwine enthusiast. If that’s still not enough, cross your fingers and pray to the Cheerwine gods that Krispy Kreme brings back its fabled Cheerwine donuts.

 

If you’ve ever licked your fingers clean after eating an Original Glazed Krispy Kreme doughnut, you may have a pack of cigarettes to thank. 

Long before a cigarette changed his life’s trajectory, Vernon Rudolph was born in Kentucky in 1915. After graduating high school, he began working for his uncle, Ishmael Armstrong, who owned a doughnut shop. Depending on who you ask, Armstrong bought his doughnut recipe from a Frenchman in New Orleans named Joe LeBeau or maybe he was given the recipe for free from a cook on the Ohio river named Joseph G. LeBoeuf who loved baking. But no matter which story you like best the outcome is still the same – delicious. 

Following the mild success the family doughnut company saw in Tennessee, West Virginia and Georgia, Rudolph decided to branch out on his own. Rumor has it when he was trying to decide where to build his doughnut empire, Rudolph looked down at his pack of Camels, saw the label said “Made in Winston-Salem, NC,” and thought, “That’s where I should go.”

After buying a storefront in Salem, Rudolph opened his Krispy Kreme store on Friday the 13th in July, 1937. While Rudolph imagined a business that would bake fresh doughnuts at his facility and then transport them to local grocery stores, it was the customers who consistently showed up on his doorstep to buy the freshly glazed doughnuts that changed the way Krispy Kreme would evolve. Instead of only making doughnuts for grocery and convenience stores, Rudolph began offering doughnuts to customers at a storefront as well. For most people, watching the workers make the doughnuts from scratch and fry them right before their eyes was nothing short of mesmerizing. 

Today Krispy Kreme has more than 1,300 stores in 31 countries. The company has approximately 45 flavors of doughnuts, not including seasonal varieties (or unicorns like the Cheerwine flavored doughnut). They also sell drinks as well as their own brand of coffee beans.

While it’s true that many aspects of the doughnut-making process have changed since Rudolph passed away in 1973, the core values of the company continue to make Krispy Kreme as popular in North Carolina now as it was in 1937. It doesn’t matter if the doughnuts are created by hand or manufactured by machines, watching the doughnuts being made while standing behind the glass partition will always be an integral part of a Krispy Kreme visit – a visit that always ends with a sugary smile.

If you ask for Brad’s Drink the next time you go to lunch, you will more than likely be met with a blank stare. But chances are the restaurant has your caffeinated beverage on hand. They just may know it by its more common name: Pepsi. 

Caleb Bradham, the creator of Pepsi, was born in Chinquapin, NC in 1867. A graduate of the University of North Carolina, Bradham had aspirations to become a doctor, but returned home after his family’s business went bankrupt. After a short stint as a teacher, Bradham opened the Bradham Drug Company in New Bern, NC. In 1893 Bradham created a recipe for Brad’s Drink that he sold at the drug store’s soda fountain. As a pharmacist, Bradham sold his syrup, which was then mixed with effervescent water at the soda fountain, as a digestive treatment. In 1898 he renamed the drink Pepsi-Cola either after the pepsin enzyme or dyspepsia, depending on what story you believe. Either way, Bradham continued to sell Pepsi-Cola not just as a refreshing beverage but as a pharmaceutical aid. 

As demand for the drink continued to rise, Bradham created the Pepsi-Cola Company in 1902. He patented his bubbly beverage in 1903 and Pepsi-Cola became a trademark. With the demand for his syrup reaching record highs, Bradham decided he needed a new way to move his product. Sometime around the year 1905, Bradham switched his business model from exclusively selling Pepsi-Cola as syrup for soda fountains. Instead, Bradham began selling the syrup in containers complete with its own effervescence, creating a deliciously refreshing soda in its very own bottle. It was this change that would grow the Pepsi-Cola Company to approximately 240 franchises in 24 states. 

The Pepsi-Cola Company continued to grow until World War I, when sugar rationing slowed the production of the cola and forced Bradham to seek out sugar substitutes that never met the standards of the original Pepsi-Cola taste. After the war, in 1923, Bradham went bankrupt trying to keep his company afloat while dealing with wildly fluctuating sugar prices. The company assets were sold to the Craven Holding Corporation for roughly $30,000. Pepsi-Cola changed hands until it became PepsiCo, a multinational corporation that sells Pepsi as well as Mountain Dew, Lipton Tea and Cheetos.

If you’d like to step back in time, you can still get an ice-cold Brad’s Drink, that’s Pepsi-Cola for you young’uns, in downtown New Bern at The Birthplace of Pepsi Cola –
256 Middle St, New Bern, NC.