By Patty LaNoue Stearns
DETROIT--The smell hits you the minute you enter the aging plant on Gratiot near Eastern Market: a cloying melange of cherry, strawberry, bubble gum, root beer, orange.
It's unmistakably Faygo -- Detroit's homegrown pop with the oddball name, far-out flavors, kaleidoscopic colors and seemingly limitless imagination for all things wet and fizzy. At 88, the city's oldest bottling company continues to pour out new flavors, revitalize old flavors and experiment with as-yet-undetermined flavors.
Just hitting the shelves is Faygo Beverages' new Oasis Punch, the company's noncarbonated answer to Hawaiian Punch; in September, Jazzin' Blues Berry, a blue-tinged carbonated drink, will be introduced at the Ann Arbor Jazz and Blues Festival. Repackaged oldies Bubble-Up and Diet Chocolate Creme came out of retirement earlier this year. And Faygo is currently tweaking a fizzy, citrusy soft drink that's due before spring.
Behind all those flavors -- now numbering 43, sold in 33 states -- there must be a huge staff of chemists in white lab coats toiling away at Faygo, right? Well, pull back the curtain and you'll find that, basically, one guy comes up with the formulas: senior flavorist Hoyt McIntosh, a 26-year Faygo veteran with degrees in engineering and mathematics.
McIntosh started out in quality control, then sort of fell into flavors, honing his senses of taste and smell and learning the nuances of essential oils, chemicals and aromatics from Faygo's previous flavorist, the late Jack Laughlin.
Many of Faygo's top-sellers, such as Redpop and Rock & Rye, are one-of-a-kind flavors that were converted from cake- frosting recipes that brothers and Faygo founders Perry and Ben Feigenson ("Faygo" is a shortened version of their name) brought to Detroit in 1907 from their native Russia. Others are inspired by fruits.
Faygo makes no apologies for borrowing flavor ideas from competitors. Moon Mist is Faygo's version of Mountain Dew. Sensation is a knock-off of Vernor's ginger ale. Some Faygo flavors defy classification. The four-year-old blue-bottled Arctic Sun is kind of a wine cooler without the wine, but different. And Faygo's not telling exactly what's in Arctic Sun -- or any of the other brands.
The job of flavorist has been hush- hush since 1907. "It goes back to the original Feigensons -- they demanded a certain mystique and secrecy," McIntosh explains. "There are very few people who actually know the true identities of the materials."
McIntosh -- whose favorite flavor is Moon Mist -- zealously guards his recipes, which are coded so they can't be cracked. Most of the staff that deals with the secret compounds are trusted employees who have been at Faygo 20 years or more. What can't be hidden, however, is the smell that comes from all those ingredients. It permeates the Gratiot plant. McIntosh says he never tires of smelling all that sweet stuff. "It goes with the territory."
Back in the 1970s, before good ventilation was in vogue, the sweetness hung heavier in the air. Marketing director Matt Rosenthal, who was a college student working summers in the syrup room, remembers those days: "I would get on the bus to go home and no one would sit next to me. I had to take a shower just so I could take a shower. So sweet!"
The sip test
The simple, direct approach Faygo takes in coming up with new flavors carries over in the way the company decides each new flavor's fate. "It's not formalized," says Harvey Lipsky, research and development vice president and a Faygo employee since 1958.
That's a bit of an understatement. Faygo president Stan Sheridan, along with Rosenthal, Lipsky and a few other key staffers, sip -- then smile or grimace. "All of the people involved are on a first-name basis, almost within earshot of each other," Lipsky says.
No running to corporate headquarters in Atlanta for a slick multimedia presentation a la Coca-Cola; for this relatively small bottler, which produces millions and millions of cases a year but garners only about 1 percent of all pop sales in the country, it's either thumbs up or it's back to McIntosh for tweaking.
"We have people here who just know when it's right," Rosenthal explains. Just to be sure, however, Faygo does take its products to the public for a final taste test. Often, that means the marketing class at neighboring Martin Luther King High School.
"Sometimes we'll take it to our law firm, sometimes our ad agency. We just take it where there's a lot of different people," Rosenthal says.
"Everybody tastes it and comments on it, Harvey (Lipsky) takes a look at the comments and makes adjustments if necessary," Rosenthal continues, "but it doesn't take very long. Hoyt (McIntosh) can change the formula five times in one day -- it works that quickly if we have to." Once decided, Lipsky says, "we can get the product on the truck and into the store in a matter of weeks."
Some fizz, some fizzle
Most of Faygo's new products do well. A few, like Chateaux Fageaux, a '70s-vintage nonalcoholic wine-like product aimed at college students, dive-bomb. One new-product launch, Faygo Royal Hawaiian Pineapple- Orange, was a full-scale fiasco.
As Lipsky, Faygo's unofficial historian, recalls: "It was 1961 or '62 at the old Pick-Fort Shelby Hotel. Everyone's wearing a Hawaiian shirt, we have pineapples on every table, every wife got to take a pineapple home." The salespeople rolled out Monday morning after the party, selling like mad. A week later, Royal Hawaiian Pineapple Orange bombed -- literally. The pineapple juice, supplied by Dole, turned rancid. It hadn't been sterilized. Pressure built up in the bottles, and caps were flying all over warehouse ceilings, smashing light bulbs, creating a safety hazard.
"Oh, was it dead," Lipsky says, cringing. "And the complications it caused -- the mayor of Dearborn called, wanted it out of Dearborn by such and such a date. Our drivers went out and picked up all the products. A week after that, the drivers wouldn't come to work, then declared a one-day strike.
"Dole agreed to give us enough sterilized juice to cover the cost and that was the end of that." Once the problem was remedied, the product was a huge hit, Lipsky adds.
More recently, there's the case of Arctic Sun. Hoyt McIntosh developed it eight years before it came out, right around the time when the popularity of wine coolers started waning. A few years ago, Faygo execs asked McIntosh to reformulate it from a cloudy wine-cooler consistency to a clear liquid. They put it in a blue bottle, gave it a name and it's a big seller. Even if the name doesn't mean anything.
Taste the New Age
Now, Hoyt McIntosh is working on formulas that will carry Faygo into the next century, concoctions that he describes as the next tier of New Age drinks. "You create something the customer can't detect, but they simply get it as a pleasant but different taste," he says, "like lemon-tangerine or mandarin-raspberry, or citrus with cinnamon or clove notes. They're distinctively different, but you put them together in the right proportions and you have something special."
As long as Faygo's around, it plans to remain the flavor meister, holding its own at about 40, give or take a few flavors. "There's growth and there's decay. Some have managed to hold very well, but others don't sell and we have to retire them," McIntosh says. And when a new generation of pop drinkers comes along, Faygo will bring the old ones back again.
Like Soupy Sales used to tell the legions of kids growing up in Detroit in the '50s: "George Washington may be the father of our country, but Faygo's the pop." click here to visit this site
FAYGO'S TOP POPS AND FLOPS
Rock & Rye, Redpop and Fruit Punch are born, followed by Orange and Root Beer.
POP FLOP: Lithiated Lemon ginger beer, with lithium salts.
RC Cola introduces Nehi, Faygo does first brand knockoff, Ace Hi, in taller bottle.
Chocolate and Chocolate Creme debut.
"The Faygo Kid" and "Herkimer Jerkimer the Bottle Blower" commercials air on television. Black Cherry, the 7-Up pretender Uptown and Squirt-like Faygo Tango debut.
Royal Hawaiian Pineapple Orange and entire "Royal" line debut at a 5-cent-per-case premium. Fresca knockoff Frosh and Mountain Dew imitator Moonshine are re-introduced.
POP FLOPS: Eve, an apple-flavored pop; Dr. Mort (like Dr. Pepper); India Express Tonic Water, and Vanillapop.
Canada Dry ginger ale clone Embassy Club and Faygo Brau ginger beer debut.
POP FLOPS: Gold Port, Chateaux Faygeaux, Redpop Cola, Old California Lime.
Cherry Berry and seltzer line are introduced. Treesweet buys Faygo.
POP FLOPS: Very Cherry Cola, the repackaged Dr. Mort.
National Brands buys Faygo.
Moonmist, the repackaged Moonshine, Cherry Festival and Arctic Sun debut.
Oasis Punch and Jazzin' Blues Berry debut; Bubble-Up and Diet Chocolate Creme return.
Photo by Hugh Grannum: A collection of Faygo bottles through the decades. Copyright (c) 1995 Detroit Free Press
Link to Faygo Beverages website