Snack foods and pop, Detroit style

Vernor’s delivery trucks line up outside the newly expanded plant on Woodward in this 1915 photo.

In 1862 James Vernor, a Detroit pharmacist, was experimenting with a new drink using ginger root, but he couldn’t get it right. Interrupted by a call to fight in the Civil War, he stored his concoction in a charred oak cask. Four years later when he returned, he tasted the aged liquid and found it to be “deliciously different.” Detroit’s own Vernor’s ginger ale was born.

In 1896 Vernor opened a plant on Woodward near the river, filling oak barrels with his increasingly popular brew. By 1915 the facility had expanded and was also bottling the ale. Paintings of golden bearded gnomes rolling oak barrels decorated the building and advertised Vernor’s Ginger Ale to Boblo patrons waiting to board the boats at the foot of Woodward.

By the 1950s Civic Center projects required the prime land the old plant sat on and Vernor’s relocated up Woodward near Warren on the site of the old Detroit convention center, and adjacent to the old WSU student hangout, Verne’s.

The new facility opened in 1954 and offered a view of bottles on long conveyer belts speeding by at a rate of 350 a minute, 75,000 cases a day. Free samples and Boston coolers (Vernor’s with vanilla ice cream) quenched visitors’ thirst.

Which way did he go?

Brothers Perry and Ben Feigenson, Russian immigrants, started the Faygo soft drink firm in 1907, and were joined by their sons in 1946. The plant at 3579 Gratiot first opened in 1935 making root beer, fruit-flavored drinks and a concoction called Rock & Rye named after a Prohibition drink of rye whisky and a cube (rock) of sugar. The company began advertising during Detroit Tiger baseball games and soon were selling their drinks in 32 states.

During the 1950s everyone in Detroit was imitating the popular television ad jingle, “Which way did he go? Which way did he go? He went for Faygo, old fashioned Root Beer.” Faygo name recognition, not to mention sales, went through the roof.

The company offered many flavors, including red pop and orange soda. Kids compared flavors and colors and proclaimed their favorites.

Faygo name recognition went through the roof with this 1950s television commericial and the jingle, “Which way did he go?”

      But not everything Faygo did worked. A wine flavored pop called Chateaux Faygeaux flopped. Another drink, Royal Hawaiian Pineapple Orange bombed, literally. The bottles burst, caps flew off and everyone scrambled for safety.

The rise and fall of potato chip giants

All these tasty drinks required snacks to go with them. And what could go better with a tall frosty glass of Vernor’s ginger ale or Faygo root beer than salty potato chips? During the 1940s and ’50s competition among potato chip manufacturers in Detroit was intense.

The giants were Better Made Potato Chips and New Era Potato chips. Better Made was founded in 1928 by Peter Cipriano and Cross Moceri, and like Faygo also had a Gratiot address at 10148.

In 1951, New Era had four plants in the Midwest, including the Detroit plant at 5801 Grandy, and outsold the competition by three-to-one. The company’s logo was a black silhouette of a thin woman, her arm arched to her head seemingly reaching for chips. Her thinness seemed to imply that chips were not fattening.

Inspectors pick brown chips from the pottato chip assembly line at New Era’s Detroit plant at 5801 Grandy.

      We all knew better, but we were unable to resist. Inside the plants, it took only seven minutes for the raw potato to become a handful of chips.

A truck loaded with potatoes would be lifted at an angle and its load dumped into the factory. The potatoes would then go through an automatic peeler, a slicer would turn them into slivers, jets of water would wash away excess starch, and the slices were then blown dried before finding their way into the fryers. The aroma of frying potatoes would leak out into the neighborhoods surrounding the plants and get gastric juices flowing all over the city.

But the domination of potato chips in the snack-food industry was being challenged in a number of arenas. Soaring labor costs and rising potato prices began to topple potato chip companies like dominoes. By 1980, 21 potato chip makers had gone out of business.

New Era was bought out by Frito-Lay, and the company was closed in 1981. Of all the Detroit chip makers, only Superior and Better Made survived.

It may or may not have anything to do with this story, but Michigan residents are reported to be among the most overweight in the nation.

Workers box up the finished product at the Better Made Potato Chip Co. plant at 10148 Gratiot. It took only seven minutes to turn a raw potato into a handful of chips.

By Vivian Baulch / The Detroit News