If you happen to be out of town and have a hankering for a Sun Drop or a Cheerwine, make sure you look at the bottle before you make your choice and hand your money to the clerk, says Ron Doutt, plant manager of the Choice USA bottling facility on East Franklin Boulevard in downtown Gastonia.
If the bottle is stamped “GS,” it means it was produced in Gastonia, and if it’s produced in Gastonia, it is the very best product available, produced and bottled under the highest standards in the soft drink business, Doutt said.
Choice USA, which bottles a host of beverages in addition to Gaston County favorites Sun Drop and Cheerwine, will be celebrating its 100th birthday Thursday evening with a public party at the Rotary Pavilion in downtown Gastonia from 6 to 10 p.m.
Providing music for the event will be the legendary 1970s soul group, the Chairmen of the Board, best known for the hit “Give Me Just a Little More Time,” while the evening will conclude with a fireworks show.
Ice cold Sun Drops will be available for just a quarter, as will individual servings of the new Sun Drop flavor of Tony’s Ice Cream. Several area restaurants will have food trucks at the event, including Goldfinger, the Kickin’ Kitchen, and R.O.’s Barbecue. Happy Feet Sno Cones will also be sold. All profits for the evening will go to the Gastonia Rotary Club’s fundraising efforts for Alzheimer’s research.
A classic car show will also be held as part of the event, with the winner from each decade receiving a $100 gift card.
The company that is now Choice USA opened in downtown Gastonia on Long Avenue in 1917, first owned by C.P. Nanney, L.L. Mingus and M.O. Mingus. Nanney bought out the Mingus brothers in 1939 and moved the business to a new plant at the current location on East Franklin Boulevard. Nanney sold the company to J.P. Falls in the early 1970s, but stayed with the business to lend experience and advice to Falls.
Today, the company employs more than 250 people at four locations and bottles not only Sun Drop and Cheerwine products but also Snapple products, Sunkist products, Hawaiian Punch, A&W Root Beer, and a host of other non-alcoholic beverages. The company is run by president and CEO Jay Falls, son of the late J.P. Falls.
Earlier this week, Falls and Doutt welcomed a group of teachers from the Highland School of Technology for a tour of the Franklin Boulevard facility and a look at just how quickly and efficiently hundreds of thousands of cans and bottles of soda can be produced each week.
“The flavor concentrate is the heart of any soft drink,” Falls told the group. “We always blend on the high side of the concentrate. Other bottlers blend to the low side. There is no question that you can tell the difference in taste.”
In addition to the flavor concentrate, a key component of any soft drink is water and Choice USA uses Gastonia City Water, but not as it comes out of the tap.
“We have to strip the chlorine out of the water,” Doutt said. “You just don’t want that taste in a soft drink. We then go through an exhaustive filtering process to get out the salt and the other minerals which are found in tap water.”
Water, sugar, flavor concentrate and carbon dioxide come together to form a soft drink, but each ingredient must be carefully measured and monitored during the bottling process to achieve optimum flavor, quality control expert Mike Johnson told the teachers.
“We are constantly measuring, checking, and tasting to make sure everything is just as it should be,” Johnson said.
“We don’t have the deep pockets that Coke or Pepsi have,” Doutt said. “We absolutely have to be sure we get it all right the first time around.”
In the plant, teachers watched in awe as thousands of two-liter bottles of Sunkist Orange moved down one line while thousands of 16-ounce bottles of Diet Sun Drop moved down another.
The lines are capable of producing 400 16-ounce bottles each minute, while 1,000 cans per minute can be produced at the line’s peak capacity.
Some weeks, especially when holidays such as July 4 or Labor Day are approaching, the plant can turn out in excess of 1 million cans of soda.
“So you’re saying that your Sun Drop is the top-shelf Sun Drop?” one of the teachers asked when the group had returned to the plant’s front office.
“Absolutely,” replied Doutt. “Absolutely.”
You can reach Bill Poteat at 704-869-1855.