Drink of the Deli People : Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda Making Its Mark Outside of New York
Today is a big day not only for the Statue of Liberty but also for Dr. Brown’s, “the original cream soda,” the drink of the New York deli people.
For good reason. Dr. Brown’s cream soda is the soft drink with the Statue of Liberty on its label.
“Since 1869,” it says on the bottles and cans. Dr. Brown’s cream soda was a New York favorite even before the Statue of Liberty or the Brooklyn Bridge existed.
Dr. Brown’s line of soft drinks for more than 100 years was sold almost exclusively by New York City Jewish delicatessens and by soda salesmen who went door to door on the Lower East Side and in other Jewish neighborhoods of the city.
But in the last four years, Dr. Brown’s cream soda has been introduced in delis, gourmet shops and restaurants coast to coast, along with Dr. Brown’s black cherry, root beer, ginger ale and Cel-Ray, a celery-based carbonated drink.
“We’re sharing our heritage and culture with the rest of America,” explained Harry Gold, 62, marketing director for the soft-drink products.
Once sold almost exclusively in the New York metropolitan area, Dr. Brown’s today sells 50% of its product in the Big Apple and its environs and 50% in the rest of the nation. Gross sales last year for the five flavors totaled about $99 million, double that of 1982.
Who was Dr. Brown?
“For generation to generation, we’ve been told there was a doctor by that name who invented cream soda and celery tonic now known as Cel-Ray, so far as we know the only vegetable-based carbonated soft drink commercially sold,” Gold said.
“But we have no records that tell us anything about the good doctor. It’s like a biblical story. We accept it on faith.”
Dr. Brown’s cream soda and Cel-Ray (made with the flavor of crushed celery seeds) were first produced 117 years ago by the Schoneberger & Noble soft drink company on Water Street in Manhattan.
That company was sold to the Schultz beverage company, which produced Dr. Brown’s soft drinks for years in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn.
American Beverage Corp. bought Dr. Brown’s in 1952 and sold it to Canada Dry Bottling Co. of New York in 1982. Dr. Brown’s is now produced at the big Canada Dry plant in the College Point neighborhood of Queens.
“Years ago,” recalled Gold, “there was a Jewish deli on every corner in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and other neighborhoods. People would come to the delis to eat, to talk, to entertain each other and to drink Dr. Brown’s, especially Cel-Ray and cream soda.
“Generations were weaned on the stuff. It was second nature to them. The two drinks became synonymous with delis. After World War II there was a tremendous exodus of the population out of New York. Wherever people went, they took the heritage of Dr. Brown’s with them.”
Gold told how every day he receives letters from former New Yorkers asking where they can buy Dr. Brown’s. “But it’s much more than an ethnic drink now. It is popular with all nationalities, all creeds,” he added.
New York-style delis have spread throughout the nation in the last few years. Nearly all feature Dr. Brown’s.
“Dr. Brown’s is not like your typical major soft drink. We’re not looking for universal distribution in supermarkets. This is a specialty item handled by little private entrepreneurs. What Pepsi sells in a day takes me a year.”
Cream soda is the most popular seller with 50% of Dr. Brown’s sales; next is black cherry made from New York Mount Morency cherries with 30% of sales, then Cel-Ray with 15%. Root beer and ginger ale make up the remaining 5%.
Labels for each flavor carry line drawings of old New York vignettes: the Statue of Liberty on cream soda labels, the Brooklyn Bridge on Cel-Ray, the Central Park carrousel on black cherry, the no longer existing Astor Hotel on ginger ale and a typical New York turn-of-the-century ice cream parlor on root beer.
Slogans for the products include: “Imported From the Old Neighborhood” and “Taste of the Town.”
Cel-Ray is a favorite at many traditional celebrations like Sweet 16 parties for girls marking that special birthday. Friends of New Yorker Marsha Schnipper, for example, remember her Sweet 16 party. Cel-Ray was the only liquid refreshment served.
“Cel-Ray” insisted Gold, “is a drink you either love or hate. There is no in-between. It has a unique flavor. Fanatics can’t live without it.”
The biggest single outlet for Dr. Brown’s beverages is New York’s largest and oldest deli, Katz’s delicatessen on the Lower East Side at 205 East Houston Street. (New Yorkers pronounce it How-ston.)
This deli, which seats 355, is always jammed and looks the same now as it did 40 years ago. It has been serving Dr. Brown’s since the deli was established in 1888.
Every day, the tables at Katz’s are crowded with customers eating hot pastrami, brisket of beef and corned beef sandwiches, munching on hot potato and kasha knishes and drinking Dr. Brown’s, especially the cream soda and Cel-Ray.
Katz’s--owned and operated by Artie Makstein, 60, Izzy Tarawsky, 62, and Leonard Katz, 64, all descendants of the original owners--is also famous for its homemade salami and for its slogan that originated in World War II and continues to this day:
“Send a salami to your boy in the Army.”
The cream soda with the Statue of Liberty on the bottles and cans, noted Makstein, “is the drink of the deli people” and Cel-Ray with the Brooklyn Bridge on its label “is the champagne of the same crowd.”
“Dr. Brown’s,” he continued, “which started as a New York Jewish soda, is now universally loved. It has moved into the mainstream of America.”