JOHN NESE MADE A choice in 1998 that changed his life. The owner of Galco's Old World Grocery in Highland Park rebelled against what he considered unfair marketing by Pepsi and began selling obscure, often discontinued, soft-drink brands.
Nese never intended to become L.A.'s king of pop, but his store's shelves now teem with 328 brands of long-forgotten bottled sodas such as Nehi ("As good as the first peach of the summer!" Nese says), Moxie Elixir ("Unique and you respect it") and super-caffeinated Jolt Cola.
In the process, Nese has become a man who really thinks about soda pop, perhaps a bit too much. He claims his interest began on a camping expedition when he was 8. "There was a naturally carbonated spring with water that I dreamed about bottling and bringing it back to my school classroom," he recalls.
His quixotic thoughts about soda continue. "I want everyone to know what soda should taste like. That's my dream!"
Nese prefers soda in glass bottles and made with pure cane sugar. No aluminum cans, plastic bottles or corn syrup. "Plastic bottles ruin the taste of soda," he says. "During the bottling process, flat plastic bottles are blown up to 2-liter size with a gas blast. That's why the first taste is awful and the last one is flat."
Corn syrup, he says, is a poor substitute for pure cane sugar. "7UP lost the crisp, clean taste it used to have with the sugar cane formula. Likewise for Coke and Pepsi. They're wet but not flavorful."
Nese does stock Coke and Pepsi, but only the Mexican versions because they're made with cane sugar and are bottled in glass. Prefer something more challenging? Try the Mystic Seaport Spruce Beer ("The closest thing to drinking a tree!") or Blenheim's "hot" Ginger Ale ("Get it for your enemies").
Nese has pursued his passion beyond the retailing realm. "I've consulted with every minor soda pop company in the United States, some with products that went off the market 50 years ago. I tell them that there's still a market for these grand old sodas," he says.
For example, Bubble Up was big in the 1920s. Nese begged its owner for a production run. "I said, 'If you can't sell it in six months, I'll buy the whole lot.' Thirty days later, they were making the next run and have made more since then."
Nese is talking to other bottlers and syrup makers about resurrecting once-popular drinks, such as Faygo's Rock & Rye and Bireley's, a noncarbonated orange soda. He expects his inventory to grow to 380 brands by June. Says Nese: "If I can find the syrup, I can sell the soda."
For more information about Nese's cavalcade of carbonation, go to his virtual soda aisle at www.SodaPopStop.com.