Journalist Joe Grimm and local radio host Martin Bandyke invited community members to the Ann Arbor District Library Tuesday evening to discuss Grimm’s “The Faygo Book,” a collection of photographs, graphics and stories published in October 2018 that explore the history of local soda pop company Faygo. About six people attended the event, which included a presentation by Grimm followed by a book sale and signing.
Grimm, a University of Michigan alum who currently teaches journalism at Michigan State University, kicked off the evening by introducing his career and his experience writing the book. When asked by Bandyke how “The Faygo Book” came to be, Grimm said after writing a book about Detroit-based chain Coney Island, he decided to focus on Faygo next because he’d always appreciated the brand.
“I really liked Faygo commercials and the fun of it all, and I thought it would be a really interesting book because it’s such a colorful, varied product,” Grimm said.
Though the Faygo company was not interested in helping with the book, Grimm said he learned a lot about the company’s history by meeting regularly with Susie Feigenson, the granddaughter of one of the original founders. He also did his own research and found photos and information through social media.
Grimm then held an hour-long discussion on the history and cultural significance of Faygo soda pop. Faygo was started in 1907 by brothers Ben and Perry Feigenson, Russian Jewish immigrants based in Cleveland.
Perry, the older of the two brothers, moved to Detroit to start a bakery, but hated the early hours required by the job. Ben, who was working at the Miller Becker soda pop company in Cleveland, then moved to Detroit, and the two launched their own pop business. They started with three flavors — fruit punch, grape and strawberry — based off Perry’s recipe for cake frosting.
Grimm said the Feigensons entered the industry at a time when it was difficult to make a profit off pop for several reasons.
“People didn’t drink pop in the winter, like today was a no pop day, it was a summer thing,” Grimm said. “Another reason was when you sold the pop, they would sell eight-ounce bottles for three cents each, two for a nickel, but the bottles were worth a lot more.”
Other issues, Grimm said, included the fact that pop had a shorter shelf life in the early 1900s, plus the Feigensons launched Faygo right before a worldwide depression. Still, the Feigenson brothers were immensely successful selling out of the Jewish enclave of Detroit. They profited off the city’s population growth, a result of immigration and the burgeoning car business.
“The car business, and frankly Ford, were making Detroit and everything around it grow like crazy,” Grimm said.
Grimm also shared facts about Faygo’s many flavors. He noted Faygo products are all kosher, unlike many other brands, and also pointed out Faygo’s Rock & Rye! flavor is named after an alcoholic drink made of rye whiskey and rock candy sugar.
Moving on to Faygo’s relationship with the federal government, Grimm said land and material shortages have historically affected the company. In 1935, the federal government took over some of Faygo’s property to construct housing for the local neighborhood.
“They were told the federal government needed the land their factory was on to put in more housing for people in Black Bottom,” Grimm said. “Black Bottom is crowded — now we need high rises.”
The Feigensons bought a horse market that they converted into a new factory. Grimm said the factory still exists, and in fact, Faygo is the last remaining soda pop bottler in Detroit.
During World War II, Grimm added, Faygo was impacted by sugar rations. Many materials were in short supply due to the war effort, including tin, rubber, grease, meat and nylons.
“If you didn’t cut your consumption of sugar as a candy maker, cake maker, pop bottler, you had to cut to 80 percent of what you used last year,” Grimm said. “The first thing to be rationed after Pearl Harbor was sugar, and the last thing to be de-rationed was sugar.”
At the same time, Coca Cola campaigned heavily for the use of its products by American soldiers, so Grimm said Coca Cola advocates helped make sugar rationing more lenient. The Feigensons also donated to the troops.
Another major historical event the Faygo company endured was the 1967 rebellion over racial tension in Detroit. Grimm said Susie Feigenson was working at Faygo at the time, and witnessed the destruction of many storefronts in the neighborhood. However, she was surprised to find the Faygo factory untouched.
Faygo’s safety during the riot was ensured by its inclusive hiring practices. He said Faygo hired locals, meaning 60 percent of its male workers and 75 percent of its production workers at the time were Black.
“I think what happened was that the way they hired helped them out later,” Grimm said. “People said, ‘No, we’re not messing up that place, that’s where we work.’”
Grimm concluded the presentation by giving an overview of Faygo’s advertising practices. He displayed several images of historical billboards and TV commercials sponsored by Faygo, and named some of Faygo’s past celebrity sponsors, such as Alex Karras, a 1962 Detroit Lions defensive lineman.
In 1965, Grimm said, Faygo began expanding its business geographically. The company was threatened by Coca Cola’s advertising success in Traverse City and Toledo.
“Faygo hurried up and the Feigensons sent pop into those cities,” Grimm said. “People saw the commercials, they went to the store, they bought the pop, they wanted more, and from that point forward, Faygo started trying to get to be bigger than the mostly Detroit area.”
After speaking, Grimm accepted a few questions from the audience. Bandyke asked why Faygo continues to be a successful brand. Grimm said in addition to Faygo’s prize-winning flavors, low prices and tactful advertising, the company is dedicated to its local base.
“They stood by Detroit and Detroiters stood by them,” Grimm said.
Grimm also pointed out Faygo is now owned by National Beverage, which is highly profitable, despite declining soft drink sales, because it produces popular sparkling water brand La Croix.
Commenting on the presentation, Bandyke said he appreciated Grimm’s enthusiasm for his research on Faygo. Not every author, Bandyke said, can fill up their presentation time and successfully engage the audience.
“You have the feeling that this guy just could have talked for twice as long and have commanded your attention for that long,” Bandyke said. “Not every author has that passion that he does for the subject matter. It’s really impressive.”
Ann Arbor resident Kathie Wilder said she found Grimm’s talk very informative, and was particularly struck by Faygo’s inclusive hiring practices in the 1960s.
“I thought they were way, way ahead of the times,” Wilder said. “They were pathfinders, I thought.”
Wilder added that as a non-Michigan native, she was excited to taste some of the flavors Grimm mentioned.
“I’ll have to try some of these unique flavors,” Wilder said.