Over 100 years ago, a product hit the market with the tagline, “Exhilarating, Invigorating, Aids Digestion.” Was it Alka-Seltzer? Pepto-Bismol? Or some natural and long forgotten tonic? Nope—it was Pepsi-Cola.
Caleb Bradham always wanted to be a doctor. After growing up in rural Chinquapin, North Carolina, Bradham attended the University of North Carolina before enrolling in the University of Maryland School of Medicine. With his dream on the cusp of reality, he found his future stolen by, ironically enough, a health crisis in his family. Bradham abandoned his education and returned home to North Carolina to help take care of his kinfolk.
He taught for a time before reigniting his torch for medicine by opening a drugstore in nearby New Bern. Like most pharmacies of the era, Bradham’s began selling the new and delightfully bubbly concoction called “soda.” Ever ambitious, Bradham created his own signature syrup and drink for his pharmacy in 1893, a formula he dubbed simply as “Brad’s Drink.”
Bradham’s soda recipe was far from complex: water, sugar, caramel, lemon oil, nutmeg, and a handful of other natural ingredients. Despite its simplicity, the drink was a hit. The natural and effervescent beverage was hailed across counties, drawing in fans for miles. Bradham, a natural-born businessman if never a medical professional, sensed the profit behind his product. Bradham quickly began making moves to ensure the long-term success of his invention.
In 1898, for example, Bradham made intentional moves to change the name of his product for marketability and staying power. The pharmacist genuinely believed in the healthful aspects of his cola; he was convinced that the drink could aid in digestion, and he wanted to incorporate that aspect of the product into its name. He landed on “dyspepsia,” or indigestion, and played with derivatives of the words. He quickly ran into a problem, however, when he discovered a competitor had already trademarked “Pep Cola.” Not so easily dissuaded, Bradham tracked down his competitor in Newark, New Jersey, and discovered a useful tidbit—the competitor was broke. Bradham purchased the trade name “Pep Cola” for $100.
The popularity of Pepsi Cola continued to grow. In 1902 Bradham turned the mere soda into a business, forming the Pepsi-Cola Company (and assigning himself the role of President). Shortly after, in 1903, Pepsi-Cola was trademarked. When sales of the syrup reached over 200,000 gallons the following year, Bradham knew it was time to take the next step and Pepsi-Cola began bottling operations. A devoted Southerner, Bradham ensured that his first expansions remained in North Carolina, in Charlotte and Durham.
It wasn’t just the flavor of Pepsi that earned it such an excellent reputation early on. In 1906, the United States government instituted the Pure Food and Drug Act, requiring companies to eliminate chemicals like arsenic and lead from their food products. Most colas of the time (including Coca-Cola) were forced to revise their recipes in order to comply with the new, healthier regulations. But Pepsi, which still adhered to its original, natural ingredient list, continued to operate as before, now with a new, inherently marketable aspect and slogan, “The Original Pure Food Drink.”
The institution of the Pure Food and Drug Act only worked to increase even further the popularity of Brad’s Drink. By 1910, less than twenty years after he first unveiled the product, Pepsi-Cola had expanded to 240 franchises across twenty-four states. But the utopian success of the small-town company was not to last.
World War I brought difficulties for the country and for Bradham. New challenges stunted the growth of local businesses; for Pepsi–Cola, that challenge lay in the once-simple acquisition of sugar. The price of the sweet granules skyrocketed as the distribution of it was strictly rationed. Bradham and his employees experimented with alternatives like molasses, but the end result was never quite Pepsi; they were forced to pay the price for real sugar. Following the end of the war, the price of sugar climbed from three cents to twenty-eight cents per pound. Bradham mistakenly believed the price would continue to climb and invested wholeheartedly in the bloated and expensive ingredient. When the price of sugar suddenly dropped, Bradham and Pepsi found themselves in a pickle; overburdened with an excess of over-priced sugar and no longer able to produce a profitable product because of it, Pepsi-Cola declared bankruptcy in 1923.
But fortunes change, and today, nearly 100 years after that fateful and distressing day, Pepsi-Cola is one of the most successful corporations not just in the country but in the world. Their product may no longer be the Original Pure Food Drink, but other aspects of the company haven’t changed, like their devotion to community—especially a Southern community. True to its roots, and Bradham’s, Pepsi-Cola proudly displays signs across North Carolina proclaiming its origins and pride of place. Even through its hardships and challenges, Pepsi-Cola, like Bradham himself, always returns home to North Carolina.
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