Inside the Mind of a Soda Iconolcast

How did high-fructose corn syrup take over the soft-drink market? And why did root beer lose its status as one of America's most popular sodas? John Nese, proprietor, of L.A.'s famous Galco's Soda Pop Stop, has some theories, and he's not afraid to share them.

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Photo: Henry Levine

To get to Highland Park from downtown Los Angeles, you’ll hop on the 110 North towards Pasadena and eventually pass through a strip of highway that’s one of L.A.’s oldest. The five lanes shrink down to two, and the synchronized stoplights at the foot of the onramp are replaced by stop signs. If you exit at one of the avenues and head west on Figueroa, it’s likely you’ll spot the sign for El Atacor #11, a chain famous for its tacos dorados de papa. Make a left on to York Avenue, pass the La Estrella lonchero truck that tempts you with its sizzling asada, and a half mile down York you’ll see the humble storefront of Galco's Soda Pop Stop, an Italian Grocery Mart established in 1897.

Recently, I walked into Galco’s for a second time to meet John Nese, owner of the nostalgia-tinged soda pop shop that is often credited with reviving craft soda interest 15 years ago. Normally, I don’t begin interviews by profusely apologizing to the subject, but my recording device had failed me the previous go-around, and all the colorful anecdotes, sharp insights, and pocket wisdom had been erased. This time, I placed two recording devices on the table and grumbled about the pitfalls of technology.

John sympathized. "You think that’s bad?" he asked. He said he paid $2,000 dollars to have someone tell him that the computer chip died in his car. And, he pointed out, only the dealers have access to the right equipment and computers. Which reminded him: It used to be a dollar to get a key made; now, it’s $250 to buy an electronic one from the dealer.

“How much control are we under?” he asked. Little Richard was wailing from the radio, in seeming agreement. “I mean, that really bothers me. And they’re forcing this onto the people...I’ll get off my soapbox now,” he laughed.

Selling sodas is merely his platform, one that allows him to call out the wrongs and trappings of Big Business.

Interludes like these frequently pop up in conversation with John, the longtime Highland Park native whose family emigrated from Italy. Since taking over the business, he's turned his store into a bastion of craft soda, where the shelves are stocked with bottles emblazoned with quirky slogans (“Drink it for Vim and Vigor”) and the sounds of doo-wop music can be heard playing overhead. For him, supporting the small guys is a life's work.

John is a friendly man, filled with a child-like enthusiasm about a beverage adored by children. His handshake is earnest. He is widely considered the guardian for independent soda bottlers. But at his core, John is a vigilant watchdog—a social activist in the guise of a small business owner, calling out injustices that, if you ask him, are often levied by big corporations and institutions that think they can operate unchecked. It's this iconoclastic streak that's earned him letters from Pepsi’s lawyers, threatening to file a lawsuit because he was selling Mexican Pepsi.

In his words, they’re posted so everyone can see what goes on in the world of "high finance." Having lived in L.A. his entire life, his knowledge of public policy and cultural history is deep. Selling sodas, as I soon learned, is merely his platform, one that allows him to call out the wrongs and trappings of Big Business. It was 15 years ago when, faced with financial troubles, John decided to stock his shelves with small-batch, independent bottlers after a run-in he had with a Pepsi salesman.

Now, Galco’s carries 600 different types of pop, as well as off-the-beaten path candies, beers, and an underrated Italian sub for only $4.50. Amid the vast treasure trove you’ll find oddball flavors such as cucumber, anise, and banana; 60 types of root beer (some dry, some creamy); a Plantation Style Mint Julep; cereal-grain sodas (despite my skepticism, John insists that some have such a high mineral content that you can practically live off of them);sodas brewed like beer; pinot noir wine country soda; and, what may be most amazing of all, varieties of cola that don’t start with “Coca.”

“Coca Cola called me two weeks ago and one of their reps said, ‘You’re signed up for delivery but you haven’t bought any.’ I said yes, that’s true. She said, almost uncomfortably, ‘Why not?’ And I told her if anyone wants a Coke you can get it at any store, so why should I sell it? That’s the truth.”

Instead of selling what's ubiquitous, Galco’s provides a prelapsarian glimpse into what the world of soda might have looked like if major corporations hadn't taken over the market. John, who normally walks around to help inquiring customers, sat down and told me how he entered the business, sounded off on soda trends, gave insight into what makes a soda taste good, offered a revisionist history of the soda industry, and told personal stories about his relationship with his beloved city, Los Angeles. Step into the mind of a soda iconoclast...

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