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Seltzer Revival : Old Product Fizzes Back Into Favor

June 03, 1986|DANIEL AKST | Times Staff Writer

For years the seltzer business was kind of, well, flat. The old customers were dying and the companies themselves seemed moribund.

But that was before aerobics, Perrier and wine coolers. Sparkling water of every kind is in nowadays, and seltzer is enjoying a resurgence that big companies like Canada Dry and Schweppes hope to exploit.

So do Julian Diamond and Morton Shechtman. Julie and Mort, as they are known, are the last remaining providers of old-fashioned, home-delivered, spritz-bottle seltzer in Southern California.

They do business a short hop from one another deep in the heart of industrial North Hollywood. Although the two companies monopolize the business locally, antitrust enforcers needn't worry about collusion. Julie and Mort nurse a healthy dislike for one another, and maintain an even healthier competition.

Warehouse Looks Like Museum

Diamond, 59, whose family started A-1 Seltzer in the 1920s or 1930s--he isn't sure of an exact date--runs the company out of a kind of industrial barn filled with bottles and equipment that wouldn't look out of place in the Smithsonian.

Shechtman, 40, a relative novice with just 24 years in seltzer, used to own an A-1 delivery route until he and Diamond had a falling out in 1976. Now, he and his father, Sidney, have their own little plant, Fremor Seltzer, jammed with their own antique bottles and ancient equipment.

Both business owners hope to benefit from America's love affair with light-colored, low-calorie, salt-free and caffeine-free beverages, of which seltzer is probably the most extreme example this side of tap water. Authentic seltzer is just purified water that has been carbonated.

Neither Julie's company nor Mort's will have an easy time exploiting the trend.

For one thing, the big beverage companies are not about to leave the booming seltzer business to Julie and Mort. The beverage giants already have put bottles of plain and flavored seltzer in supermarkets, and Canada Dry is claiming to be the No. 1 seltzer seller, with 41% of the market.

But A-1 and Fremor also have each other to contend with. Both claim more volume and better seltzer than the other, and each is planning to expand. A-1 wants to branch out to San Diego, and Fremor hopes to add a cash-and-carry business to its home delivery service.

Not Exactly Fashionable

Then there is the problem of product image. Like their locations on the flats of the San Fernando Valley, A-1 and Fremor are not exactly perceived as the height of fashion.

"Those people in their spas in Encino and Tarzana, they're not going to drink seltzer," Shechtman worries. "They're going to use Perrier."

Nevertheless, both men say their firms are thriving, partly because their delivery people will drive extraordinary distances to serve established customers and partly because their old-fashioned products "are in keeping with modern life styles," in the words of Gary Hemphill, editor of Beverage Industry, a trade magazine.

No one knows exactly how much seltzer Americans drink, but industry analysts estimate that supermarkets and grocery stores alone sold 26 million gallons last year, a small share of the 10.6 billion gallons of soft drinks consumed nationwide in 1985.

And all agree that seltzer consumption is on the upswing. Albert Armitage, marketing vice president for Schweppes, said sales are growing 20% a year versus just 4% for soft drinks overall.

"It's a very good business," said Diamond, a former bantamweight boxer. "Everybody is very health conscious."

Unlike most club soda and mineral waters, seltzer is salt free. Seltzer makers claim that it is purer than tap water and has more bounce than spring water. Diamond and Shechtman contend that their stuff is even better than store-bought seltzer.

Both say their product is bubblier and stays that way because the siphon top retains carbonation down to the last drop. Their prices are reasonably competitive with those of retailers. Charges vary with distance, and sometimes by driver, but Fremor generally charges $4 and A-1 $4.50 a case.

Fizz and Nostalgia

But A-1 and Fremor don't just offer fizz. They offer nostalgia.

Besides the familiar clank of home delivery and the powerful spray of ancient metal valves, the two companies sell their products in tens of thousands of evocative old bottles purchased from defunct seltzer companies all over the country.

The bottles, some dating to the turn of the century, weigh three or four pounds each and bear the names of long-departed seltzer companies from Cincinnati to San Francisco. Some have Art Deco designs and most carry chrome-plated pewter siphons that can knock a glass right out of your hand with a jolting burst of sparkling water. They squirt so hard that seltzer bottles used to be sold as fire extinguishers, and Diamond still has one labeled that way.

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