A version of this story appears in the January edition of Celebrate Arkansas magazine.
The nondescript metal building is on Industrial Drive in Malvern, just a mile or so from busy Interstate 30. There’s a small sign out front, but most of those who drive by likely don’t know that it’s now the home of one of the country’s iconic soft drink brands, Grapette.
When older Arkansans think of Grapette, they likely think of Camden rather than Malvern. And for good reason.
It was at Camden in 1926 that a service station owner named Benjamin Tyndle Fooks learned that a local bottling plant was for sale and decided to purchase the business. A customer at the service station, Henry Furlow, had told Fooks that he wanted to sell his plant on Adams Street in Camden. Fooks was ready for a change and wasted no time borrowing $4,000 from a local businessman named Charles Saxon so he could buy the bottling plant from Furlow.
Fooks soon became the first bottler in south Arkansas to make regular truck deliveries in rural areas.
Business was steady initially, and Fooks bought another plant at Arkadelphia in 1927. He purchased an additional bottling operation at Hope a year later.
With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, however, Fooks’ fortunes took a hit. He sold the Arkadelphia and Hope operations. But he held onto his Camden plant and began driving through the piney woods of south Arkansas, north Louisiana and east Texas selling what were known as Fooks Flavors out of his car. He would take orders from local bottlers for the flavors and then return to Camden to mix the flavors. Fooks would work late into the night in the syrup room of his Camden plant.
Fooks continued to experiment with various flavors through the years. He drove trucks during the day and did his experiments at night. In the winter, when the demand for soft drinks fell off, Fooks made peanut patties and brittle.
Fooks developed a grape flavor in the late 1930s that he thought would be popular. He obtained a copyright for the name Grapette and began selling the drink at Camden in 1940. Grapette came in six-ounce clear bottles that showed off the drink’s beautiful color.
Lemonette, which contained a large amount of real citrus juice, came along in 1946. Fooks added an orange drink in 1947. Naturally, it was called Orangette.
“Realizing the potentialities of an outstanding grape drink, Mr. Fooks devoted a great deal of time and research to perfecting such a beverage,” Herbert C. Fooks wrote in a family history titled “Fooks Family.” “After thousands of experiments, he developed an unusually distinctive taste quality of the grape soft drink, which is known internationally today as Grapette. In May 1940, Grapette was first placed on the market at Camden. It was the beginning of a successful business. In 1950, after 10 short years, Grapette had become a most popular grape-flavored beverage. The Grapette Co. became the seventh-ranking beverage company in the industry.”
Fooks was an interesting character to say the least. He was born in 1901 on a farm near Paducah, Ky. His family moved to Camden in 1914, and Fooks finished high school there in 1918. He went back to Paducah to attend a business college and then returned to Camden to enter the lumber business with his father.
In 1920, Fooks decided to become a Methodist minister and headed to the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. After three months, he changed his mind about becoming a minister. He instead became a prominent Methodist layman, later serving on the boards of Southern Methodist University and Hendrix College.
Fooks worked in the lumber industry for several years, operating sawmills in Louisiana and assisting his father with the family’s sawmill at Camden. He also operated a wholesale lumber business at Memphis before selling it in 1925 so he could return to Camden and buy a service station. Fooks later took an interest in cattle. His Fooks Farms near Camden covered almost 1,500 acres and had 300 head of Aberdeen-Angus cattle.
Fooks even introduced a challenger to Coca-Cola in 1962 with Mr. Cola, known for its distinctive 16-ounce bottles. He added a product known as Lymette in 1963. At its peak, Grapette had more than 600 bottlers in 38 states.
In 1972, Fooks sold the Grapette Co. to the Rheingold Corp., which brewed beer along with bottling regional soft drinks in California, New Mexico and Puerto Rico. Rheingold changed the company name to Flavette and moved the headquarters to Florida.
Pepsico began a hostile takeover of Rheingold in 1975, and the Federal Trade Commission ruled that Pepsico had to divest several soft drink lines. The Grapette brand was purchased in 1977 by Monarch, the bottler of NuGrape. The Grapette name was shelved, and industry observers believed Grapette had become a thing of the past in this country.
The Grapette brand lived on in other countries.
In 1942, an Arkansas oilman named R. Paul May persuaded Fooks to allow him to market Grapette in Latin America. Grapette, Orangette and Lemonette became highly popular in the region, especially in Guatemala. A separate company known as Grapette International was established in 1962. May retained the international ownership of Grapette after the brand was retired in the United States. Following May’s death, Grapette International was passed on to his son-in-law, Brooks Rice.
Rice had been an early Walmart stockholder and began considering ways to partner with the company. During a 1986 meeting with Rice, Walmart founder Sam Walton made it clear that he wanted Grapette in his stores. Rice couldn’t use the Grapette name, but he could provide the famous flavor.
In 1989, Grapette International began producing a line of drinks for Walmart under the Ozark Farms brand. The drinks were brought back on the market in 1993 under the Sam’s Choice brand, and Walmart was given the right to the flavors. Sam’s Choice grape was, in fact, Grapette.
In 2000, Monarch finally agreed to sell the Grapette name. Slowly, the Grapette and Orangette brands replaced the Sam’s Choice label. For the first time in more than two decades, Grapette was being sold in the United States.
Of the seven children of Brooks Rice, two were males — Paul and David Rice. They’re 11 years apart in age. The two brothers, along with their brother-in-law Ed King, now operate Grapette International.
The building that houses the company in Malvern covers 45,000 square feet and was built to house a plastic recycling firm that later closed. Grapette, needing more room, moved its operations from Hot Springs to Malvern in 1999.
“We had begun producing an isotonic sports drink for Walmart,” Paul says. “It really took off, and we needed a bigger facility almost overnight. This building fit the bill.”
There are no traffic lights around the building, and it’s easy for trucks to get in and out at all hours. Drinks aren’t actually bottled at the Malvern plant. The products coming out of Malvern are highly concentrated flavor compounds. A five-gallon drum of one of these compounds is enough for 20,000 12-ounce cans. The smells of the concentrates — which are quite pleasant — permeate the building.
“By concentrating the flavors so intensely, you reduce shipping costs,” Ed says.
The industry landscape has changed dramatically in recent decades with far fewer bottlers than there once were. The flavor compounds produced by Grapette International are used in everything from sports drinks to snow cone mixes to margarita mixes. For competitive reasons, the company is sensitive about revealing the private label flavors it produces. It’s not a large operation from an employee standpoint. There are only about 15 full-time employees, most of whom have been with the company for a number of years.
The company’s conference room is a bit of a Grapette museum. Visitors immediately are offered a cold Grapette. In a case, there’s a 1945 six-ounce Grapette bottle that has never been opened.
On the company’s website, there’s a “memory lane” section so people can write about their memories of drinking Grapette. A Grapette advertising campaign in Central America uses the tagline “the memories that make you smile.”
Nostalgia is important.
“There often are emotions associated with soft drinks,” Ed says. “It’s something fun, something different. Grapette is special to people because that name disappeared for almost a generation in this country. A lot of gratitude goes to Walmart. They are largely responsible for bringing it back.”
Sam Walton had said in the meeting with Brooks Rice: “I want Grapette in my stores.”
The name Grapette wasn’t in the stores until after Walton’s death in 1992. But company executives remembered the founder’s wishes.
The current flavor is a little less sweet and has a higher carbonation level than the original. The government has also restricted one of the ingredients that originally made the drink’s color so rich.
“The beauty of Grapette is that it affected so many of the senses,” David says. “It was bright. It was sweet. It had a great grape taste.”
Dozens and dozens of flavors now come out of the Malvern plant.
“We do everything from dill pickle to blueberry flavors,” Paul says. “We do flavors that are spicy and specific to the Latin-American market. We do flavors that are bitter with vinegar and specific to the Asian market. We ship worldwide.”
He notes that the company’s first shipment to the Netherlands occurred several days before my visit.
“There aren’t a bunch of moving parts here,” David says. “If somebody mentions the Grapette International headquarters, people probably expect a huge bottling operation. That’s just not what we do.”
Instead, there are labs where the company continually experiments with new flavors and colors.
“We work on new products and types of packaging for those products,” Ed says. “We’re even into frozen yogurt flavors and yogurt delivery systems. Our strength is our large flavor portfolio.”
An example of the innovation that goes on at Grapette International is a line of sugar-free frozen pops that can be used by athletes and industrial employees to hydrate rather than having to consume more traditional electrolyte drinks.
“Kids on youth sports teams like them, and their parents like them,” Paul says.
Another growth area is a line of frozen slush drinks that are sold in convenience stores. Convenience store owners like the drinks because they attract consumers into the store after they have paid for gas at the pump.
The three partners are astute businessmen. Ed and Paul once worked in the financial industry. Ed is a graduate of the University of Arkansas, Paul is a graduate of Hendrix College at Conway and David is a graduate of Rhodes College at Memphis.
Paul says: “We’re nimble, and we’re innovative. We don’t necessarily know what the next big thing is, but we’ll be ready to respond. We also have really smart people working here. They believe in what we’re doing. Several of them were chemistry majors in college.”
“In a good family company, you have a higher level of trust,” Ed says. “And this is a good family company. We have a very low employee turnover rate.”
It all goes back to Benjamin Tyndle Fooks, who decided decades ago that he had developed a grape soda that tasted the way a grape soda should taste.
Thanks to a helping hand from Walmart, consumers across the country are still enjoying the taste of Grapette.