Natrona Bottling Company Thriving On Nostalgia And Tradition After 112 Years

Oct 18, 2016

Along the Allegheny River in an unassuming former car garage sits the 112-year-old Natrona Bottling Company. Established in 1904, the business has distributed thousands of glass bottles with their signature Red Ribbon Cherry Supreme, spicy ginger beer and mint julep.

This story is part of Essential Pittsburgh, an ongoing series exploring how Pittsburgh lives, and how it's evolving.

“We use all vintage machinery and we mix everything by hand. We’re an old-school soda pop company,” said Vito Gerasole, who calls himself the “Sultan of Soda.”

Gerasole took over when the company's former owner died in 2009.

Ed Welsh founded the Natrona Bottling Works in 1904.  Around the start of World War II, John Bowser bought the business and renamed it Natrona Bottling Company. His teenage brother, Paul, started helping at the shop after work and before long, he had dedicated his life to the company.

In the seven years since Gerasole’s family bought Natrona Bottling, he’s increased sales by more than 300 percent by rebranding the product and finding new distributors and vendors in the Pittsburgh area, he said. And a lot of those accounts were the product of an old-school business method.

Robert Filows, 57, collects freshly labeled glass soda bottles two and three at a time in the back room of Natrona Bottling Company on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016. Filows said he started part-time there in his early 20s, and he'll drink just about anything that comes off the line. "Flavor don't matter," he said. "It's all good to me."
Credit Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA

“I found an old metal cooler and I was up in the attic and I cleaned it up and filled it with soda and walked around the streets of Pittsburgh for, I don’t know, the first year basically,” Gerasole said. “Just like a door-to-door salesman.”

Part of the company’s success, according to Gerasole, lies in their devotion to traditional soda production. Workers mix flavoring by hand and still use the “pinpoint carbonation” style abandoned by most manufacturers.

Dave Knapp, 30, measures white sugar in brown paper sacks on an antique scale at the Natrona Bottling Company on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016.
Credit Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA

“That’s really our defining factor,” Gerasole said. “We’ll never get away from that, because that’s what makes us better than the competition and special at the same time.”

Pinpoint carbonation happens when dry ice is put into pressurized tanks and melted overnight, creating carbon dioxide. Workers then mix the carbon dioxide into the water, so when the liquid enters the glass bottle, it’s already carbonated. Most major soda producers force manufactured carbonation into drinks at the end of the process. 

“You get a very small, tiny, crisp, smooth, refreshing bubble that is unlike any other produced out here,” Gerasole said.

Office manager Mary Jane Zdila fiddles with a fax machine in the front office of the Natrona Bottling Company on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016. She's been involved with the company for 14 years.
Credit Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA

Administrative manager Mary Jane Zdila is also a veteran of Natrona Bottling, having worked with the company for 14 years. A Natrona native, she said she was very close with the Bowser family, having taken care of Paul Bowser until his death.

“I promised Paul before he died that I wouldn’t let anything happen to the company, and I’ve tried to keep my promise,” Zdila said.

Gerasole’s branding changes, like updating the logos, initially affected consumer perception, Zdila said. People “eat with their eyes,” Zdila said, but the taste hasn't changed.

“We’re reaching out to a different generation,” Zdila said, but with the same neighborly devotion Bowser inspired. He often invited fellow Natrona natives to visit the shop.

In an upstairs room at the Natrona Bottling Company on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016, cold sugar water is pumped into a vat, filtered for unwanted particles and shot through pipes to the antique bottling conveyor on the first floor. The liquid, a blend of carbonated water and flavored syrup, is thrust into glass bottles and packed for distribution, usually all in one day.
Credit Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA

“This place constantly had a stream of people coming in and out, in and out,” Zdila said.

Gerasole said he’d like to increase his footprint in Natrona now that the business is “back on its feet.”

“I haven’t, unfortunately, really done that yet, because in order to row the business, I had to get out to where there was a large amount of people,” Gerasole said. “But the time is now for us to become a vocal company within the town of Natrona and do good for it.”

Master bottler Steve Vokish has been with the company for 41 years. He estimated the bottling machine to be around 70 or 80 years old. Business has been up since Gerasole took over, he said. On an average day, he produces more than 100 cases of different soda flavors, along with two part-time coworkers.

Natrona’s products can be found in hundreds of stores throughout western Pennsylvania. Gerasole said he wants the company to “hit a million dollars in the next three years” through expansion into Ohio and West Virginia.

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