By April Hall
The Business: L.D. Peeler was a franchise bottler for Mint Cola in Salisbury, N.C., but wanted to create a beverage of his own. He often experimented with soft-drink recipes.
In 1917, when sugar was rationed because of World War I, Peeler finally hit on his perfect flavor—an effervescent wild cherry soda that didn't exist in the market of the day. He called it Cheerwine—some say because of the deep red color, others say because a sip of it makes a person cheerful.
Cheerwine was distributed exclusively in the immediate Piedmont, N.C., area for two generations, but in the 2000s, the company's third-generation leaders started serious expansion. Today, the soft drink is still available primarily in the Southeast, but counts national chains Cracker Barrel and World Market among its retailers. Distributors in 15 states offer the brand.
Why did the company wait so long to expand? "The family business started out in a difficult time in American history," says Joy Harper, marketing director at Cheerwine and a fifth-generation family member. Cheerwine's early years included two world wars and the Great Depression.
"My great-great-grandfather and great-grandfather were conservative" in their approach to growth, she says.
The company now employs 450 workers in nine distribution facilities in South Carolina. Production operations are based in Charlotte, N.C., but the company's roots remain in Salisbury, N.C. The original site downtown was donated to the city and is listed as a historic property.
The Cheerwine flavor has stayed the same, regardless of expansion to new markets or changing consumer tastes.
"If you think about it, most of the big soft drinks are copies of each other—cola, orange, grape," Harper says. "Cheerwine does really have its own flavor. We have been an innovator in the field."
One of the reasons the company remains in business is that "we have continued to offer the same great taste for 100 years. That's a big part of our success," Harper says. "We also remain true to our values, authenticity and independence."
The Family: Founder L.D. Peeler ran the business until his death in 1931. At that time his son Clifford Peeler (Harper's great-grandfather) took over as president of Carolina Beverage Corporation and Cheerwine Bottling.
Clifford stayed on as president a whopping 61 years. When he retired in 1992—the company's 75th year—he handed the reins to his grandsons. Brothers Mark and Cliff Ritchie (Harper's father) became presidents of Carolina Beverage Corporation and Cheerwine Bottling, respectively. In 2007, Cliff Ritchie took over as president of Carolina Beverage Corporation in addition to the bottling company; he holds those positions today.
Other family members in the business include Harper's brother, Mac McQueen, the vice president of trade development; and her cousin, Carl Ritchie, the business development manager.
Although a Peeler descendant has always been the head of Carolina Beverage, there is no guarantee that a family member will lead the business in the future.
"My brother and myself have been in this business for a while now," Harper says. "There is no expectation that we would hold that position [CEO]. But we've learned a lot, and we do hope to keep [the business] in the family. And there's no signal yet as to when Cliff will be retiring.
"But a succession plan is something that we discuss," Harper says. "It's an important part of the business—that family members in the business have the appropriate degrees, experience and an interest in the company. You're here to work hard like everyone else."'
The Celebration: When Cheerwine throws a party, set aside an entire day. The festival celebrating the company's centennial ran from noon to 8 p.m. on May 20.
The product and its fans took over the main street of Salisbury, where the company originated. Visitors, of course, got Cheerwine, and judged a "People's Choice" barbecue contest. (All competitors were from the Carolinas.) Other partners also contributed food, and a beer garden offered craft beer from the state.
Bands from the Carolinas performed on stage throughout the day, including country-tinged Time Sawyer and Empire Strikes Brass (which, unsurprisingly, heavily features brass instruments).
"It was a celebration of all things Carolina," Harper says. "It's exactly what we're about."
The Rowan Museum, on North Main Street, was open for free tours and featured a Cheerwine history exhibit, which will be presented free of charge throughout the year. There was also a kids' zone for the little ones. Cheerwine memorabilia was available for sale.
Cheerwine developed special packaging in honor of the anniversary. At the time of the festival, Cheerwine cans featured a design from the 1960s. Every couple of months, a new retro design will be released. Also in random 12-packs of the soda: instant winner cans worth $100. A collectible glass bottle is available, as well.
The Planning: Cheerwine put together a group of employees and representatives from the community a year ahead of the event. Because springtime in North Carolina is festival season, the first order of business was to select a date that would not conflict with any other event.
Next, the committee reached out to established partners and other North Carolina businesses, including Krispy Kreme, Bojangles, Biscuitville and Food Lion.
"From there, we worked with the city of Salisbury to ID other businesses and food vendors," Harper says.
Even the North Carolina Department of Transportation got in on the act by offering a 15% discount on train tickets from points east and west of the Cheerwine festival.
The Response: Harper says the planning committee, company officials and vendors expected about 5,000 people, basing the number on Cheerwine's 90th anniversary celebration and other festivals Salisbury holds throughout the year.
Thirty thousand people showed up.
"We were blown away," Harper says. "Overall the energy was amazing, and it was a great day. Luckily, we had plenty of cold Cheerwine on hand." Nearly 40,000 cans were given away, she says.
Visitors came from Michigan, Florida and elsewhere around the country. "It was definitely more than North Carolinians celebrating with us," Harper says. She says many in the crowd wore Cheerwine hats and T-shirts, some dating back 20 years.
Fortunately, the supply of giveaway soft drinks lasted through the event. Harper says food partners also kept up with demand—even if they had to make a couple runs for supplies.
Cheerwine and partner Food Lion also linked a charitable cause to the celebration. Through Food Lion Feeds, the grocery chain's hunger-relief program, 800 pounds of food and $5,000 in cash were collected that day and donated to a local food pantry.
National, state and local officials acknowledged the company's milestone:
• The White House congratulated Cheerwine in a letter that said, "For five generations, the Cheerwine family has made special contributions to our communities, our economy and the cherished memories of many Americans."
• The City of Salisbury's mayor proclaimed May 20, 2017, "Cheerwine Day" and presented the founding family with a key to the city.
• A statement recognizing the anniversary and the soft drink was read into the record by the North Carolina House of Representatives.
• The Rowan County Board of Commissioners presented a proclamation congratulating Cheerwine and the founder's descendants on the 100th anniversary.
• The North Carolina General Assembly presented Cheerwine with a Certificate of Congratulations.
"We have been overwhelmed by all of the recognition we've received," Harper says. "And we so appreciate the fans that introduce Cheerwine to family and friends."
The Advice: Harper says it was crucial to get the city of Salisbury on board, since the celebration involved the closure of blocks North Main Street, a multi-laned major artery. "It took a lot of coordination with the city, from medical staff to security," she says. "We're appreciative of the city's guidance and support."
Harper attributes the success of the festivities to having the right people involved in planning all aspects of the event.
"It is identifying the right team to help pull off a big event like this," she says. "It's reaching out to the community, whether it's the hometown or a larger area. You need people involved who are enthusiastic and reflective of what your brand is all about.
"And you also have to know what your fans want to see."
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