Misters GALioto and COrtopassi opened Galco’s Old World Grocery in 1897, one of the first Italian delis in the city. Over the years, Galco’s occupied three downtown locations, the last location being Castella and Ord in what’s now known as Chinatown. Back then, the neighborhood was called Little Italy, and Chinatown was down the hill by Union Station.
Mr. Cortopassi partnered with Louis Nese in the 1940’s. In 1950, he passed away and Mr. Nese took sole control of the grocery. Nese moved Galco’s to its current location in Highland Park in 1955, when the 110 Freeway jackknifed through the neighborhood. Louis’s son John joined his father at the grocery beginning at age 4, where he was in charge of Swiss cheese. Louis died 2½ years ago at age 95. His son John is now the owner.
The current building was constructed in 1917 as C&C Grocery and has housed a grocery store ever since. A 1923 addition doubled the size of the corner space. When Galco’s moved in, the additional space held a bakery, a barbershop and a TV store. A&P closed on December 31, 1954 and Galco’s opened the following year.
Until the late 80’s, Galco’s had a large Italian deli. According to John Nese, “Three things happened. The chains bought the distribution channels for the little guys and closed them down. Coke and Pepsi started buying shelf space in grocery stores, eliminating independent bottlers. And big business and big government got together. It put us out of the deli business. Everybody raised their prices. Every bit of shelf space was (and is) bought and paid for.” Galco’s gives the choice back to the people.
To survive and to build a niche, Nese scaled back the groceries and began stocking the shelves with sodas from small bottlers. The selection is now 500 varieties strong and continually growing. Galco’s still features a small deli in back, a nod to the past.
When deciding what to stock, Nese makes sure to “just listen to the customer. Fifty years ago you’d walk into the store and tell the manager if you didn’t see something on the shelves. They’d find it because they knew, (and I know) that for every person who asked, there are 100 people who don’t ask.”
I was given an opportunity to walk the aisles with Mr. Nese, where he imparted plenty of soda knowledge.
Manhattan Special has been run by the same family in Brooklyn since 1895. The Passaros invented coffee soda, roast their own beans. Their orange soda contains visible orange sediment; the vanilla cream soda contains vanilla sediment. There’s also cherry, sarsaparilla (not just for movie cowboys anymore) and Gassosa – made with lemon and lime extracts.
Red Ribbon, a three-man operation in Natrona, Pennsylvania, is producing cherry, root beer, and now grape soda. According to Nese, “They carbonate with dry ice pellets, which produce tiny, Champagne like bubbles.”
This swath of shelf is highlighted by Moxie and Hank’s. According to Nese, “Moxie has been made since 1884, made with ginseng violet. It’s a sipping soda. Drink it fast and it tastes like medicine. It’s the only soda in the dictionary.” In addition to the original elixir, there are now cherry, orange cream and vanilla cream. Hank’s is a brand out of Philadelphia that began with root beer and now offers flavors like Highland Berry, Citrus Soda, Black Cherry and Orange Cream.
Fentiman’s, out of Newcastle, England, is brewed like a beer, fermented. There are six flavors: Ginger Beer, Mandarin and Seville Orange Jigger, Dandelion & Burdock (a surprisingly popular flavor in Britain), Victorian Lemonade, Curiosity Cola (an “elixir” with catuaba and guarana extracts), and Shandy (half beer, half cola).
Wild Fruitz is a brand of “sparkling juices” that contain 25-40% real fruit. Flavors include watermelon, huckleberry/blueberry, apricot peach and pomegranate/black currant. The bottom shelf is filled with Virgil’s root beer “party kegs.”
This quadrant of shelf is devoted to novelty beverages like Fukola Cola, Love Potion #69. Leninade (complete with hammer and sickle logo) and Rat Bastard root beer, which apparently “tastes like a son of a bitch.”
Other fun facts that emerged during the Galco’s tour: Up until 1959, root beer tasted even better. Until then, root beer had sassafras root oil. Root beer hasn’t tasted the same since that ingredient was found to cause cancer. Bottled Dublin Dr. Pepper is made in Texas and unlike the canned version, contains imperial cane soda. Bana-Nina is from Honduras and tastes like a banana Jolly Rancher. Pennsylvania Punch was a grape soda called Delaware Punch, so Coca Cola owns the name, but not the formula.
In the interest of quality control, Nese drinks soda daily. “I’ll taste some thing most every day to make sure they’re up to standards. Sometimes they slip.”
Galco’s also sells 450 varieties of beer. Some of the more colorful brands I spotted were Seadog Bluepaw (a wild blueberry wheat beer), Cave Creek Chili Beer Purple Haze Raspberry Wheat Beer, Great White from Lost Coast Brewery in Eureka and He’Brew, “The Chosen Beer” – Genesis Ale and Messiah Bold.
There are even bins of old time candies. According to Nese, “Candies were my daughter’s idea. There are a lot of old candy bars that you can’t find because Hershey’s, Nestle and Mars buy shelf space.” He sells items like the Idaho Spud –chocolate and marshmallow with coconut coating that’s supposed to look like a potato, from Idaho Candy Company; Zagnut, “crunchy peanut butter-toasted coconut;” Necco Wafers, in original and chocolate flavors; and Charleston chew – vanilla, strawberry and chocolate.
Never one to stand pat, John Nese plans to add more sodas, beers and candies. While I was in the store with him, he took a call from the maker of Nuky rose soda, who plans to produce a cucumber soda in a couple months. The soda maker asked Nese’s advice on the name and color of the soda.
Nese credits his daughter with plenty of ideas, including online sales, which have been a nice boost to business. Another fun possibility: a soda fountain near the entrance.