Faygo: The Detroit pop company celebrates 100 years of fizz Sunday

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When Faygo Beverages in Detroit turns 100 on Sunday, employees will celebrate.

But they will not chug cans of Faygo Brau, the company's nonalcoholic ginger beer from the '60s that looked and poured like real beer.

And they will not toast with glasses of Chateaux Faygeaux, the wine-flavored pop flop that sounded like a good idea years ago when wine spritzers flooded the market.

No, Harvey Lipsky, who joined the company as a chemist nearly 50 years ago, has something more appropriate in mind.

"I think I'll get my kids together and maybe we'll have a pop can fight," he said. "[My grandsons] have a character named Faygo Man. They run around and Faygo Man fights Pepsi Man and beats him up, causing him to lose his bubbles."

His spirit is an apt metaphor for what the regional pop company, famous for its wild assortment of flavors, has been trying to do for a century now.

"This really is fun," said Matthew Rosenthal, director of marketing and grandson of one of the company's founders. "We know we're not going to win the war. We're not going to beat Coke. We're not going to beat Pepsi. But we win a minor skirmish every now and then and that's the fun of it."

The company declined to provide sales or other financial figures, but one thing is clear: Ever since the beginning, Faygo's just been different - not surprising for a company whose top seller is a strawberry-flavored soda simply called Redpop.

It was founded in 1907 by two Russian immigrants who knew nothing about the carbonated beverage business. Ben and Perry Feigenson were bakers who based their original flavors - fruit punch, strawberry, and grape - on cake frosting recipes.

"They used what they knew ... which is why Redpop and Rock & Rye [a cream cola] and a lot of our others are so unique," Mr. Rosenthal explained.

A sickly sweet smell fills the company's manufacturing facility and offices on Gratiot Avenue, their home since 1935. The modest building, not far from the Eastern Market and down the street from the Gold Mine pawn shop, is guarded by a giant Redpop sentinel, a bottle painted on a giant tank along the side of Faygo headquarters.

One story goes that the company changed its name from Feigenson Brothers Bottling Works to Faygo in 1921 due to the expense of embossing the long name on glass bottles. Whatever the reason, Faygo- bought by National Beverage Corp. in Florida in 1987 - has become the name kids ask for when they're looking for a colorful carbonated treat.

"I grew up on Faygo," said Lori Vincent, 48, of Point Place. "Every time we went to the store and we were asked 'What do you want to get?' I would always go for the Redpop. That was a real treat."

The local woman concocted a recipe for Orange Tiramisu that uses half a cup of Faygo Orange and is included in a cookbook the company put together for its centennial. (It is available at Michigan Barnes & Noble and Borders stores, as well as on the Faygo Web site, www.faygo.com.)

The highest profile Faygo fans have to be the rappers of Insane Clown Posse, who famously spray the stuff into the crowd at their concerts.

"Faygo is my favorite soda," said rapper Joseph Bruce, who goes by the name Violent J. "Back when I was a kid, people used to call me Faygo Joe, 'cuz I always had a two-liter in my hand."

The duo goes through 400 bottles of the stuff each concert and order thousands of two-liters when they go on tour. (They strictly use diet flavors these days, because the regular stuff damages the instruments, according to a Faygo executive.)

Mr. Bruce, whose favorite flavor is orange, dreams of a day when Faygo produces an Insane Clown Posse flavor. He's already thought of a name for it: Clown Cola. So far, though, the company has avoided a relationship with the group because of the profane language that it uses.

That's disappointing to Mr. Bruce, but it hasn't dampened his incredible love of Faygo.

"Faygo is part of Detroit," he said, his voice bursting with enthusiasm. "It's cheap. Coke and Pepsi are way more expensive. It has way more flavors. Faygo gets into some craziness."

Craziness is inevitable when you have 53 flavors, distributed in more than 30 states. So are a few flops, but that's OK too. Mr. Lipsky keeps a collage of labels from failed products on the wall in his office. Faygo Moonshine is there and so is Dr. Faygo, a Dr. Pepper knock-off.

"I have a soft spot in my heart for the ones that didn't make it," said Mr. Lipsky, who is now vice president for research and development.

With less of a bureaucracy to go through, Faygo can quickly implement new ideas for flavors and it's not afraid to experiment. To celebrate its 100th birthday, it came up with a blueberry creme soda called Centennial Soda.

"We continue to offer two or three new great tasting flavors every year," said Al Chittaro, the company's executive vice president. "We think the Faygo consumer is looking for us to continue to come out with new, exciting, fun flavors."

The company has a knack for not taking itself too seriously. It has produced light-hearted flavors - Diet Chocolate Creme Pie, anyone? - and embraced the term "pop," rather than "soft drink" or "carbonated beverage." Even its playful ads remain memorable.

In the '50s, it came up with the Faygo Kid, an animated commercial in which the imprisoned villain at the end asked his horse, "Which way did he go? Which way did he go" The horse's response? "He went for Faaaaaaygoooo!"

Two decades later, an ad featuring a boat packed with people singing, "Remember when you were a kid?" became a cultural phenomenon. When Faygo cut a record with the tune and offered to sell it for 25 cents, it was bombarded with 75,000 quarters.

Later, when it re-released the song without the lyrics' references to Faygo, it hit No. 3 on the popular music charts, Mr. Rosenthal said. (Today, he continued, the company still gets five to 10 requests a week for a copy of the commercial on VHS or DVD.)

Maybe it's not normal for a company to be this eccentric. It's worked for 100 years, though, and just maybe this whimsy is part of the reason why.

"We always recognized the produce for what it was," Mr. Rosenthal said. "This is not penicillin. This is not a miracle drug of any sort. It's just pop."

Contact Ryan E. Smith at: ryansmith@theblade.com or 419-724-6103.