John Shearer: Double Cola Company Cherishing Past And Eyeing Future On 100th Anniversary

Monday, August 15, 2022

While many Chattanoogans are familiar with the history of Coca-Cola and its very successful worldwide franchised bottling operations that began here in 1899, another soft drink also has deep Scenic City ties.


Double Cola, which has historically been smaller in scope but was initially larger in drink size, was introduced in 1933 by the company led by Chattanoogan Charles D.

Little. However, his firm had traced its beginnings to the Good Grape Co. that originally manufactured a grape soda drink beginning in 1922.


As a result, the Double Cola Co. is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The observance includes “100 days of Double Cola,” which features a variety of sponsored activities lasting into mid-October. The company has also been looking for people who have a loyal connection to Double Cola or Ski and wish to share any nostalgic or sentimental stories.


Brand marketing manager Katrina Farmer said the company has enjoyed great feedback so far at their Facebook page and elsewhere from fans of their drinks. “One thing we have seen is that lots of people who are consumers of the product see it as an extension of themselves, especially when it comes to Ski,” she said of the citrus soda made of real lemon and orange juice. 


“The community behind Ski, they are fanatics. Ski has a massive following. In areas where we still have a following, they tend to have a big fan base.”


She added that the fans of Double Cola tend to be a little calmer but are also appreciative and remember that their parents might have grown up drinking it, or they might have enjoyed Double Cola at their grandparents’ homes. 


“Each of the products on their own has their own personalities and personifications of their brand personalities,” she said.


Some company history at the website and some information found in old newspaper clippings and city directories at the Chattanooga Public Library say that the Good Grape Co. was started a century ago by Mr. Little and Joe S. Foster. 


A 1922 city directory does not list Mr. Foster, who has not been mentioned in detail in company histories like Mr. Little or later official Charles W. Wheland, Mr. Foster’s son-in-law. But it does say that the Good Grape Co. manufacturing plant was located at 14 E. 14th St., not far from the current Chattanooga Choo-Choo complex. The manager of the plant was listed as Marcus Schwartz.


Mr. Little, who in 1922 lived at 211 Morningside Drive in Ferger Place off Main Street, got into the soft drink business due to his interest in consuming news instead of just refreshing beverages. Growing up in Georgia, the Forsythe native began delivering newspapers at the age of 8 and later went to work with the Parker Railway News Co., traveling throughout the South. News company head T.C. Parker also owned a beverage bottling plant, and that got Mr. Little interested in bottling.


Although the historical information is a little vague, one article said that Mr. Little had several plants that bottled a beverage in Georgia. It is known he was involved with Chero-Cola at one point and had moved to Chattanooga during World War I.


Once he started Good Grape, he and officials also formed later in the 1920s the Seminole Flavor Co. to create other product lines. Why the Seminole name was used instead of something with a more local connection might require more research.


He had experimented with a cola drink and came up with the marketing push that it was drunk from a 12-ounce bottle twice the size of other colas popular at the time. So, its name became Double Cola. The company had earlier introduced Marvel Cola and Jumbo Cola and was a pioneer at having a painted name label fused onto the bottle instead of using paper labels as was often popular.


After the Double Cola drink became popular, the name of the company was changed to Double Cola in the early 1950s. By 1954, the company had moved its offices and some manufacturing to the familiar building off South Broad Street more recently used by Chattem/Sanofi. 


That post-World War II style building was designed by the Selmon T. Franklin architectural firm and built by contractor Mark K. Wilson. 


Before that, the company had continued its manufacturing and bottling operations at East 14th Street through World War II before moving to a plant at 1607 Central Ave., where it continued its bottling operations after opening the South Broad Street facility.


Before moving to the new facility, the Seminole corporate offices were at such places as 1212 McCallie Ave. in the late 1930s and the fourth floor of the Hamilton National Bank Building (which now is the covered First Horizon structure) by 1950, city directories say.


Mr. Foster did continue as a company official for several years along with G.W. Tribble, and he later moved into Mr. Little’s old Ferger Place home at 211 Morningside Drive. So, this home has literally provided double history related to Double Cola.


Mr. Little for more than four decades until his death in 1978 at the age of 90 lived at 902 W. Brow Road on Lookout Mountain. The home had a unique security door feature in a bedroom, according to one longtime local real estate salesman.


A drive-by of it this week shows a seemingly more modest home, at least from the road, than some other brow area homes.


Mr. Little’s son-in-law, Charles W. Wheland, had joined the company in 1945. He was the grandson of Wheland Foundry founder G.W. Wheland and had also done some tannery and foundry engineering work. The Baylor School and Wharton School of Business graduate and civic leader had married Frances Elizabeth Little in 1939. He lived until 1976. 


Double Cola was sold to Fairmont Foods in 1962 and went through other ownership changes in the 1970s. It is now owned by KJ International after chief executive officer Alhoor Dhanani’s family bought the company in 1981. It had moved out of its South Broad Street facility in 1999, and today its corporate office is at 537 Market St. in downtown Chattanooga. 


The company in recent years has also introduced Brewski beer and alcoholic drinks to its line and has had the Jumbo line of grape and fruit sodas since reintroducing them in the 1980s.


Among the other historic moments, Ski citrus soda was introduced in 1956. The company had come up with the name for the product after asking employees for ideas. Employee Dot Myers suggested the Ski name after a weekend of fun water skiing on Lake Chickamauga with family.


“She figured Ski, which is a very refreshing soda, paired well with the heat and the water,” said Ms. Farmer..


The company also pioneered the returnable 16-ounce bottle of Double Cola in 1957, allowing customers to enjoy even more the distinctive taste that was perhaps a little more peppery or cinnamon-like than other cola soft drinks. Most people have found the sipping experience very palatable, based on the company’s longevity. To this day, the same formula is used, as is the case with Ski since it was introduced. 


Double Cola is probably a more familiar taste to locals of a certain age than their counterparts in other cities due to the local pride in the company’s ties to Chattanooga. Many a Chattanooga baby boomer grew up drinking at least an occasional Double Cola along with other popular soft drinks, including, of course, Coke. And knowing the familiar headquarters was alongside South Broad Street often added to the enjoyment for many here.


Besides its local and regional connection, Double Cola over the years has also tried to have an international presence. A 1955 newspaper story writes of plans to open bottling operations in Indonesia. At the time, it had 45 foreign bottling plants, including in Mexico and Canada.


Ms. Farmer said the company also still has a strong international presence and has that part of the business set up as a separate operation and division due in part to the fact it sells such products as Oranta orange soda and Chaser lemon-lime soda not sold in the United States.


Here in the United States, Double Cola and Ski can be found in glass bottles at Cracker Barrels nationwide, and the products are also sold locally at Food City and some convenience stories.


A check of the Food City in Hixson near Hixson High School this week found glass bottles of both Double Cola and Ski lining small parts of the shelves in the soft drink section beside such other classic and smaller-market-share drinks as Frostie root beer, made by another company. More Ski cartons lined the shelves than Double Cola ones, so Ski must sell more through Food City.


Chattanooga no longer has any Double Cola bottling operations. Ms. Farmer said its bottling/canning plants are in Charlotte, N.C., and Evansville, Ind., and a Ski-only plant is in the Illinois town of Breeze. The glass for the special bottles is made at a plant in West Jefferson, N.C., she said.


While Double Cola for years has been known to an average Chattanoogan as a company with a small niche market regionally and a successful international business, a conversation with the naturally enthusiastic Ms. Farmer reveals it is also very focused on innovation and growth.


That includes everything from unveiling in recent years its Brewski products made of a Kolsch-style ale mixed with Ski, to looking at other future ideas in the consumer packaging realm, including possibly water or water flavoring products. 


As part of this focus and in honor of the 100th anniversary, Double Cola is also sponsoring the “Will This Float” event in connection with Startup Week CHA on Oct. 17. During the competition, entrepreneurs just getting started in the field of consumer packaging can pitch their ideas to judges and an audience.


Ms. Farmer said this forward-thinking mentality is perhaps different from the Double Cola leadership of decades ago under different owners. Those officials, she said, decided not to diversify and kept focusing mainly on their already established market, although they did regularly come up with new soft drink products, including Diet Way in 1962. 


She added that it was different from a company like Pepsi that did boldly expand into other related realms and eventually became a larger entity on equal terms with Coca-Cola.


“They (Double Cola officials of yesteryear) took the safe route, and it put them in a little bit of a pigeonhole,” she said.


Despite that and the fact Double Cola has been in the proverbial shadow of the larger Coca-Cola company’s oft-repeated local history, this company that was also made visible by its conspicuous building in the shadow of Lookout Mountain has also enjoyed success. And that success has now lasted a century.


Ms. Farmer, who grew up in Miami and came to Chattanooga to get a master’s degree in 2016 and began working for the company in 2021, thinks the founders such as Mr. Little and Mr. Foster would be pleased the company is still around. And they might even be a little surprised at the company’s attention to its future.


“Seeing the innovation that the company has taken maybe would surprise them a little,” she said, adding that the earlier owners tried not to make big waves in their business blueprint. 


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