How Coca-Cola Shook Up Vancouver Island’s Soda Industry
Big soda bubbled to the top during the 20th century, a transition that upended decades of local soda tradition
Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Dalys Barney’s book, Message on a Bottle: Nanaimo’s Soda History. She discussed the ongoing project during an Island Notables interview last year. To learn more about soda history or purchase a copy, click here. (It’s only $10.)
When his Nanaimo antique store of more than 30 years was closing, Curiosity Cove owner Gerald Gonske reminisced about how customers were often looking for items that represented the city. "'People would ask, "What do you have that's a symbol of Nanaimo?"' Gonske said. 'I couldn't have anything better than a Rumming's bottle.'"
In 1889, a 20-year-old William Edward Rumming and his older brother Charles Henry Rumming set out from Liverpool, England with Vancouver Island as their intended destination. By the time of the 1891 census, William Rumming was living in Nanaimo's Middle Ward and working as a soda water maker. He had joined John Mitchell at the Pioneer Soda Water Works on Wallace Street.
“Coca-Cola was initially poorly received by the local market.”
By the fall of 1892, John Mitchell and William Rumming were more than just colleagues at Pioneer Soda Water Works, they were also brothers-in-law. John Mitchell married William Rumming's sister Emma Eliza on September 24, 1892. Unfortunately, within just a few years, John Mitchell died on March 21, 1895.
For a period of time after William Rumming assumed control of the company, Pioneer Soda Water Works used bottles with W.E. Rumming's name embossed vertically on them instead of John Mitchell's. Just before the turn of the 20th century, the standard Rumming bottle changed to the one with the embossed crossed pick and shovel that local bottle collectors know and love.
In the 1920s, William Rumming faced a new competitor in the soda market…one by the name of Coca-Cola. According to the book Soda Kings of B.C. & the Yukon, "This largest of international soda companies arrived in British Columbia in 1907 on an agency basis with Cross & Company [of Vancouver], but Coca-Cola was initially poorly received by the local market."
The brand didn't seem to take off on the Island: "After the Vancouver plant opened in 1921, Coca-Cola tried shipping their bottled pop to the island from Vancouver but found it unprofitable, despite attempts by several managers." However, in May of 1922, a Coca-Cola-owned bottling plant was opened in Nanaimo on Selby Street and produced 2000 dozen bottles of Coca-Cola daily.
The Nanaimo bottling plant was just one piece of Coca-Cola's Canadian manufacturing and distribution system which, according to a 1923 advertisement, included four syrup factories, 21 bottling plants, and five warehouses across the country.
“Bottling Coca-Cola was not without its challenges.”
Perhaps predicting the impact having a Coca-Cola branch right in his own town might have on his business, Rumming made arrangements to start bottling two well-known brands – Kist (a brand from the Citrus Products Company that included a line of fruit flavoured sodas, notably lemon, lime, and orange flavours) and Hires Root Beer. The book Soda Kings of B.C. & the Yukon says, "By the 1920s, an affiliation with a national brand was a key strategy to success. Certainly by the 1940s national or international brands were sold in almost every town in British Columbia."
Coca-Cola bottled by William Rumming in Nanaimo would not have been bottled in these Bastion bottles, but in its own distinctive contour bottles. Coca-Cola's iconic 6.5 ounce "hoop skirt" or "Mae West" bottle had been originally introduced in 1915 and came to Canada around 1919. To maintain its brand image, Coca-Cola insisted that all local bottlers used the distinctive bottle. As well as needing its own bottles, bottling Coca-Cola was not without its challenges. "All Coke bottlers were required to maintain strict production standards which were far more stringent than any other brand of the era."
The Rumming enterprise had a name change to Rumming's Limited and continued to expand on Vancouver Island. In 1943, William Rumming retired and sold the business to three men with experience working for Coca-Cola. William Rumming died in Victoria in 1957.
When Rumming's Limited was sold to Gene Koster in 1953 it became Island Bottling Company. Koster had worked with Coca-Cola in Regina before serving in World War II, and he later worked at the company's Moose Jaw plant.
Goodwill Bottling of Victoria bought Island Bottling in 1965. Goodwill Bottling had been started by Edward Gudewill in June of 1954 when he purchased the Old English Beverage Company, a licensed bottler of Coca-Cola, on Johnson Street in Victoria.
In 1955, the company moved to a former knitting mill on Erie Street, near Fisherman's Wharf. Over the next 24 years the company expanded throughout Vancouver Island and across the B.C. mainland with seven more franchise acquisitions.
This was a time of consolidation, not only in British Columbia soda businesses, but also in the industry at large. Wometco, a Florida-based company that had a soft drink division as well as cable television and movie theatre interests, was buying up smaller Coca-Cola outfits, including those in British Columbia.
“So ended the more than 100-year history of locally owned soda bottlers on Vancouver Island.”
A Vancouver Sun article from 1965 details how Wometco had recently bought Coca-Cola franchises in both Vancouver and Chilliwack, and how "owners of the Victoria and Nanaimo franchises turned down Wometco's offer."
By the late 1980s, Coca-Cola had begun acquiring Canadian bottlers in earnest. T.C.C. Bottling Limited was formed in Canada by Coca-Cola in 1987 and according to the book Canada’s Coca-Cola, the company,
"was acquiring the franchise bottling rights of the many independent bottlers across the country. (T.C.C. Bottling's name would be changed to Coca-Cola Beverages in 1989.) When the new bottling structure was announced, Coca-Cola's own bottling plants produced about 55 per cent of the company's sales. By 1991, as franchise bottlers were absorbed, Coca-Cola Beverages accounted for 93 per cent of sales in Canada and was the fourth-largest Coca-Cola bottler in the world, with nineteen plants and sixty-two distribution centres. Today, all Coca-Cola products are bottled in Canada by Coca-Cola Beverages."
This trend played out locally, both on the Island and at a provincial level. Coca-Cola bought Wometco in 1984, including its British Columbia division. At the time, Wometco was one of North America's largest Coca-Cola franchise bottlers, consisting of over a dozen bottling plants and dozens of distribution facilities.
On the Island, Goodwill Bottling was sold to Beatrice Companies Inc. in 1983, which was in turn sold to the American Coca-Cola Company in 1986, and then to Coca-Cola Canada in 1989. So ended the more than 100-year history of locally owned soda bottlers on Vancouver Island.
International soft drink brands have been dominating the market for decades. But a renewed interest in flavoured carbonated drinks could mean hope yet for local soda makers on Vancouver Island.
Just think about how many flavoured sparkling water and speciality soda choices there are now at the grocery store. People seem to be ready for different soft drink options, especially ones that are organic, traditional, or locally made.
In 2012, the Phillips Brewing Company of Victoria founded Phillips Soda Works. Offering ginger ale, root beer, cola, and an orange cream soda. With the rise in popularity of craft brewing, as well as a "buy local" trend amplified during the global COVID-19 pandemic, it seems as if companies like Phillips Soda Works could be on the right track to re-establishing a thriving soda industry on Vancouver Island.
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