Press Enterprise

Soda giants thirst to put cap on small-town bottlers
by Jack Kliebenstein -- Bloomsburg Press Enterprise

CATAWISSA -- It's tough being a "small, returnable," bottler in a land of two-liter throwaway giants.

That's the lament of Michael Gregorowicz, an official of Catawissa Bottling Company.

Many small bottlers, who at one time quenched much of America's thirst, are drowning in red ink these days, and fighting to hold onto shares of their regional markets in an industry dominated by a few, familiar giants.

"They're swallowing up small bottling companies who are literally disappearing even though the soft drink industry's expanding." says Zane Confair of Confair Beverages in Berwick, a 64 tear old firm.

Confair says it is a sister firm in Williamsport, Confair Bottling, that competes with the big firms. But buying through two large cooperative groups helps both Confair firms remain competitive.

"The 7-ounce size bottle is not really that popular, Confair says, explaining that the cost can be prohibitive considering there isn't that much product in the finished bottle.

"The production cost can actually match that of putting out the 2-litter size, which then has more product in it.

"Actually, the 16-ounce size is the more popular, smaller size," Confair adds.

He says 11 bottlers from western Pennsylvania to Maryland and Virginia have joined together to form, Penn Chesapeake, a company that can purchase ingredients and packaging at prices designed to keep the bottlers competitive with industry giants.

"We get cans through another co-op, Laurel Packaging in Johnstown. And you need cans to be in a more competitive situation if you can't sell 10 million cases."

With the jobs of 42 employees at the Berwick operations and 96 Williamsport employees at stake, anything that provides a competitive edge is a big help, Confair says.

Although a marketing expert quoted in a recent newspaper article says "The era of the mom-and-pop (bottler) is ending quickly." Gregorowicz says small bottlers can still offer something the big boys can't: natural flavor.

"If you want to drink chemicals, take them (large firms)," he says.

"The biggies are using artificial sweetners, while we're still using sugar and carbonated water, traditional soft drinks," Gregorowicz says.

His family's 54 year-old firm continues to use "quality extracts in original formulas," he adds. "The big guys are going to give you cola and non-colas, That's basically it".

"We remain concerned about how each bottle of soft drink tastes."

Gregorowicz says his family's firm could consider investments in machinery necessary to convert to two-liter throwaways.

"But if you have to buck high interest rates and you're not in supermarkets and you don't have the big firms, you're not going to recoup your losses," he says.

Gregorowicz says the local firm employs about six people directly connected with the bottling works, but branches out in distribution to an area from Scranton to York to State College.

"And with returnables, we're better environmentally, because the rewashables are returned," he says.

The bottling official says Catawissa Bottling has returnables in the 7-, 8-, 12, 30- and 32-ounce sizes and has turned to 10- and 28-ounce throwaways, but mainly in self-defense due to customer choices.

"Our returnables represent a repeat customer market," Gregorowicz says. "But eventually, we may have to pump resources into the two-liter market."

Reprint from: Bloomsberg Press Enterprise -
This article is being republished with the permission of Press Enterprise.

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