Joe Grimm, author of “The Faygo Book” released in October, shares the history of Faygo and memories from the Detroit family that created the beloved soft drink.
By Joe Grimm
One of Detroit’s most nostalgic products is Faygo pop. As soon as I began giving talks about “The Faygo Book,” I saw people shed tears of joy as childhood memories came washing over them. To them, Faygo is as American as — Redpop.
Originally called strawberry, that was one of the first flavors created by Perry and Ben Feigenson, Jewish immigrants from Russia, in 1907. And what can be more American than a good immigrant story?
The Feigensons were part of a huge wave of people who built Detroit as Henry Ford was building cars. After all, someone had to feed all those people.
Faygo, a variation of Feigenson adopted in 1920, began in the Jewish enclave on Detroit’s near east side. As Detroit’s population rode the population roller coaster through boom and bust, Faygo stayed steady. On Nov. 4, 2018, it celebrated 111 years in the area where it began. Much of the neighborhood and many iconic brands have moved away, but Faygo remains.
It can stay in one place because it will not stay still.
“The Faygo Book” lists more than 100 Faygo flavors, which must be considered incomplete. The company published an even greater number of fans’ recipes. Anyone for Famous Faygo Tendeready Pot Roast?
To Faygo, variety is strategy. Besides well-loved favorites such as Redpop, Rock & Rye, orange, grape and root beer, there have been many surprises. Some pops were tops, some were flops and the book tells what happened when one flavor literally exploded all around town.
Breakout advertising campaigns such as Black Bart and the “Which way did he go?” Faygo Kid revolutionized animated advertising. The song, “Remember When You Were a Kid?” intended as a simple jingle, climbed the charts and sold 75,000 records. Sometimes called “The Faygo Boat Song,” it is erroneously connected to the Boblo Boat. Some of the earliest Faygo commercials featured pre-Kermit prototypes by puppeteer Jim Henson.
Other Faygo pitch people were Soupy Sales, Alex Karras, Joan Rivers, Tommy Hearns and Harold Peary, “The Great Gildersleeve.”
Faygo outlived 40 other bottlers in Detroit’s “pop alley,” staying as others moved away or lost their fizz. Detroiters and their pop have remained true to each other. Much of the story is told by Susie Feigenson of West Bloomfield, the daughter of Phil Feigenson of the second generation to run the company. She recalls her father coming home from the factory when she was a small girl: “When he would come home, I’d hug him and put my nose against his shirt and smell what flavor he had been mixing that day. Some days he would be orange, some days grape, some days strawberry. He’d be root beer some days.”
Feigenson family values also stuck with her. “In the winter,” she said, “until he knew those trucks were back and everyone was safe, he wouldn’t come home. If he did and then there was a snowstorm, he would go back to the plant and check to see that everybody had come in. It was his baby and he had to put it to bed.”
Susie said her father told her: “Always be grateful that you are in a position to give.” That extended to charity, where the Feigensons supported Detroit and the Jewish community. But loyalty to workers was more than just generosity.
The Feigensons hired locally, and when deed restrictions confined African-American Detroiters to the housing around the plant, that’s who Faygo hired. When unions tried to organize the plant, they said some black workers would have to go. The old man, Perry, told the union to go to hell. When Teamsters organizer Jimmy Hoffa came in with a more enlightened proposition, the factory was unionized.
Phil’s cousin, Mort said, “Our fathers and we believe that you provide neighborhood people with the jobs that need to be filled. … Actually, we had dropped some customers and others dropped us because they were upset when we first started using black drivers for our delivery trucks many years ago.”
Standing by Detroiters created a loyal and invested labor force. During the 1967 civil disturbances that destroyed parts of this city and so many others, Faygo was unscathed. This was, after all, where people worked. And as icons called Hudson’s, Vernor’s, Motown, Stroh’s — even the Detroit Pistons and Lions — moved out of Detroit, Faygo stayed where it had always been.
The potential of becoming a truly national brand — Faygo is in more than 40 states — appealed to the Feigensons, but they would have had to leave the neighborhood. The tension between destiny and loyalty tore at the Feigensons. One reporter compared it to having “one foot on the dock and the other in a departing rowboat.” Ultimately, the reason Faygo decided to stay, and which led to its eventual acquisition by National Beverage Company, is kind of surprising. But that’s another story for the book.
Joe Grimm wrote “The Faygo Book” after building up a tremendous thirst working on “Coney Detroit” with Katherine Yung (Wayne State University Press, 2012). A lifelong Detroit-area resident and 25-year veteran of the Detroit Free Press, Grimm is a Michigan State University journalism professor. His favorite Faygo flavor is Rock & Rye.
Joe Grimm will give an author talk at the Detroit Jewish Book Fair on Nov. 8 at 8 p.m. For more information, visit bookfair.jccdet.org/schedule.