Arkansas History Notecard: A Grapette Love Story
What magical purple potion was in that little clear bottle?
My mom and I walked into my dad's funeral at Rison Methodist Church.
Beside the casket on the wood railing where people normally took communion sat a Grapette bottle used as a vase for a single daffodil. My dad died in March 2009 right as spring flowers start to bloom.
Growing up in South Arkansas in the 1940s like my parents did, Grapette was the “drink.”
Every day after school my dad and mom walked from Rison High School to Jack Owens Drug Store – aka City Pharmacy. My dad always bought my mom a Grapette and a bag of peanuts that she put in her Grapette bottle for ten cents. Five for the Grapette, five for the peanuts. She loved the combo.
It was his way of wooing her. They weren't high school sweethearts. He had a crush. My mom was oblivious. They graduated in 1950 and went their separate ways until 1956 when he returned to Rison and swept her off her feet.
But Grapette remained a connection in their lives even in death when Rev. Michael Mattox placed the bottle beside my dad's casket.
Grapette in those days was an Arkansas staple.
According to the Grapette website: “The story of Grapette actually begins with its founder, Benjamin Tyndle Fooks. Leaving the lumber business in 1925, Mr. Fooks purchased a service station in Camden, Arkansas. In 1926 he purchased a small soft drink bottling operation in Camden, and in 1927 he bought a second small plant in Arkadelphia, just 60 miles from Camden. In 1928 a third plant was purchased in nearby Hope, Arkansas, but with the onset of the Depression, it was only used as a warehouse.”
Nonetheless Fooks persevered. He sold the plant in Arkadelphia and shut down the Hope warehouse.
He loaded his car and sold “Fooks Flavors” out of his car in Arkansas, Louisiana, and east Texas. In 1932, he hired two salesmen and sales jumped seven-fold, according to the website.
“In 1938, Mr. Fooks began experimenting with the production of the best grape flavor in the world. After a year or two of testing, the special taste that was to make Grapette distinctive was finally achieved. In 1939, Mr. Fooks traveled by rail to Chicago and purchased the copyrighted name of Grapette from the owner of the Sunset Liquor Company. In the spring of 1940, the drink was officially named Grapette and put on the market.”
And about that magical bottle that was small and unique?
The glass was “lightweight, six ounces, and clear, which allowed the attractive purple liquid to show through the glass. Grapette was also sold in a 30-bottle case instead of the conventional 24 bottle case.”
In 1942, Mr. R. Paul May, a wealthy oilman, acquired international rights to Grapette. The drink became popular, especially in Latin America.
By 1962, Grapette International was officially established. In 1970, Fooks sold the parent Grapette company. The international company remained with May until 1972 when his son-in-law Brooks T. Rice took the reins. Rice expanded sales into Caribbean and Pacific Rim countries.
Like with many businesses, a series of acquisitions for the original Grapette occurred along with a name change to “Flavette” in the early 1970s. Ultimately, the Monarch Company, the maker of rival Nu-Grape, acquired Grapette in 1977. My mom always said Nu-Grape did not taste like Grapette.
It appeared everyone's beloved Grapette was gone.
But wait, Grapette International was rocking.
In the late 1980s, Rice, still at the helm of Grapette International, met Walmart founder Sam Walton.
The Grapette website says: “Without wasting words, Walton told him, ‘I want Grapette in my stores.’ Rice explained that although he couldn't provide the use of the brand names in the United States, he could offer the flavors that once made the famous brands.”
Rice wanted one day to reunite the flavor with the original name. That happened in the early 2000s when Grapette International purchased the U.S. rights to the Grapette and Orangette trademarks.
All-things Grapette was back in Arkansas. In 2005, Grapette and Orangette became available exclusively in Walmart stores nationwide.
While the plant is no longer in Camden, it's still located in Arkansas in the town of Malvern.
I haven't had a Grapette in years. But on my next Walmart visit, I will buy some cans and raise a toast to my parents.
And yes, I still have that bottle from my dad's funeral.
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