By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — Brian Bailey thought a friend in North Carolina had ordered two glasses of alcohol when he asked the waitress for “two Cheerwines.”
On a hot fall day in 1992, wine was the last thing the software salesman wanted to wash down his barbecue.
“No wine for me,” Bailey told the waitress, who promptly replied, “Sweetie, you ain’t from around here.”
She explained that Cheerwine is a soda, not a wine.
After his first sip, Bailey was hooked.
“It was more cherry than cola and more ‘bubbly’ than anything I had tasted before,” he said. “I called it ‘liquid candy’ and my associate proudly referred to it as the Nectar of the Carolinas. I had to have another.”
Bailey was hooked.
Although he couldn’t get Cheerwine in his native Ohio, he was willing to split the cost of gas if his associate in North Carolina was headed his way and would deliver a few cases of Salisbury’s soft drink.
Two decades later, Bailey, who hung up his sales jacket in 2006 and tied on an apron, has started serving Cheerwine in his barbecue restaurant chain.
It’s the only place in Ohio where you can get Cheerwine from a soda fountain.
When Old Carolina Barbecue Company opened its fifth location, the chain was large enough to warrant shipping Cheerwine on pallets to serve on tap.
Bailey said he had to find old-fashioned soda fountains that could handle Cheerwine’s intense carbonation. Then he announced Cheerwine’s arrival with a series of outdoor concerts and soda-pop giveaways.
“We made a big splash,” he said. “We are all about authenticity, and there is nothing more Carolina in soda than Cheerwine.”
The response was huge. Within a few months, the bubbly beverage had surpassed Pepsi as the most popular soft drink at all Old Carolina Barbecue locations.
The success of Cheerwine in Ohio restaurants surprises even Cliff Ritchie, CEO and great-grandson of founder L.D. Peeler.
“To be No. 1 that quickly, that’s something,” Ritchie said.
The warm reception bodes well for Cheerwine as the company moves westward, away from its southern roots. Ritchie wants Cheerwine on grocery store shelves in all 50 states by 2017, the company’s 100th anniversary.
Bailey, his business partner and restaurant managers were in Salisbury last week during a four-day barbecue tour through the South. They stopped at Carolina Bottling Company to see where the magic happens.
“I was more excited and nervous to meet Cliff and go to Cheerwine than I was to take them to some of these barbecue shacks that we’ve based our business on,” Bailey said.
The Ohio crew took photos with Cheerwine executives and documented the visit on the restaurant’s Facebook page. They also ate at Gary’s Barbecue in China Grove, where Bailey said the antique cars were just as impressive as the sauce.
“We bought several bottles,” he said.
As Bailey prepares to open two more locations this summer, he offers Old Carolina Barbecue diners a chance to tell their own Cheerwine stories on the company’s website on a page titled, “Love story.”
Often, customers describe going to great lengths to buy the “nectar” and bring it back to Ohio.
“Now we are bringing it to them,” Bailey said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.
By Emily Ford