A popular pop: Cheerwine holds the party of a century

Published 12:10 am Sunday, May 21, 2017

By Mark Wineka


SALISBURY — Cheerwine gave itself a birthday party Saturday and thousands came. That’s putting it mildly.

The party-goers knew what to do: drink Cheerwine, eat barbecue, listen to music, unleash the kids, buy the swag and drink more Cheerwine.

Company officials couldn’t contain their pride and appreciation for the turnout, which for much of the hot afternoon was shoulder-to-shoulder over two blocks on North Main Street.

“Unbelievable,” said Cliff Ritchie, president and chief executive officer.

Lines wrapped around the corner in front of the Rowan Museum all day, as people waited to walk through the multi-room exhibit of Cheerwine history and artifacts.

People also lined up for N.C. barbecue from across the state, Johnsonville brats, Bojangles and Biscuitville fare, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, craft beers, hot dogs, kettle corn, Cheerwine popsicles, children shows, play zones and highly popular Cheerwine merchandise with the centennial theme.

Salisbury Mayor Karen Alexander proclaimed it “Cheerwine Day” in Salisbury and presented Ritchie the key to the city.

The city’s resolution honoring Cheerwine noted the soft drink was “a symbol of great taste and good cheer,” “an enduring and ingrained part of Salisbury and its history” and a product that has “remained true to its beginnings and its home city.”

Five generations of the same family — Ritchie is part of the fourth — have guided Cheerwine since the iconic N.C. soft drink was first produced in Salisbury in 1917 by L.D. Peeler.

For a good 60 of those years, the late Clifford Peeler, Cliff Ritchie’s namesake, led the company. What would his grandfather think had he seen all these people show up to celebrate a Cheerwine century?

“I’m sure he would have to be proud of where we are,” Ritchie said.

Ritchie has led the company to a strong foothold in the Southeast, and the soft drink — always available to customers who want to order it online — actually can be purchased through certain retailers or distributors in 47 states.

Ritchie credited his daughter, Joy Harper, for planning much of Saturday’s Cheerwine Centennial Celebration, which was months in the planning. Harper, Cheerwine’s marketing director, acknowledged how difficult it was to predict how many people would show up.

The company essentially planned for 10,000 people. It saw that number and then some.

“It’s more than we expected,” Harper said, “but we are so pleased.”

Harper expressed appreciation for the people’s support of Cheerwine and was especially thrilled for how the event turned out for the city of Salisbury.

To give you an idea of the crowd, you could assess the long Food Lion trailer which came to the festival packed with 52,800 cans of Cheerwine, Diet Cheerwine and Cheerwine Squeeze.

By 2:30 p.m. — two-and-a-half hours into the festival — only five 0f the original 22 pallets remained. The rest had been handed out for free or were packed in coolers ready to be distributed at the three refreshment centers along the two blocks.

Harper assured provisions had been made to send for another trailer load of Cheerwine if the first trailer ran out. Another necessity on the hot day: tons of ice needed to keep all the Cheerwine cans frosty.

Cheerwine family members pitched in throughout the day. Cliff Ritchie’s sons, Carl and Ben, were manning the trailer full of Cheerwine and getting it to the refreshment centers, with the help of Arthur Carver.

Mac McQueen, a longtime Cheerwine employee and cousin of Cliff Ritchie’s, was piloting a drone over the crowd and taking pictures of just how many people were attending.

Cliff Ritchie worked a long time in one of the refreshment centers, handing out free Cheerwine to the soft drink’s many fans.

Few products have the brand loyalty Cheerwine has achieved over its 100 years in business. And few can be as identified with North Carolina.

Iris and Steve LeCheminant came to the Cheerwine celebration from Lake Tahoe, Nev. Steve said they traveled 2,700 miles and five days by car.

When they return to Nevada, they’ll be taking plenty of Cheerwine with them, Steve added, and that particular Cheerwine probably will find its way to friends and family in Nevada, California and Arizona.

Technically, the couple have been visiting their daughter, Shelly Younger, and her children, Noah and Amy, who live in Mocksville. Saturday’s event was just a bonus.

Steve LeCheminant said he tasted his first Cheerwine six years ago at a Cooleemee fish fry and has been a fan ever since.

Steve and Iris’ grandson Chris Everist is from Los Angeles, and Chris combined a business trip with a chance to meet up with family here and attend the Cheerwine celebration. So Chris actually traveled farther than his grandparents for a taste of Cheerwine.

The entire family stopped by a booth to have their portrait taken with a Cheerwine backdrop.

Chloe Saunders, 12, of Winston-Salem, came to the festival in a wheelchair because she’s nursing a broken ankle. The injury wasn’t going to stop her from celebrating Cheerwine’s 100th birthday.

Saunders said she likes the soft drink’s cherry taste — old-timers often refer to it as “Cherrywine” — and to Chloe, it tastes like summer. “And I love summer,” she said.

Kelly Moser, who was Saunders traveling companion, said she would describe Cheerwine as “happiness in my mouth.”

“And it also makes me happy (knowing) where it comes from,” Moser said.

Rose O’Toole, Alyssa Behnke aid Jane Polkinghorne drove from Charlotte to Salisbury for Saturday’s festival. “We were excited about it, we were talking about it all week,” Polkinghorne said.

O’Toole is one of those converts to Cheerwine you often hear about. She is from Rochester, N.Y., and first came to the Carolinas as a student at Queens University. “I like that it’s a local brand,” O’Toole said. “There’s something special about it.”

Behnke said she likes the soft drink’s cherryness, and she also described Cheerwine as having a refreshing spark to it.

“It’s like cherry, with a tang,” Polkinghorne chimed in.

Cheerwine volunteers scattered about a dozen Cheerwine benches along F&M Bank’s Easy Street alley. Because of the tall buildings on each side of Easy Street, lots of people took advantage of the benches because they were in the shade.

One of those couples was Dawn and Antonio Rangel of Salisbury. Dawn first tasted Cheerwine when she moved here from the Midwest in 1993. She became a fan.

“It’s very distinct,” Dawn said. “It’s not like anything else. I don’t think it’s quite as good out of a can as it is over ice.”

While their daughter was playing in the Fun Zone, the Rangels were enjoying a Cheerwine-infused beer from the biergarten, located off the main stage where five different musical groups played over the course of the day.

New Sarum made 30 gallons of the special-edition Cheerwine beer, aged in bourbon barrels, and it was gone in just less than two hours, according to brewmaster Andy Maben.

“It’s wonderful,” Dawn Rangel said. “Full-bodied, not too sweet.”

Raymond and Erlene Crotts traveled to Salisbury from Lexington Saturday. Being from Lexington, arguably North Carolina’s capital of barbecue, they were especially interested in tasting the offerings.

Smoke & Go, Boone’s, N.C. Ribs on Wheels, Hog Heaven and Rocky Top were the barbecue competitors.

“We had to see if it was as good as ours, and it was,” Erlene said.

The Lexington couple are big Cheerwine fans, as is their daughter, who ships Cheerwine to her children in Minnesota and Wisconsin. When Raymond and Erlene travel to see their grandchildren, they take cases of Cheerwine with them.

Another fan is Rick Regan, who lives in Winston-Salem and is a transplant from Massachusetts.

“I tell you, if I’m going to drink a soda, it’s going to be a Cheerwine,” said Rick, attending the centennial celebration with his wife, Denise.

Regan said his son, who lives up North, traveled to North Carolina last year and drank a Cheerwine for the first time, “He said, ‘My God, I’ve never tasted anything like this,'” Regan said, laughing.

Stage performers Saturday included Time Sawyer, Gyth Rigdon, Empire Strikes Brass, Acoustic Syndicate and Roomful of Blues.

Before their set later in the day, the musicians with Empire Strikes Brass delighted the crowd with several impromptu songs.

Johnsonville brought its “world’s largest grill” to the birthday bash. The 65-foot long, 6-foot-wide grill weighs 53,000 pounds and includes a three-ton grill lid.

The grill can cook 2,500 brats per hour and 750 brats at one time.

As the afternoon shadows lengthened, many party-goers found shade on places such as the Rowan Museum porch or on the steps of the Rowan County Courthouse.

Wendy Ward and her daughter, Whitney relaxed on the courthouse steps eating a tray of barbecue. Wendy grew up in Indiana, lived for a time in Florida and moved to North Carolina seven years ago.

On her first visit to North Carolina, Wendy tasted Cheerwine, loved it and took some back with her to Florida.

“I’ve always liked the little bit of cherry flavor,” Wendy said, “but it was better than Cherry Coke.”

The Wards live in Winston-Salem and woke up Saturday morning knowing they had to visit Salisbury for the first time because of the Cheerwine event.

“It’s really nice,” Wendy said of Salisbury. “I like that it’s historic, and it’s really cute.”

Ward has a sister who lives in California. The sister was pretty excited after recently going to an old-fashioned candy shop that was selling Cheerwine.

The soft drink carries something nostalgic about it, Ward said.

“It kind of goes with your memories, even if you’re new to it,” she said. “That makes sense to me.”

The Welch family drove to Salisbury from Monroe Saturday, and mom Barbara Welch said the mission was two-fold:

To celebrate the centennial and daughter Sawyer’s second birthday.

Sawyer, you have only 98 more to go to catch Cheerwine.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.