For this episode of the Ueberbrands Podcast we went all the way to the end of the L-train line on the New York subway system; to Canarsie in southeast Brooklyn to visit one of the last seltzer filling factories in the US. The ‘Gomberg Seltzer Works’ have been in operation since the early 50ies. Here young Alex Gomberg has set out to fight the odds and revive and evolve the tradition of hand delivering wooden crates of heavy glass bottles filled with seltzer* directly to his customers. (* filtered, pressurized and carbonated -thus sparkling- water)
His business is growing behind quite a bit of local and even international word-of-mouth. – We are not that surprised, since this story is a nice example of products and services that give ‘meaning beyond the material’, that quench our desire to re-connect with what we consume and know where it is coming from. It illustrates the power of memories, myths and iconic products. Take a listen as Alex tells us about the roots and aspirations of his ‘Brooklyn Seltzer Boys’ brand and see if you can resist wanting to have a look and sip. Maybe not an ‘Ueber-Brand’, yet, but possibly one in the making.
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The Gomberg Seltzer Works in pictures (from top and clockwise): The old filling machine (still in use) and clock (‘tells the right time twice a day’); siphon spare parts ‘fait maison’ as well as wood boxes. The bottles are up to a hundred years old. Alex holds the ‘Arlington’ seltzer bottle and wears a special t-shirt. An egg cream measuring glass and a picture of Pacey Gomberg, Alex’s grandpa at his seltzer works. You will hear about him and everything else in the episode.
If you want you can read along. The full interview transcript is pasted below and a pdf file download provided. You can subscribe to our podcasts on iTunes or Stitcher, subscribe to our blog for notifications or have new posts fed to your RSS (see sidebar buttons on right).
Read more about Ueberbrands in our book “Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueberbrands”
The German newspaper article we talk about.
I’m your host JP Kuehlwein (JP) and today I’ve come to the end of the L-line in New York at Canarsie to the last seltzer works factory and I’m sitting here with Alex Gomberg (AG), fourth generation owner family of this seltzer works. Thanks Alex for having me here in your office.
AG: Thank you for coming. It’s a pleasure to have you.
JP: This is almost as close to live radio as it can get. You can hear background noises because this is an operating business after all, we won’t be disturbed by that.
Alex, I think the introduction threw up enough questions and intrigue in people’s minds. Can you explain a little bit? Seltzer works, what is that even particularly in today’s context?
AG: Well, I guess I’ll just start from the beginning. Our family business actually started out in 1953. My great grandfather Mo Gomberg entitled all this business, ‘Gomberg seltzer works’, and essentially back then we were a filling station for many seltzer men who distributed to hundreds and hundreds of customers in Brooklyn. At that point, in the fifties, Seltzer was in its heyday. Many people, I would say nine out of every ten people, would get Seltzer delivered to their home. Similar to the milkman who would get milk delivered to their home or the meat guy who would come around, the seltzer man would come to your house and he would deliver a case of seltzer.
JP: I remember seeing seltzer bottles in films like ‘Casablanca’, classics from the Second World War period or more recently ‘Mad Men’. So, this was going on even in the sixties, and it was a regular beverage to drink as a mixer or straight or how do you drink seltzer the classic way?
AG: And I guess people mostly drank it straight. There were not a whole lot of soft drinks that people drank. There was Coca-Cola, but seltzer was really one of the only drinks that you could have other than water or milk. Many people made egg creams which is the traditional Brooklyn dessert drink, and it’s carbonated chocolate milk; there is no egg but it is called an egg cream.
JP commentary: I’m going to interrupt here, just because we can and it’s fun in a podcast, and just point out the significance of what Alex and I are talking about here. In an age where we have lost touch and connection with a lot of the things we buy and consume, and in particular food, people desire to create that connection again with the neighbourhood butcher and baker, and with locally made items and the local recipes, like the egg cream that Alex is talking about. So, a lot of premium brands nowadays share a local handcraft, provenance, or at least a known origin, and a wonderful nostalgic story around this can only enhance the desirability. Let’s move on.
JP: And you’re wearing a T-shirt that says ‘Brooklyn Seltzer Boys’ and in the back it says ‘Good Seltzer should hurt’, which, I understand, is a quote from your father. But what does that mean?
AG: Good Seltzer has a lot of pressure, has a lot of CO2. When you drink you should not be able to gulp the whole glass down. You should feel a tingly sensation in the back of your throat, it should hurt. That’s the way we feel about it. When the CO2 is mixes with water and it is contained in the bottle, the pressure is 60 pounds, much more than the soda gun or the soda fountain.
JP: Now as I walked in here I immediately took pictures because it’s an incredible sight here with all these classic seltzer bottles sitting in wooden crates and you almost feel like you’re walking into a museum. And they have the metal top, I don’t have the technical description of what you call those.
AG: It’s a siphon.
JP: They look like they are old, are they?
AG: They are very old. I’m glad you saw that as you walked in because these bottles are all very special. They all have their own story. So, when you say you feel like it’s a museum, it is a museum actually because you’re looking at history. Some of these bottles are over hundred years old. Each one has its own emblem of a seltzer man of the past.
So, when Mr Zaltman was delivering seltzer back in his day, he had all of his bottles with his name on them and they were all beautiful blue bottles with Zaltman’s top on it and he would deliver all those bottles. Of course, over hundreds of years, either he passed his way or sold his lot to somebody else, so now, over time, these bottles dispersed among many different seltzer men and now you’re at the point today where you’re getting a case of ten bottles delivered to your house and they are all different . They all have a different emblem on them, with a different top on the bottle. So, they are all history. They are all original bottles that we deliver, nothing is new, and they are all using old parts.
JP: And you’re saying this with a lot of passion. However, you also talk a lot about dying out, literally. So, what made you want to enter a business that seems to be dying out?
AG: I was born always with seltzer in my house. Even when I was born the business was on its decline. Many seltzer plants including Gomberg Seltzer were declining and I don’t want to see it go. Neither did my father, Kenny Gomberg, and uncle Irwin Resnick, they kept this business going through many years .Now we’re the last ones and we’re still keeping it going because it’s a piece of us, it’s our family business and we don’t want to see it go. We want to keep it around for many years to come.
JP commentary: I think another stepping back is warranted at this point, just to look back at this beautiful story Alex was telling. It has all the structure of a classic, almost mythical, kind of story with generation of people fighting against the odds to keep this business alive, to have the seltzer boys continue their rounds and in particular, our young hero here who’s looking for ways to revive this business. Who wouldn’t want to root for them? Help him and help yourself reinvigorate and resuscitate traditions that help us reconnect with our neighbourhood, with what we eat and consume. These kinds of mythical stories are certainly a key ingredient to ueberbrand building, not that necessarily Brooklyn seltzer boys is already an ueberbrand, but it certainly has some key ingredients that could get it there.
JP: I read that you’re father also started a soda distributorship to actually keep the operation going and to make money. So, is there no money in seltzer right now?
AG: Well, I wouldn’t say that. Back in the day, we were mainly doing seltzer. That’s what the business was about. However, they opened, an addition to the building where they were distributing soft drinks and beer, and over the years, that became the main operation. But now, with the rise of seltzer we are hoping that seltzer will be our main hub again, and that’s going to be the bulk of our business.
JP: So, this is the interesting part which intrigued me when I read about the ‘Brooklyn Seltzer Boys’ , which I guess, is a new label , a new brand that you gave it when you came into the business three years ago.
Seltzer is growing again but hand delivered seltzer that costs a lot more than the seltzer that’s freely available and at a very low price in the supermarket seems to be growing as well. In fact, hand delivered seltzer seems to be growing more than the seltzer in the supermarket if from a lower base.
Why do you think that is? Why do people almost go back in history to get hand delivered seltzer from you?
AG: Aside from the fact that it is a far superior product, let me just say our seltzer is different. We have New York City tap water that we triple filter through sand charcoal paper. New York City tap water is already clean as it is and we triple filter it.
JP: And it’s supposed to be one of the best public waters in the world or the best tasting, I hear.
AG: That’s what is said. And we actually go even further. We triple filter the water and mix it with CO2. There’s no salt, no color and no additives. So, the taste is better, the water is cleaner and you get a lot more fizz. And you’re basically drinking from an antique bottle.
JP: Something like history in a bottle.
AG: It’s a beautiful bottle that you want to display on your table in your house, a beautiful centrepiece. When people come over for dinner, they start talking about the seltzer bottle, it’s a conversation starter. People really enjoy the history and the taste. So, a lot of people drink for that reason.
JP: And as we chatted before this interview, you were showing me an article from a German newspaper. Can you briefly talk about how this German journalist came to write about you? And do you see certain common traits in your customers, like, where are they coming from? Maybe in mind-set?
AG: Well, I have a lot of customers from all over the place now. Felix and Christina, they were in Manhattan, and they told me for several months that they wanted to write an article about seltzer. She reports all of the news of New York back to Germany. So, she writes articles on what’s going on in America, in New York , sends it back to the hub and many different news sources go back to their hub and then they decide which articles they want to put in their papers.
So, she wrote an article which I can’t understand because it’s written in German, but she told me that it’s a very nice piece, and now I have people from Germany writing to me, asking if they can get delivery in Germany. Now, obviously that’s impossible, we only deliver to New York and parts of New Jersey. So, we can’t really ship overseas, but it’s cool to have a lot of exposure, and it’s obviously interesting because people email me all the time even just to talk about seltzer.
JP: Quite literally, in this German article mixes nostalgia with taste with knowing where things come from. When you think about your local customer, why do they come to you? What do they use the seltzer for?
AG: Well, now there are only a handful of seltzer men left. They are all sixty, seventy or even eighty years old. They all come here to Gomberg seltzer to fill their bottles and they have their own routes. Those customers have been with them for several years. They are working for two or even three generations of customers.
We didn’t want to step on their toes and take over their market. So, we decided to really concentrate on bars and restaurants, which the seltzer men weren’t covering. Most of their deliveries were residential. So, we decided that wanted to do some higher volume, so we contacted some bars and restaurants in New York and they fell in love with the beautiful bottles of seltzer.
JP: And falling in love… Could you capture the moment? When was it? Like, when you told them about it or put a bottle on the table or when they tasted it?
AG: It’s more of a presentation. You bring this bottle and you pour them glasses of seltzer and it’s the smells from that nozzle. It is so cool just to see for the first time or maybe they even remember it from their past. “You guys still exist?”
JP: So, here you get a product to behold that makes an impressive entry as it jets out of that heavy bottle, a piece of history, that has a real kick to it when you drink it, and hand delivered from a guy you just have to like for what he does and want to root for.
I think great ingredients for an ueberbrand and as we will hear next, and have already heard, the word is spreading with the help of modern technology, namely social media and the internet.
AG: Not to put them down, but these seltzer men were all pen and paper businesses. And we launched a website, that’s crazy in the seltzer business. We use Facebook, social media, emails – that’s unimaginable to them. These older gentlemen are lucky to be on their cell phones.
JP: What kind of restaurants do you deliver to? Some names or a particular type?
AG: One of my first big customers is the Arlington club and that’s interesting because they named their restaurant after a seltzer bottle. In fact, I have a bottle right here.
*JP takes picture of the bottle *
JP: So, tell me the story about the Arlington?
AG: They got their hands on a bottle that said the ‘Arlington Club’ and they designed their restaurant around this idea. They put it on their tables and serve sparkling water in them.
JP: I guess, the customers are pretty surprised and excited about this as well.
AG: They are, it’s a conversation piece. Normally, you’re expecting a pale green bottle but now you have this beautiful clearer blue or green seltzer bottle and you can talk about it over dinner.
JP: So, you talk about social media, Facebook and so on. So, many fans go there? Do you get fan mail? What does the fan mail say?
AG: I get posts all the time, people with their stories, how they lived in Brooklyn many years ago and they had seltzer delivery. People find us on Facebook, and every now and again I look on my phone, and I see more people liking my page. We do events now, so we post about that on our page.
JP: What kind of events do you do?
AG: Right now we do bar mitzvahs, weddings. We have an egg-cream booth that we bring to the events and we make egg-creams.
JP: Very classic.
AG: Very old-fashioned. Most of the times the adults are the ones getting more excited, they come up and sometimes even criticize saying, “That’s not the right way, I make it this way!” There are actually many ways to make an egg-cream. But I do it the way I feel is the right way.
JP: How do make this beverage? I have no idea!
*AG demonstrates, JP snaps away*
AG: We have a glass.
JP: There’s a glass with a recipe on it!
AG: We have the lines where to fill the Fox’s u-bet syrup and we have line up to which we fill up with milk and then we top it off with seltzer.
JP: Wonderful! An interesting thing that you said, which was very determined, was “I have the right way to do it”. We often find that the ueberbrands, as we call them, know very clearly in their head what they are and what they want to be. Is there a ‘Brooklyn Seltzer Boy’ way? What are some ways where you say you’re different from seltzer or even general beverages that you can buy in the market?
AG: I guess it’s just the process. It’s essentially the same drink and has the same ingredients as that of a store bought drink, but the whole process of getting the seltzer makes it different. We are a service business. So, we deliver these wood crates, which have our logo on them, right to your door. There’s no other seltzer company which does that.
JP commentary: Beyond thinking of what Alex does as a process or a service, we should think of it also as a ritual, as a symbolic action that reminds people of where their food, or in this case their drink, comes from. It gives them comfort in knowing that it comes from a source that they know personally.
JP: Do you have personal connection to some of the customers?
AG: Everyone! I speak to every single customer. Either online or via email or phone, I have relationship with every one of them.
JP: Now you indicated earlier that you want to look in to the future and expand, particularly with this growing market of seltzer. So, what kind of expansion do you have in mind?
AG: At this point we are trying to keep up with the amount of customers that we are getting. We don’t have an unlimited supply of bottles, so we are working on the bottles that we have.
JP: Do you acquire new-‘old’ bottles?
AG: We do. Say, if somebody calls me and says that they have a hundred cases in their basement, I’m running there and I’m picking up those bottles.
JP: And that has happened?
AG: That has happened a handful of times in the last three years.
JP: The seltzer bottles, aren’t they made of special think glass? They could explode.
*JP checks out the bottle*
JP: This is very heavy, I can tell.
AG: They are quarter of an inch thick. Most of the bottles are really hand blown in Czechoslovakia in the early 1900s.
JP commentary: One last comment here to point out all these iconic product and experience related elements of the seltzer proposition. You have the egg-cream that has a special recipe that people can get all wound up about and you have these bottles with their incredible stories that everyone gathers around .It is an art to even maintain these bottles, and also a tension, the need and the longing to grow, and at the same time the limitation of these historic bottles, and potential for needing what the luxury industry would call a diffusion line with some newer bottles.
Very interesting future ahead, and we would be curious to continue observing the ongoing story of the seltzer boys.
JP: And the tops… Is there a way for you to source new tops and bottles?
AG: So, we actually have moulds to make the tops. We could melt down the current heads that are no longer working, we can reuse the same material.
JP: So, there’s the rebirth of the nozzle.
AG: However, we are still trying to perfect it. We are having a little issue with the moulds.
JP: So, it was an art, historically, to make these heads and make them work well.
AG: Absolutely! It was an art to make the glass bottles and the heads. The process of making seltzer bottles is a lost art. Nobody is hand blowing the seltzer bottles anymore. People do hand blowing, but to make hand blown seltzer bottles in America would cost a fortune. So, we are probably going to have American made bottles
JP: It seems like a danger to me that there might be a danger in having too many bottles and too many customers, because, isn’t there something special about the idea that your bottle is very old? That you only have it on consignment? That you’re kind of a guardian of it, if it was destroyed it would be history because there aren’t many ‘Czech-made’ 19th century bottles around?
Don’t you feel that there might be seltzer bottles inflation and it would be too much at one point?
AG: Well, there will never be seltzer bottle inflation of the old seltzer bottles. I could label these new ones ‘Brooklyn Seltzer Boys’ and I wouldn’t have so much sentimental value to these as I would have to the original bottles.
JP: But as I interrupted you earlier… Your expansion is all about trying to get more customers and more bottles. Is there a horizon beyond that or is that it for now, in terms of thinking about the service business and the product?
AG: No, in near future we are looking to infiltrate the New York area. Like I said, there are only four bottling plants left in the country. There’s us, one in San Francisco, one in Florida and last one in Pittsburgh. So, sky is the limit here.
JP: Are you in contact with them?
AG: We talk to ‘seltzer sisters’.
JP: Oh, they are ‘seltzer sisters’!
AG: There’s no relation to ‘Brooklyn Seltzer Boys’, but ‘Seltzer Sisters’ are in California.
JP: Is it a similar story?
AG: I believe Catherine (owner of Seltzer Sisters) bought an existing business.
JP: So, you might be the only original among all?
AG: It’s possible.
Well, thank you so much for the interview. It’s absolutely fascinating. For the listeners (readers), don’t miss the mind blowing pictures, they are really something to look at. The bottles, the making, even the clock hanging over the machine – looks absolutely antique but you’re still using it, right?
AG: It works, well, it’s correct twice a day.
JP Laughs out loud …
JP: Anyway, if people want to get in touch with you or if they want to see what’s going on with the ‘Brooklyn Seltzer Boys’ where should they go?
AG: You can call us on our business phone (718-649-0800) or you can go to our website www.brooklynseltzerboys.com