Frostop Root Beer — a vintage cream-soda brand that got its start in Springfield in 1926 and has survived for 93 years — is undergoing a resurgence under the direction of a retired Fifth Third Bank official who is promising to revitalize the company "one sip at a time."
The vintage soda maker has signed a deal with Speedway to sell its sodas in 75 Speedway convenience stores in the Dayton, Springfield and Columbus areas. The products, which include Frostop’s signature Root Beer, Orange & Creme Soda and Vanilla Caramel Cream Soda, are rolling out this week, according to Frostop Bottling Group co-owner Brian Lee, who recently retired after a 32-year career at Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bancorp.
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“It’s really thrilling for me to bring the award-winning taste of my father’s childhood back to central and southwest Ohio,” said Lee, who grew up in the Columbus area, where Frostop is headquartered today.
During Frostop’s heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, there were more than 350 company-branded drive-in restaurants around the country, Lee said. But that number has dwindled to only a handful.
Five years ago, shortly after he retired, Lee teamed up with some of his childhood friends, including co-owners Mike Gutter, Eddie Karmia and Mitch Schwartz, to buy the company.
“I was sitting with Mike and Eddie. Mike was in the plastics business and started telling me about this soft drink company that he worked with. He said the product was unbelievable, but the business was struggling. When I asked him the name and he said ‘Frostop,’ everything just clicked in my head.”
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“I remembered the stands that dotted the highways, and I really remembered the taste of that foamy root beer. Something inside of me said, ‘This is it.’ We set up a meeting, and the minute I tasted all the flavors, I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
It was not a purely business decision.
“Maybe it’s a little corny, but I’m nostalgic for a simpler time,” Lee said. “Some of my fondest memories are of long road trips with my family. We’d pile into the station wagon and just go, and stopping at a Root Beer stand was always the highlight of any trip.”
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Lee says the current soda recipes “really haven’t changed from their original formulas. Still creamy. Still rich. Still the foamiest root beer on the planet. And then there are these other flavors that you simply can’t get anywhere else. When was the last time you had a Red Birch Beer or Sarsaparilla? We hope to bring those into Speedway soon, because they will turn the root beer world upside down.”
Lee and his partners are taking a throwback approach of sorts to revitalize the 93-year-old brand, which also sells its sodas at select Ace Hardware and Rural King stores in the region.
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“How are we going to do it? One sip at a time,” Lee said. “We bought an old ambulance, we’ve filled it with bottles, and we are traveling the Ohio highways giving away samples at fairs and festivals to everyone we meet. We’ll be at every single Speedway in the coming weeks.”
“The Dayton-Springfield-Columbus area is our base camp. This is our home, where it all began. We plan on focusing on this market until everyone is a fan.”
Frostop also plans to re-introduce the brand in Louisiana, where there are still a handful of Frostop Root Beer stands operating.
“I just got back from visiting retailers in that market, and the response was overwhelming,” Lee said. “Everyone we visited ordered product.”
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On the site where the first Frostop Drive-In once stood, in the 3600 block of South Charleston Pike (Ohio 41) in Clark County, is a drive-through that still sells Frostop. It wasn’t until 2005 when the large, rotating root-beer mug that was part of Frostop’s branding was removed from the site.
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Lee doesn’t anticipate a return of Frostop drive-ins, but he’s optimistic about retail sales over the long term.
“Once we re-establish the brand in Ohio and Louisiana, we will expand our reach by implementing a 100-mile strategy in every direction,” Lee said. “This is going to take time, but that is perfectly fine with me. After all, I’m retired.”