With soda under siege, Yacht Club

By PHILIP EIL  |  June 20, 2012

DRINK UP From grape to cola.

If soda were a person, it would need a publicist. Those sweet, sugary bubbles — once the image of wholesome Americana — have lately been blamed for rotting teeth, obesity, even teenage aggression. "Adolescents who drank more than five cans of soft drinks per week . . . were significantly more likely to have carried a weapon and to have been violent with peers," reads a recent report in the journal Injury Prevention. "Is Big Soda as bad as Big Tobacco?" asks one Time.com headline.

Here in Rhode Island, though, the beverage has something resembling a PR team: the Sgambato family, owners of Yacht Club Bottling Works in North Providence. Pull into the factory at the junction of Mineral Spring Avenue and Smith Street and you'll see a low-slung building where the "Official RI Soda" is brewed and bottled. Walk past boxes of Sarsaparilla and Peach Seltzer into the bottling room and there is Michael Sgambato, vice president, feeding labels into a machine that stamps each batch as it passes through. A few paces away his father, Bill, wipes down one of the shiny metal carbonators that inject the company's artesian well water with its trademark fizz.

Overseeing the operation is the company's president, John, a young guy with an old-school attitude. "We've been around for 97 years," he says. "Basically, what we do is we bottle old-fashioned soda. We use cane sugar, glass bottles. We have our own well, so, no tap water."

"And we've been doing it for a really long time," he adds.

There are a lot of Sgambatos involved in Yacht Club and even more flavors of soda (33, in total), so a flow chart might be helpful. John is a Fruit Punch guy; Bill likes Lemon Lime; Michael favors Strawberry; Lisa, who works in the office, goes for Pineapple, while her kids Hannah and Dylan prefer Fruit Punch and Black Cherry, respectively. The company started in 1915 when the Sharp family brought soda formulas and the company's seafaring name over from England, Bill explains, as he wipes his hands with a towel. Then, in the spring of 1961, the Sgambatos — who had been helping run the business for decades — offered to buy the company. The founders accepted, on one condition: no corn syrup. They had made one batch of soda with corn syrup during WWII sugar rationing, Bill says, and they didn't want it to happen again. "It was awful," Bill says. "The shelf life wasn't good."

Bill is technically retired, but he still comes to work six days a week. In his 60 years at the company, he has seen trends come and go. Yacht Club was recycling bottles well before it was the cool thing to do; it was the only thing to do. You left empty bottles out for the milkman and you brought your used bottles back to the soda company, he says. Last year, Yacht Club reused over 100,000 bottles, each of them passing through the vintage washing machine inside the factory. First installed in 1948, the hulking tangle of pistons, chains, wheels, and belts makes a symphony of humming gears and clinking bottles as it works.

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