What’s the first drink you think of when you hear the crack and fizz of a can opening?
A Pepsi? A Miller Lite? Or, do you think of a Jolly Good soda, a drink that has its roots right here in Wisconsin?
The drink and it’s cheery commercials were beloved by Midwesterners in its heyday.
According to Wisconsin 101, Krier Foods began as a food preservation company in 1913, originally canning beets, corn and beans. It later added other foods, like soups and spaghetti. Kreier started the Jolly Good brand in the 1970s in Belgium, Wisconsin.
But after decades of filling fridges across the region, competition from the big soda companies edged them out. They sold the last case of Jolly Good in 2007.
But then 2013 rolled around, and an uncle and his nephew had an idea.
“The term ‘craft’ became very popular in the beer industry,” said John Rassel, the nephew of the pair and now president of Krier Foods. “Was there some opportunity for us to play off that niche?”
Rassel’s uncle, Bruce Krier, headed the company before him.
“He was the one that really propelled Jolly Good to what it was,” Rassel said.
The two talked about if they could relaunch the brand, and how it would work. Soon enough they had a shot at putting it back on store shelves.
“So we decided to make a small batch and see what happens,” he said.
Their first big win was getting Jolly Good into Piggly Wiggly. But before long, they were selling in retailers like Woodman’s Markets, Sendik’s, and now — their latest retail partner — Festival Foods. Six years later the relaunch has been a success, according to Rassel.
Today, the company makes Jolly Good at their facility in the small community of Random Lake, about 20 miles outside of Sheboygan. They produce eight regular flavors and seven diet – including Cherry, Cream, and the beloved “Sour Pow’r.”
Before the cans get to you, each and every one goes through a special process. First they mix it all up in a place they call the batch room.
“We have two 8,000 gallon tanks, and two 6,000 gallon tanks,” Rassel said standing next to the massive tank at their facility. “So we batch the liquid out here and then we send it out to the filler to be put in the cans.”
Next, the team does a few tests to make sure it’s up to snuff. And then all of that soda and a bunch of empty cans are sent to the filler room, which always smells like whatever flavor is being filled. The machine that does that can fill “700 to 800 cans a minute” according to Rassel.
From there, the cans are sent over to be boxed up and shrink wrapped, and then they’re put on a palette in a warehouse with cans that go as far as you can see. That’s where they wait before they head out to stores across Wisconsin, along with a few places in Illinois.
Even with the pandemic, Rassel says Jolly Good has been doing well. But he says they also have ground to make up with customers they missed when they had to stop selling.
“If you do the math from 2007-2014 when we weren’t on the shelves, we missed a generation. So we’re trying to make that connection,” he said, adding that they get some help with that from older generations who still know and love Jolly Good. “Part of it is that those older generations remembering the brand, remembering the memories and wanting to recreate those memories with the younger generation. It’s very impactful, especially during this time.”
That’s where a lot of the brand’s power comes from, the nostalgia people have for it.
“Whether it was camping, ball games, the lake house, the beach, you name it — everyone just kind of reached out, ‘I remember drinking Jolly Good,’” he said.
Rassel’s uncle Bruce passed away before he had a chance to see Jolly Good come to life again. But Rassel said it was important to pay homage to him and his work building Jolly Good.
“Hopefully he’d be proud, I think we did a pretty good job.”
This story is a part of “Wisconsin 101: Our History in Objects,” a collaborative public history project created through a partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Madison History Department, the Wisconsin Historical Society, and Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Wisconsin Life” program.
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