t seems only fitting that the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of a man nicknamed “Pop” would be running a top soft drink distributorship. Maybe that’s part of the secret behind the success at the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of New Haven, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.
President Ellen (Hebbeler) Zobrist, “Pop’s” granddaughter, chuckles at the thought. She has other ideas. Good old-fashioned customer service and the employees’ positive attitude are what have made the difference, she said.
“The family values we all have as a company is the glue that holds us all together,” Zobrist remarked.
“We’re like a big family. We share our joys and our sorrows together.”
The rest of the staff agrees. Family is a word that was repeated over and over by every Pepsi employee who spoke to The Missourian about what it’s like to work at the historic New Haven company, which became a Pepsi franchise back in 1937.
Evelyn “Evie” Baer is the longest tenured employee. She began working there in 1953 after “Ep” and Marie Hebbeler, Zobrist’s parents, drove to her family farm to meet and offer her a job working in the office. She had been recommended by a friend of the Hebbelers and was still wearing her milking overalls when they arrived.
“The gal who had been working for them became pregnant and quit because she was having a baby,” Baer recalled.
Now nearly 60 years later, Baer smiles as she thinks back on her career.
“They are the greatest family you could ever work for,” she said.
2,500 Customers, 4.5 Million Cases
Today the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of New Haven serves around 2,500 customers and distributes 4.5 million cases each year. Compare that to the 30,000 the plant produced its first year.
The current product line features 325 different flavors and sizes, said General Manager Denny Rasure. Brands include Pepsi, Mtn. Dew, Sun-Drop, Lipton, Aquafina, Gatorade, Starbucks, Crush, SoBe, Mug, Doc 360, Ocean Spray, Klarbrun, AMP, Rockstar, Hogwash, Muscle Milk and Schweppes.
And across its three locations, the company employs about 100 people full time.
The business has a territory that encompasses 10 counties — Franklin, Gasconade, Warren, Montgomery, Phelps, Dent, Maries, Pike, Lincoln and parts of Camden — and includes four buildings. There are the 40,000-square-foot headquarters/warehouse and the 14,000-square-foot truck service/fountain and vending service facility (built just last year), both located along Highway 100 in New Haven; plus warehouses in Rolla and Bowling Green.
(The company got out of the bottling business in the mid-1990s when changes in the industry had made local operations obsolete, said Zobrist. It joined Wis-Pak, a co-op manufacturer and distributor of Pepsi Cola and other soft drinks, in 1995.)
Pepsi-Cola Botting Company of New Haven stands out in the Pepsi family both for its achievements and its independence.
“There is a total of 85 Pepsi franchises in the United States, and we are of one of the 60 independent Pepsi franchise bottlers remaining,” said Zobrist. “The majority of Pepsi sold in the U.S. today comes from large multi-state operations which are owned entirely or in part by PepsiCo.
“As far as size, we are about in the middle of the independent franchises.”
Rasure added that, “We have some of the highest brand development indexes (BDI) among Pepsi Bottlers in the entire country.”
BDI, he explained, is a measurement of how well a bottler has developed a brand within the population base of its franchise.
Before Pepsi, There Was a Bakery, Ice and Ice Cream
Earlier this year the company published a history book on the Hebbeler family business, “From Pastries to Pepsi,” by Bob Stoddard, that goes well beyond just how the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of New Haven came to be. It begins with the immigration of Eduard Augustus Hebbeler, a 24-year-old baker from Osnabruck, Germany, to America, in 1869. He arrived in New York and traveled to St. Louis, where many German immigrants were settling.
He found a job working as a baker, met and married a woman named Minnie and started a family — three children, including one son named Edward A. Hebbeler Jr., who would later be known as “Pop.”
In 1880 the family moved to New Haven where Edward Sr. opened his own business, The New Haven Bakery, at 125 Front St., downtown just across from the Missouri River.
By the late 1800s, the Hebbelers had added an ice business to their ventures, getting their product by harvesting ice from the frozen Missouri River. They were able to take out far more ice than they could sell in a season — in 1904 it was reported that the family pulled 100 wagon loads of ice from the river — so they cut it into blocks and stored it underground.
The business grew so large and successful that by 1914, “Pop,” who had taken over both businesses after his father passed away in 1900, was needing to purchase ice from others so he decided to build his own ice plant.
From there it seemed a natural transition into the ice cream business. “Pop” opened Hebbeler’s Ice Cream in the early 1900s, at first selling the product exclusively at the family’s bakery, but later at soda fountains and ice cream parlors in and around town. Pratt’s Drug Store was one of the most popular.
“Pop’s” youngest son, Edward T. Hebbeler, whose nickname was “Ep” went to college to learn more about the science of ice cream manufacturing and the latest trends. The business grew even more, expanding into surrounding counties.
But the family realized it was missing an opportunity being in just the ice cream business, as ice cream was only an occasional treat. They decided the soft drink bottling business was a perfect companion, so in 1932, “Pop” and “Ep” launched Hebbeler and Son Bottling Company.
“The bottling industry was still in its infancy,” the book reads. “Bottling equipment was somewhat primitive, and the glass used by bottle manufacturers was not completely reliable. It was common occurrence for bottles to explode during the bottling process, causing injury to workers.
“Bottling soft drinks was hard work. This was especially true at the old downtown plant, where everything had to be adapted to fit in the old building. Many of the daily tasks that the Hebbelers, along with only a few employees, had to do included carrying 100 pound-bags of sugar upstairs to the storage area, placing bottles in the bottle washer and loading the full cases of heavy glass bottles of soft drinks onto trucks.”
Despite the Great Depression, this new venture was successful too. The father-son team bottled their own flavors under the Hebbeler and Son label and also distributed other brands, including Busch flavored drinks.
According to the history book it was a dinner conversation between the Hebbelers and another St. Louis-area family, the Maulls of Maull’s Barbecue Sauce, that led the Hebbelers to approach Pepsi Cola in 1936 about obtaining a franchise.
Territory reps for the Pepsi Cola Company visited New Haven in 1936 and signed an agreement known as “an exclusive bottling appointment.”
The family paid $315 for its Pepsi Cola franchise. That provided them with one unit of Pepsi Cola concentrate, enough crowns and labels to produce 1,200 cases of 12-ounce Pepsi Cola in bottles, and the exclusive rights to sell Pepsi Cola in their territory, an area that covered over 6,000 square miles.
Early Years Lead to Growth
Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of New Haven officially began operation on March 1, 1937.
According to the history book, the business was “located in a small building on the block behind the old bakery. The bottling equipment, although modern for the time, was very primitive by today’s standards. On a good day, they could produce somewhere between 100 to 200 cases of carbonated beverages.”
On the first day of the company’s sales in New Haven, it sold just 12 cases. But by 1939, gross sales hit over $82,000.
The early years were challenging, not just because of the Great Depression, production issues converting the Pepsi concentrate to a finished syrup, a thin profit margin (selling 12 ounces for a nickel when the competition was selling 6 ounces for the same price).
It also was hard because Pepsi didn’t have the name recognition yet. To promote sales, route salesmen often handed out samples to proprietors and also added a few bottles to their orders just so they could see how well they sold.
A national advertising campaign by the Pepsi Cola Company and gimmicks like skywriting ads also were successful. Skywriters performed in New Haven several times, the first in 1946.
In the 1950s, the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of New Haven continued to do well. Sales had increased and the bottling plant needed to be expanded, but it wasn’t long before the company needed more space and newer equipment to keep up with demand.
By winter 1958, the company had the capacity to bottle 4,000 cases a day, but there was no more room for expansion of the downtown plant.
In 1964, the company began plans for a new plant — its current location.
There were challenges in the ’70s, particularly after “Ep” passed away, leaving his widow to take charge. Their children, Zobrist and her brother, Bryan, joined her after they finished college, and Zobrist’s husband, Mark Zobrist, came on board after he finished law school.
In the ’80s, there was the “cola wars” and acquiring distributorships that served the company’s territory, and slow or flat growth of carbonated drinks at the start of the new millennium as people began to attack soft drinks as contributing to childhood obesity.
PepsiCo’s acquisition of noncarbonated drinks, brands like water, juice and sports drinks, provided diversity.
Flow of Daily Business
Today the flow of business at Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of New Haven is different than it has been in years past.
Most of the orders are sold to retail outlets by presalesmen, explained Rasure. Some orders are taken over the phone, by a Tel-Sell operator.
All orders are transmitted either electronically by the presalesmen or typed directly into the company’s system, said Rasure, noting presalesmen and Tel-Sell operators follow a predetermined schedule to contact each customer for their order.
“As the orders flow into our system throughout the day, they are hand-built by our warehouse team,” said Rasure. “Our internal warehouse system groups and sequences the orders for each route. Each order is staged in our warehouse, waiting for the trucks to return.
“When the trucks return from deliveries made during the day, they are loaded in the afternoon, with the orders for the following day. Daily loading is generally completed by around 5 p.m. Customers receive their orders 24 hours after they are placed!”
In some of the company’s larger stores, like Walmart and Schnucks, a Pepsi merchandiser meets the delivery driver and fills the store shelves, end aisle displays or coolers with products, said Rasure. Smaller stores are generally stocked by the store employees.
“The next day, the cycle begins all over again,” he remarked. “During peak periods, like the summer holidays, the sales volume is higher and the days become longer, but the process is the same.”
Continued diversification is where Zobrist sees the company heading in to the future.
“The key to our past success has been change and innovation, which we thrive on,” she said. “We can’t wait to take on the New Year — bring on the mango splashed coconut water!”
What would her father think if he could see the company today?
“He wouldn’t recognize it,” she remarked. “Selling bottled water? No Pepsi in glass bottles anymore?”
Yet at the same time, “he’d be thrilled,” she said confidently. “My father would have loved computers and all the new technology. He would have embraced it.”
Pepsi Cola Bottling Company of New Haven celebrated its 75th anniversary in August by holding a party for employees at The City Museum in St. Louis. They also had special banners designed for all of the local parades it participated in this year (12 or more). The anniversary book the company published is available to the public for $10 at the Pepsi office in New Haven.