A Pittsburgh Bottling Plant That Thrives With Its Old School Methods
Rick Sebak explores a business that started in 1904 and remains a functioning, thriving and fascinating small business.
It may be the bubbles. Yeah, the tiny bubbles. I’m trying to figure out why I like Red Ribbon Seltzer so much.
At Natrona Bottling, they call the bubbles “Pinpoint Carbonation,” and Vito Gerasole, the president and CEO of the business, will tell you that this cool little local bottling plant is probably the last place in America that uses dry ice to make the CO2 gas that they add to their sparkling products. “Our carbonation is softer, lighter and more bubbly. It lasts a long time too,” he adds. “Hours after you open a bottle of our seltzer, or any of our flavors, the bubbles are still there.”
Mary Jane Zdilla, the office manager at the plant, says frankly, “We’re a dinosaur.” She means they’re a surviving dinosaur, a company that started in 1904, that’s changed over the decades but still is a functioning, thriving and fascinating small business. They make Red Ribbon pop. And now they also make a selection of mixers for making cocktails, in addition to their classic spicy ginger beer called Jamaica’s Finest.
The business is in a red-brick building that Vito calls “the house” on Natrona’s River Avenue. Their amazing, rattling, vintage bottling-line machines, including the essential Syruper-Filler-Crowner created by a company called CEM, are all about 80 years old.
Vito is grateful to have (and happy to show me) the old owner’s manual that they still use. “This book helps us keep these old machines humming,” he says. Lots of problems may arise, but everybody in the plant seems proud of a recent 5-day run when they bottled every day without a snafu.
The water for their products comes from the Allegheny River that’s just outside their back door. Mary Jane explains, “The Harrison Township Water Authority is just up the street, right beside Lock & Dam 4 on the river. That water is in everything we make. And if you get out your copy of “Striking Distance,” you can see Bruce Willis jump over that dam!”
Vito used to be a waiter at the restaurant called Girasole in Shadyside, but he came to Natrona Bottling in 2010, and he worked with Mary Jane and longtime syrup-maker and bottler Steve Vokish to keep the business going. Soon he changed his Twitter handle to @SultanofSoda. “There are only about 15 of us old school bottlers still in operation in America,” he says. “And I have been able to expand our reach by garnering relationships with bars and restaurants. And actually, even COVID was good for me because I had time to get into ‘the house’ and get to know the equipment better. It’s an art: knowing how to care for the machines as well as branding the products and promoting them.”
They don’t sell their stuff there at the plant, but you will find Red Ribbon in most Giant Eagles and at various beer distributors around the area. They now make 16 different flavors, including the mixers like the seltzer that I like much. Vito explains, “I started making that because a bartender at Täkō downtown told me that she couldn’t get Pittsburgh Seltzer anymore since that business closed down.” Mary Jane adds, “Oh we used to make seltzer a while ago, but just for ourselves. We put it in big bottles with no labels.” Now it’s part of the regular line-up. And Vito says this looks be their busiest year yet. “I’ve always loved it,” he says. “It never gets old.”