By Sarah Baird
Defunct retro soda company ‘Original New York Seltzer’ rallies to conquer carbonated drinks.
When beloved products are resurrected from the dead, those comebacks can be hit or miss. There’s always immense pressure to tap into a former fan base, all while updating the item and addressing the issues that led to its extinction in the first place.
Original New York Seltzer — the 1980s classic soft drink that was a favorite of Rambo actor Sly Stallone — is making a triumphant return after a two decade absence, beginning with online sales and expanding to grocery stores and restaurants across the country in the coming days.
Founded in 1981 by the father and son team Alan and Randy Miller in Walnut, California, the brand’s popularity soared in the 1980s, focusing on a “natural” approach to soft drinks using a preservative-free formula in an era when such a practice was largely unheralded. Bubbly, fizzy and sold in charming siphon-style glass bottles embellished with a New York City motif, ONYS was omnipresent, with flavors ranging from vanilla cream soda to orange. One of the company’s biggest points of differentiation quickly became the complete foregoing of artificial color, meaning that while raspberry tasted like raspberry, no unnecessary magenta hue bogged it down.
[Photo: Facebook/Original New York Seltzer]
“ONYS was a genuine, start-up boutique brand with a mission,” said freshly minted ONYS President Ryan Marsh. A longtime leader in the beverage industry, Marsh sees almost limitless potential in a brand left dormant by its original owners for 20 years. “ONYS launched in the face of giant beverage companies and was distinctly different. I think people felt that independent spirit and rallied around the brand. Everyone roots for the little guy.”
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During the 1980s, the company’s original owners became well-known for their colorful, often over-the-top personalities and antics. During public appearances, the duo wore the kind of Miami Vice inspired suits that would make Don Johnson blush, riding into events on roaring motorcycles with their flowing, David Lee Roth-style locks blowing in the breeze.
“They were little guys when they were here. The flamboyance grew as the brand took off,” said Francisco Queseda, a longtime employee of the bottling company responsible for cranking out ONYS.
Their flamboyance quickly became the story almost as much as the seltzer. In one particularly notorious advertisement, a shredding guitar blares with ear-piercing wails as Randy Miller stands perched on the side of the Mondrian Hotel in Hollywood, ready to take a flying leap for the sake of seltzer and stunt. A Tiffani Amber Thiessen look-a-like grabs a bottle (hair flip!) and — woosh! — Randy jumps from the building towards the ground below as a Whitesnake-sounding seltzer jingle blares in the background.
Smash cut! The paparazzi are swarming around Randy as he lands.
Smash cut! Randy is pouring seltzer triumphantly over his head.
Smash cut! Randy is walking a tiger on a leash.
Original New York Seltzer was, perhaps, the 1980s in a bottle. And of course, there’s that thing with the tigers. During a late-80s episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous featuring the pair, a live tiger is paraded around the ONYS office like a gigantic lapdog — the utter and complete picture of terrifying chill.
“They did occasionally bring the tigers to the plant, but would leave them in the pickup with a cage over the back,” said Queseda. “The crew was always trying to get glimpses. Not the usual day at work.”
While the sparkling drink business didn’t quite work out for the Millers, wild animals remained. After the rapid decline of ONYS and ultimate demise of the company in the early 1990s, Randy launched a second business, Predators in Action, which “specializes in location and studio-trained exotic animals” for film and television. For two decades now, the company has raised an assortment of silver screen-suitable lions, tigers and bears (oh my!) that are more than ready for their close-up, having appeared in films including Gladiator, The Last Samurai and Transformers 2.
“[There were] no bumps at all [with the re-launch of ONYS],” said Marsh, who is thrilled to revive a brand he watched his family enjoy so much during the 1980s. “Everything was smooth and a lot of fun. We believe the original owners have moved on to other interests. We didn’t have any interaction with them during the process.”
It seems, perhaps, that everyone has found their true calling. The featured photo on the Predators in Action Facebook page shows a smitten-looking Randy Miller (long locks still intact) in a warm, snuggling embrace with a lion.
Seltzer, on the other hand, is nowhere to be found.
When the brand folded in the early 1990s, ONYS quickly became one of the first true “cult” soft drinks. Enthusiasts staged letter writing campaigns for the drink’s revival and sought out leftover packs of the soda wherever available. (For some reason, a staggering amount of the product landed at the low-budget supermarket chain Big Lots.) The re-launch of the brand seeks to quench the thirst of nostalgic drinkers two decades on, all while tapping into the modern, health-conscious drink trend it helped to spearhead.
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“Original New York Seltzer really was ahead of its time [with] no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives,” said Marsh. “Adding color to drinks is just stupid. Everything made was crystal clear. I think that turned things upside down and made people think, ‘Wait a minute … you mean lemon and lime [flavor] isn’t really anti-freeze green?’”
The drink’s rebirth will see very little change from what made ONYS so popular in the first place, with all aesthetic choices — right down to the glass bottles — standing firm and an even greater focus on being a “natural” drink through the use of cane sugar as a sweetener. ONYS has an ambitious confidence in its decades-old product.
The plump, sparkplug-shaped glass bottles are twee enough, but have a heft (thick glass exterior, perforated tin cap) that is firmly reminiscent of their origins in a bygone era. The brand’s look is almost identical to its 1980s design, tapping into a sampler platter of neon-hued nostalgia that offers a little something for everyone.
“ONYS never has and never will make boring drinks. Sparkling waters were a fancy, indulgent thing. We’re making that happen all over again,” said Marsh. “ONYS took off then for the same reasons it’s taking off now. And now, with health consciousness at an all-time high and rising, it’s perfect timing. The fact that people have a genuine emotional commitment to ONYS is just a whole separate unique advantage that we enjoy.”
The company hopes to find a receptive audience and new era of fans with its six inaugural comeback flavors: peach, raspberry, cream soda, lemon & lime, root beer and black cherry.
For first time drinkers—who perhaps grew up faraway from the imagined glamour of Manhattan—it’s a welcome remembrance of a time when a cartoon skyline and art deco fonts captivated with big city allure. For original drinkers? It’s a top-to-bottom Proustian glug of the past with glimpse at a bottle.