Susan Robinson walked into her office at Canada Dry of Greensboro one day last month to find a 10-ounce bottle of club soda on her desk. With it was a handwritten note from quality control technician Carol Ballard.
``Susan, the last bottle off the filler 10/5/98 at 8:35 a.m.,' it said.Robinson broke into tears.
For almost five decades, her family had provided much of North Carolina with ginger ale and assorted soft drinks. Now it was all coming to an end. By the middle of October, Robinson's family would sell off its franchise to distribute soft drinks and close the last bottling plant in Greensboro.
``It was pretty emotional,' Robinson said.
Like other industries where family businesses once played a big part - hardware and drugstores to name two - the soft-drink bottling business is consolidating, pressuring smaller players to grow or get out. Earlier this year, Robinson and her brothers, Royall Spence III and Hardy Spence, decided on the latter.
``We just felt like the timing was right,' Robinson said Wednesday. The longer they waited, the less their franchise would be worth.
Today, fewer than 500 soft-drink bottlers remain in the United States, according to Beverage World magazine. The industry had nearly 8,000 at its peak in 1929.
Canada Dry of Greensboro has sold its franchise in chunks to various distributors in North Carolina. The company had the rights to make a variety of brands, including Canada Dry ginger ale, club soda and tonic water, as well as Wink, Tahitian Treat, Orange Crush and Hires root beer. The company distributed those products in all or most of the 55 North Carolina counties in their franchise area, plus 4 counties in Virginia.
Piedmont Cheerwine of Salisbury bought a portion of the distribution area that takes in 13 Triad counties and the Virginia counties, Robinson said. Others buying large sections of the franchise were Choice USA Beverages of Gastonia, Long Beverages of Morrisville and Royal Crown Co. of Asheville. Big Bill Bottling Co. of Reidsville acquired rights in Rockingham and Caswell counties.
The new owners have made their own arrangements to bottle the drinks.
The Canada Dry plant closing means more than the loss of a family-owned business, it signals the end of soft-drink bottling in Greensboro. All other plants - and there were several - departed years ago.
Robinson's late grandfather Royall H. Spence Sr. and her father Royall Jr. started Canada Dry of Greensboro in 1952. They had given up selling cars in Burlington to buy the Canada Dry-owned bottling plant on West Market Street.
``It was considered a depression-proof business,' recalled Spence Jr., now 77 and retired. Nine other bottling companies were in Greensboro then, he said. Buffalo Rock, Cheerwine, Royal Crown, Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Seven Up, Dr Pepper, Orange Crush, Piedmont Bottling and Canada Dry all had plants in the city.
Spence Jr. doesn't recall where each was located in 1952, but Cheerwine was on Lee Street, Royal Crown was on Battleground Avenue across from Green Hill Cemetery, Orange Crush was near Westover Terrace and Wendover Avenue, and Canada Dry was on West Market.
More specifically, the West Market plant was across from the old Boar & Castle drive-in, said Jim Wigglesworth, a real estate broker with Yost & Little. He grew up in the area and would go to the plant with other neighborhood children so they could peer through a window at the green bottles going round and round.
``We knew we could go over there and see what was going on,' he said.
Canada Dry of Greensboro grew with time and in 1989 the company moved into the former Coca-Cola bottling plant beside the Greensboro Coliseum on High Point Road. The company eventually would churn out 1 million cases a year.
By then the industry was well into a major transformation. Companies were switching from glass to plastic and the ``clink, clink, clink' of the bottling lines had given way to the simple whir of the machines, recalled Sonny Bates, former production manager at Canada Dry of Greensboro.
Although retired, Bates has been helping the company sell off some of its machinery since the sale.
The filling machine, which is a big, round cylinder with valves all around it, already has been removed. The capping machine and carbo-cooler, where the syrup, carbon dioxide and water were mixed together, remain to be sold.
Robinson and her brothers aren't sure what they will do with the plant on High Point Road. They might lease it.
Most of the roughly 40 people working at the Greensboro plant have found jobs, Robinson said, and a handful are still with the company, helping sell off equipment and take care of the bookkeeping. Another 40 employees worked at sales and distribution centers in Durham and Charlotte.
``I have to say our people were incredibly loyal to us,' said Robinson, with many staying with the company right up until the end. ``This was a family business and the people who worked for us were like family.'