Entrepreneurs

The Secret World of Selling ‘Nostalgic’ Food

Looking for discontinued Dunkaroos or rare cans of Dr Pepper? These folks have the hookup

Soda gets its own bedroom in Brian Florence's house in Glens Falls, New York. And there might be a few extra cases stacked in his office. All right, and a couple more in the kitchen. But that's it, for now.

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Florence estimates he has around 400 12-packs of canned soft drinks in his home right now. (If you lined those up end to end, they'd span the length of a football field... plus an Olympic-size swimming pool.) Florence is the curator of Sodafinder.com, the website he built to catalogue and sell the sodas he collects by driving all over the country to hunt down unique regional varieties.

Soda Bar in 1955
Harold M. Lambert | Getty Images
Soda Bar in 1955

During peak shipping season, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, his stock balloons to around 600 cases. His earnings from the retail site mostly fund his road trips. But he's recently begun making a small profit, though not nearly enough to quit his full-time job at an insurance company. "I don't want it to be work," he says. "I try to make it as fun as possible."

Florence may be the king of a community of online buyers, sellers, consumers, and collectors of rare, hard-to-find, or discontinued food and beverage items, but he's not alone. There's a market for these products — usually, for snacks people remember from childhood.

Dunkaroos, for example, enjoy a healthy demand on Amazon ever since they've been discontinued in the U.S. For vendors like Patrick Meynders of Alberta, Canada, where the '90s lunchbox treat of packaged cookies and frosting is still available in stores, Dunkaroos are one of his top sellers.

From his (currently offline) storefront, Canadian Sweets Treats and Other Specialties, he can move upwards of 60 five-serving boxes in a given week to U.S. customers. In 2012, another soda seller, Josh Nichols of Fort Worth, Texas, had just begun selling Dr. Pepper on eBay when the soda company announced it would stop production of Dublin Dr. Pepper, a regional favorite made with real cane sugar.

He joined the mad rush of buyers who hoarded cases to sell online. Customers bought bottles even after they expired, he said, just to have as collectors' items.

Others, like Toledo, Ohio's Pam Lloyd-Camp, stake their business on the demand for vintage foods. Lloyd-Camp runs a robust eBay candy shop called junk-it-junction, the online outpost of her brick-and-mortar business, Boyd's Retro Candy Store, where she sells old-timey favorites like giant Jawbreakers, candy cigarettes, and Sugar Daddies. She even has a small supply of discontinued Clark's Teaberry Gum.

In a 2008 Press Publications interview, Lloyd-Camp, a baby boomer, said that she opened a candy shop "to help our generation relive their childhood memories and to give their kids happy memories, too."

Then there are the few casual opportunists like eBay user batwatcher, who says he had extra Diablo hot sauce from Taco Bell lying around his house when he heard it had been discontinued — and that there was a market for it online. "If someone wants it, they will buy it. If they don't," he says, "I will take it down and probably use it on my own tacos."

Likely thanks to their sturdy shelf lives — and their role in fond childhood memories — sodas, candies, and other packaged snacks dominate this niche market. Some sellers and buyers are drawn to the hunt and the novelty of collecting rare products.

Others are searching for flavors of their youth. All together, they make up a fan base with unique appreciation and reverence for shelf staples that otherwise don't get much respect in the grocery world. And when it comes to building a business on these products, vendors have their process down to a science.

Florence remembers the first time he bought a Mr. Pibb in the late '90s from an Iowa rest-stop vending machine. "I was like, I don't know what that is, I've never heard of that," he says.

He liked it, but it was more a novelty than a delicacy. Soon afterward, he began collecting cases of unfamiliar sodas during road trips from his home in upstate New York to Nebraska. He was never a fanatical soda drinker, but he couldn't resist the search for new things. "It was more like the scavenger hunt just to find them. It's the challenge."

When Florence amassed more than he could drink or give away, he took to the web, and launched his website Sodafinder.com in 2002. He's since dabbled in selling on eBay, but never got many bids, and he won't consider selling on Amazon Marketplace, which charges 99 cents per item sold or a $39.99 monthly subscription fee.

Today, Sodafinder lists over 150 varieties of hard-to-find soft drinks, including 10 discontinued flavors that come with a warning label: "This item is out of date. Drink at your own risk!"

His best sellers include Wink, a refreshing grapefruit-based citrus soda popular in the '60s that has since been relegated to a few regional bottlers in the Southeast U.S. (Florence gets his supply near Charlotte, North Carolina); Buffalo Rock Ginger Ale, which Florence describes as "the spiciest you'll ever have in your life," produced by one independent bottling company in Birmingham, Alabama; Tom Tucker Mint Ginger Ale from Pennsylvania; as well as the simple but deliciously scarce Coca-Cola made with real sugar.

The kind Florence buys and sells is made with sucrose, which some consider a step below the cane sugar formula used in Mexican Coke (which Florence also sells by the single glass bottle), but it's a major improvement over high-fructose corn syrup. "Corn syrup is a syrup — you can tell on your tongue," Florence says. Sugar tastes more natural.

The majority of Florence's customers want sodas to consume, not collect, but that doesn't make their motivations any less nostalgic. "It's not just soda," Florence says. "The taste ties into all your senses and brings back memories."

He sees evidence of this in customer reviews. "My mother was a fan of Wink soda growing up, so I bought her two two-liters of Wink for Mother's Day," wrote one shopper. "She was super happy and she said it tasted just as she remembered!"

Meynders, the Amazon Dunkaroos salesman, started his storefront with the assumption that people would pay to relive childhood memories. The son of an Indonesian mother and a Dutch father, he often drives an hour-and-a-half to a European deli in order to buy ingredients, like Conimex Ketjap, to recreate the dishes of his youth.

According to Meynders, he soon realized that "I can't be the only one that is looking for things of my past," and opened his storefront in 2015. Indeed, customers who buy Dunkaroos from him leave reviews like, "Same great taste & brings back childhood memories for my grown kids."

People feel nostalgia when "we reflect on on a time that we think was — and probably was — somewhat simpler, calmer, and pleasant," says Darrel D. Muehling, chair of the Washington State University Carson College of Business' department of marketing and international business, who has researched the use of nostalgia in advertising.

"If we can capture a piece of that past by buying a product or reflecting on something, that tends to generate a positive feeling."

Muehling points out that we often see the past through rose-tinted glasses, remembering only the good parts. He says generating that childhood yearning for products is a balancing act for advertisers, who need to be careful not to over-promise an experience from years gone by. "There's this twist on nostalgia, that you really can never return to your past," he says.

"You can consume a product, but you can't consume a product as a seven-year-old." What tasted good to your elementary-school palate might not be as delicious several decades later; this can lead to disillusioned shoppers, like the one who a review for Meynder saying the cookies-and-icing "tastes nothing like American Dunkaroos used to, so beware if you are ordering on the basis of nostalgia."

Still, people seem determined to try to recapture those moments, and sometimes, it's a challenge for vendors to keep up. At least once a week, Meynders drives across the border three hours to a post office in Sweet Grass, Montana to get a better price on shipping his products to U.S. customers.

Still, he says selling scarce foods on Amazon is his passion project — he hides the store's landing page whenever he's out of town or unable to ship product. Florence maintains his stock with three road trips a year — two shorter jaunts during three- or four-day weekends, and one week-long journey.

He rents to save his own car from the wear and tear, and so he can get a van with a solid rear axle that keeps the tires from buckling inward under the soda weight.

Florence has learned where to get his supply by trial and error, putting in the miles. On his most recent trip, he traveled a 4,000-mile route through State College and Pittsburgh to Cleveland, Chicago, then the Quad Cities, Des Moines, Omaha, and down through Springfield and Columbus on the way home. Of the approximately 175 12-packs and 85 two-liter bottles of soda he unloaded when he returned, the trophy of the trip was Nehi Grape soda, which Florence was surprised to find at an independent bottler in Evansville, Indiana.

Sometimes he gets tips from his fans on the Soda Finder Facebook page, but for the most part, he just shows up at grocery stores, Walmarts, convenience stores, and bottling companies along his routes. His trips are also how he monitors the ebb and flow of products on the market. He thinks Pepsi is phasing out Sierra Mist, for example, but he hasn't read that anywhere. He's just been seeing less of it.

Getting the product is one thing — the dance between legally purchasing items then pricing them for a profit is another art altogether. Nichols, the Dublin Dr. Pepper eBay vendor, says he forged a direct relationship with the soda company.

Today, he special-orders fresh cases of Dr. Pepper made with pure cane sugar, just not bottled in Dublin anymore. He says he has never changed his price of $29.99 for a six-pack of eight-ounce glass bottles. People are willing to pay for it. "A lot of people buy them to put in vending machines from the '50s and that's the only thing that fits," he says.

Florence has his own system. He assumes the big soda companies know he's around — he's seen coca-cola.com and pepsi.com on his site's IP log — but they've never given him trouble, he says, because he buys the drinks as a customer and pays sales tax; he never tries to buy wholesale.

To set his prices, Florence used to add up the cost of soda, gas, car rental, and food and divide it by the number of items he'd purchased. Now he does a little better than breaking even because he adjusts according to demand. He sells most soft drinks for $15 to $25 for a case of 12 cans.

He has regulars who order from him every few months, usually basic flavors or regular, real-sugar, and diet sodas. One customer buys Nehi Grape with real sugar three times a year. Other buyers are willing to pay big bucks for discontinued sodas. Florence sold his last case of dnL, a lemony, caffeinated drink by the makers of 7up, for $140.

His priciest listings ever were twin 12-packs of discontinued Pepsi Blue and the original Mr. Pibb, after Pibb Xtra replaced it, for $600 each. "I never sold them, but it would always get me attention," he says. He did succeed, though, in eventually off-loading individual cans of Pepsi Blue as collectors' items for $25 each.

The next soda-hunting trip on Florence's schedule is a Southern run, maybe around the Fourth of July. He'll swing through Philadelphia for flavored Canada Dry, pick up Sunkist Fruit Punch in DC, Northern Neck ginger ale in Virginia, and Wink in the Carolinas. Maybe he'll make a stop at the Buffalo Rock bottler in Alabama for that spicy ginger ale, and with luck he'll pick up some Pibb Xtra and unique flavors of Fanta like peach and pineapple while he's down there.

Florence is transparent about where he buys most of his products. His customers pay for the convenience of having a scarce soda shipped to their doors, not because he has secret hookups or hidden sources. Except one. Before he got married, he says, he had all the fridge space he could want for his personal soft drink supply. Now, he chills a single 12-pack of his favorite: Coke with real sugar. And he won't say where he buys it. That's his sweet secret.

By Eater.com's Andrea Marks. Read the full report here.