Written and photographed by Margaret Malandruccolo

“When I was 10 or 11, I went to work in my father’s store for the summer.  Every day at lunchtime I had a Blockbuster sandwich and a Dad’s Root Beer and boy was I in heaven,” reminisces John Nese, proud current owner of his father’s Galco’s Old World Grocery.

Now, 50 years later, the Blockbuster sandwich is still served at Galco’s deli counter.  The cheerful seating on the back patio is the perfect place to sit and enjoy sandwich and soda with friends.

John is bright, welcoming, and passionate about soda. As we sit down at the traditional red-and-white checkerboard tablecloth, his smile is infectious.  He describes the importance of the glass bottle with respect to preserving carbonation, and of real cane sugar, which allows the true, clean flavors of the ingredients to ‘pop.’ With Oldies on the sound system, and 750 types of soda, Galco’s is a feel-good place that sells happiness in a bottle.

‘Happy’ is exactly how John felt about soda pop growing up. “When I was 9 or 10 we went on a family vacation to Happy Camp. They had a spring that had naturally carbonated water. I remember thinking, ‘If we could pipe this down to my school, we could have soda water instead of regular water.  The kids would love it!”

In hearing more about his family history, it becomes clear as to how and why Galco’s is a revered business in the Los Angeles area. “My father’s family came out here around 1900 from Italy, and settled in Chavez Ravine” (now Dodger Stadium).  

“My grandmother was very resourceful,” explains John.  Before moving to California, John’s grandparents lived in Frostburg, PA, and his grandfather worked in a coalmine. “My grandmother told me they lived in a company town, lived in company housing, shopped in a company store, and at the end of the week they were always broke. My grandmother couldn’t read or write, but she recognized that the company owned them. She started making lunches and 

doing laundry for the miners.  After 8-10 years of doing this and saving the money, she handed my grandfather two train tickets and said, ‘We’re moving to California’.

“I was very fortunate to be raised by a group of people who went through hard times.  More than anything, they passed along [the notion of] cooperation.”

Fifteen years ago, John approached and persuaded independent bottlers to bring back some old soda flavors that would still appeal to consumers today. His bottler contact in Pennsylvania had reduced their stock to one last remaining flavor, feeling the squeeze of competition.  But John convinced them to produce some of the old flavors, promising to buy the whole run if necessary (a truck-load, 24 palettes).  Lo and behold, John’s instincts were correct; the inventory sold, and the bottlers continued bringing back more vintage flavors. “We’re a little business helping other little businesses,” stresses John“When you deal with little people, the domination is gone. Everyone cooperates.”

In the beginning, John stood very strong against the push of large corporate beverage manufacturers back when Galco’s was still a corner grocery store. When corporate vendors wanted to sell him their product at the same price someone could buy it down the street, he refused to let them take over his shelf space. He trusted that he didn’t need to sell their big name products to survive, and he did not want to jeopardize the small independent beverage companies.  Plus, his father used to tell him, “John, you have to go broke three times in your life to be successful.”  So John took the chance and filled his shelves with what made him happy.

But if you don’t find the soda flavor you want in one of the 750 different varieties in Galco’s, at the back of the store, you can make your own at the Soda Creation Station. John exclaims enthusiastically, “Kids love it, and adults, too!”

How much more Americana can you get than soda fountains? Soda fountains were originally introduced in pharmacies at the end of the eighteenth century because they were an effective way of dispensing medications.

Many soft drinks had their origins in herbal remedies for the medicinal properties of their ingredients. Doctors have suggested Quinine water to soothe leg cramps. Mint, ginger and gentian root mixed with soda water have been known to settle upset stomachs and aid in digestion. These are just a few of the key natural ingredients, many from true plant oils, that you can find in the sodas on the shelves of Galco’s, in LA’s vibrant and hip Highland Park neighborhood.

 So whether it’s Dad’s Root Beer for that special occasion, a Saturday Blockbuster-and-Original Soda-Creation lunch on the back patio with family, or to see if the medicinal properties of Mint Julep soda hold true, Galco’s has just want the doctor ordered.

Check out the sincere and captivating character of John Nese on the video clips at I just want to hug him.


Terms for soft drinks in other counties

Canadians and Brits say “pop”

Some Brits even say “fizzy drink”

In Western Scotland, they use “ginger”

Aussies and New Zealanders say “soft drink”

Some Australians call it “lolly water"

So where did the term soft drink come from?

It was chosen because ‘hard’ was used

to describe alcoholic beverages,

hence the antonym ‘soft’ was the obvious choice for

non-alcoholic beverage. And

‘beverage’ came from the Old

French root word ‘beivre’ (to

drink) during their conquest

of England in 1066.