Local Burger Beer Inspired a Global Drink – the Slush Puppie

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Shortly after I entered the foodservice business, I visited an equipment distributor in British Columbia, who distributed ice cream and slushie machines.   I remember the principal telling me. “You can make millions in fryers and ice machines.”     He told me about Canadians and their love affair with slush drinks.   In Canada, their sales surpassed that of soft drinks.   He also told me that the largest market for slush ice drinks in the world, was also the coldest area of the world – the Canadian province of Manitoba.

 

One Greater Cincinnati man, Will Radcliff, built a multimillion dollar global business from flavored Slush Puppie drinks.     He passed away only two years ago, but his legacy lives on, the brand now owned by J & J Snack Foods Corporation of New Jersey (which also owns ICEE), who bought it in 2006 from Cadbury Schweppes, the parent company of Dr. Pepper and Seven-Up.

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Slush Puppie Founder, William Lawson Radcliff.

 

William Lawson Radcliff, the creator of the Slush Puppie, was born in 1939 to modest beginnings in Dayton, Kentucky. His family moved to the West Side of Cincinnati, where he graduated from Western Hills High School, along with the majority of the Chili Pioneers’ families.

Next he got a job shining shoes the Western Hills Country Club. But sales was in his DNA. He got his feet wet selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door, and also set up a distribution network for a peanut company.  His peanut venture was so successful, that the company couldn’t keep up with demand and asked Radcliff to take a break.

It was during this “break” that Radcliff attended a National Restaurant Association trade show in 1970 in Chicago. It was at the show that he saw a slush making machine.   He had an idea that he could sell a slushie drink for 10 cents, and make 7 on each sale.    That’s a humongous profit, especially during the energy and inflation crisis of the 1970s.   Slush making machines had been commercially available since the 1950s.      Products like the Slurpee sold by 7-11, were not being marketed well enough to spread the joy about flavored slushed-ice drinks to the U.S. market, Radcliff thought.   The company that made the machine he had seen in Chicago, didn’t even have promotional materials for their distributors.

So, the family story goes that one night after returning from the trade show, Radcliff was sitting on his Cincinnati front porch with his mother, Thelma and his sister, Phyllis.   Over a brainstorming session with a six pack of local Burger Beer, they came up with the name Slush Puppie.   Radcliff would adopt the logo of a loveable floppy eared dog wearing a toboggan cap.

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An important aspect to the slush machine’s success was the experience.   Watching and hearing the drink being made was almost as much fun as consuming it.  Aside from the flavoring and the cold shock of the first mouthful, there was the smell of the syrup and the noise of the Slush Puppie as it poured from the dispenser.    Not only did he market the flavor but the entire experience.

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Radcliff bought controlling interest in 1971 in a tobacco and confectionery distributor, and Slush Puppie Corp began manufacturing drink machines and mixes.     Beginning with four different syrup flavors  – cherry, grape, orange, and  lemon-lime – the Slush Puppie Corporation soon implemented a distribution network to convenience stores across America and now 62 countries.  Today there are over 40 flavors, including cotton candy and pomberry acai, some fortified with fruit juice and vitamins.

 

Eight years later the company moved to a hilltop facility that had previously been a salvage yard. “Mount Slushmore”, as it came to be known, eventually grew into a 30,000 square-foot plant, transferring production to Mississippi in 1996.

When the drink reached Britain in 1977 sales quadrupled.   Schoolchildren across the country caught the hype of a drink that offered a sugar rush, stained the tongue blue and caused a brain freeze headache if slurped too quickly. The Slush Puppie also became known as a hangover cure for boozy adults, made popular by “Huey Chunder” in his 2007 Hangover Companion. Chandler described the Slush Puppie, as being “like the cold, wet nose of a puppy up the front of your dressing gown”.

As the company grew, he expanded to include Thelma’s frozen lemonade, Pacific Bay Smooth-E, Lanikai Frozen Cocktails and other products.   After selling the company to Cadbury Schweppes in 2000, he bought 3500 acres of wetland in Florida’s Lake and Marion counties, the majority of which he gifted to the St. John’s River Water Management District.

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The last home of Slush Puppie Founder, 5769 Beech Grove Lane in Covedale, Cincinnati, Ohio.

 

 

 

 

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