By Henry M. Holden
Inventor David Hallmark is in the soft drink business, but he took a serendipitous route. Hallmark created Imagination Counts, LLC, of Portsmouth, N.H., four years ago to produce his award-winning Googolplex, a strategy board game.
“I was brainstorming and trying to come up with a new board game that would be educational and fun,” Hallmark said. “I remembered the story of Cal Rodgers and ‘The Flight of the Vin Fiz,’ by E. P. Stein. I thought the story would make a perfect board game. It had a definite timeline and was filled with lots of trivia and educational facts.”
In October 1910, publisher William Randolph Hearst offered a $50,000 cash prize to the first man to fly coast to coast in 30 days or less. Rodgers took up the challenge. He left Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., on Sept. 17, 1911, in Vin Fiz, a Wright Model EX named for the new soft drink developed by his sponsor, the Armour Company of Chicago. After 84 grueling days and numerous crashes, Rodgers finally taxied his airplane into the Pacific Ocean, off the California coast. Reporters claimed the only remaining pieces of the original airplane were one wing strut and a skid.
Although he was the first man to make it across the country by air, Rodgers missed the deadline and didn’t win the prize. Five months later, he died in an airplane accident, near the site where he ended his record-breaking flight in the Vin Fiz.
Hallmark decided to pursue the Vin Fiz board game idea.
“I didn’t want to be sued by anyone, so I did a trademark search, found that the Vin Fiz logo was available and secured the rights,” Hallmark said. “I also wanted to use parts of E. P. Stein’s book—some quotes and maybe a few paragraphs for the game. I made contact with him, and he granted me full reprint rights for 10 years.”
Hallmark began collecting Vin Fiz memorabilia for the game.
“I got a copy of a poster map, showing the route of Rodgers’ flight,” Hallmark said. “I acquired five of the six Vin Fiz postcards used by Rodgers to promote the soft drink. The missing one is probably in somebody’s attic or closet. I’d love to acquire it.”
One day, someone suggested to Hallmark that he try making the Vin Fiz soda.
“I told him I didn’t have deep pockets, but it was a new idea I hadn’t explored,” he said.
Hallmark began researching the original soft drink.
“The original Vin Fiz was apparently less than appealing,” Hallmark said. “The papers of the day said it ‘tastes like a cross between river water and horse slop.’ Others said, ‘You have to sneak up on it to get it down.’ It was bottled and sold in syrup form and delivered to pharmacies and soda fountains. The drink didn’t live up to the advertising: ‘The sparkling grape drink sold at all soda fountains.'”
Problems began while the product was in transit.
“Cases of pure sugar syrup getting shipped around the country were spoiling in transit,” said Hallmark. “When it finally got to a location, the stuff was rancid. They’d mix it with soda water, and people who drank it had to run to the outhouse.”
Intrigued with reforming Vin Fiz, Hallmark contacted a New Hampshire bottler, who has been bottling soft drinks for five generations.
“I presented my idea and asked what it would take to make it happen,” he said. “They told me, ‘We can put our grape soda in your bottle, or we can make a custom blend.'”
Hallmark decided to work on creating a custom blend.
“I wanted something that definitely said, ‘This is a vintage soda,'” Hallmark said. “We did a lot of taste testing and decided on a mild grape, pure cane sugar soda; it has a sweet taste, but it isn’t overpowering. Some customers describe it as ‘grape going in and root beer going down.’ The new Vin Fiz formula is now a trade secret. We began bottling micro-batches in November 2006.”
Hallmark took the first production run of 50 cases that December.
“It’s now sold in 12-ounce glass bottles,” he said. “It’s ’21st century, but with a hint of vintage.'”
Hallmark tried to recapture a time when soda pop was made with real sugars and not artificially processed with high fructose corn syrup.
“It costs more to produce this type of soda and bottle it in glass, but we think the results make Vin Fiz the treat that soda’s supposed to be,” he said.
A female aviator graces the soda’s label.
“The aviatrix pictured on the new label is from an image used in a Vin Fiz advertising postcard, published between September 1911 and July 1912,” Hallmark said.
The image is believed to be Harriet Quimby, America’s first licensed woman pilot, who was on the air show circuit at the time the postcards were published. She was the only female pilot at the time to wear a purple satin jumpsuit.
Unlike the original soda, the new Vin Fiz has been well received.
“The new soda has all the qualities of a top shelf soda,” Hallmark said.
His product has hit such a strong chord that interested parties have approached Hallmark about investing.
“That’s a scary proposition for me,” Hallmark said. “It would force me from a position of word-of-mouth marketing, advertising and total control, to handing over almost everything to a corporation.”
Hallmark currently works fulltime with a website development firm, but is hoping that will change when Vin Fiz really takes off.
“When it pays the bills, I’ll give my notice,” he laughs. “Plus, I’m still working on the Vin Fiz board game; it’s still on the drawing board.”
For more information, visit [http://www.drinkvinfiz.com].