Galco’s is Highland Park’s one stop shop for soda pop

A shelf lined with a vast and unique selection of sodas at Galco’s Soda Pop Stop on York Boulevard. Oct. 30, 2019. Miles Koupal/The Occidental

On the side of York Boulevard lies the modest-looking Galco’s Soda Pop Stop. Unassuming brown tiles, gray cement pillars and red bricks make up the building’s facade and hint at its past. Before Galco’s moved to Highland Park in 1955 from its original location in Downtown Los Angeles, the building previously housed an old-school, order-at-the-counter A&P grocery store. From the outside, Galco’s is an ordinary store. But if you enter the chipped, faded wooden doors, something exceptional awaits.

Drinks of all colors, flavors, bottle shapes and countries of origin pop out. There are 29 different kinds of colas — darkly-colored sodas — offered alone. Emblazoned on a ceiling panel are the words “Freedom of Choice,” a slogan true to Galco’s hundreds of offerings: 700–800 choices, to be exact, according to owner John Nese. Adding to the reservoir of sodas is a similarly large collection of alcoholic beverages and a “Soda Creation Station” that offers customers dozens of syrup options and three carbonation levels to create their ideal soda. A menu of handmade sandwiches tops it all off.

When Galco’s first moved to York Boulevard, it was still a general purpose Italian grocery store, according to Nese. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Nese thought about changing Galco’s specialty to sodas. The bubbly beverage’s broader market access compared to other drinks such as beer appealed to Nese. However, Nese’s father disapproved of this business idea.

“My father looked at me and he just shook his head, and just walked away. He never said a word,” Nese said. “He said a lot of words to other people. ‘Gale, you better find another job because, I don’t know, John’s gonna sell sodas.'”

Large signage makes Galco’s Soda Pop Stop hard to miss from the busy streetscape of York Boulevard. Nov. 1, 2019. Miles Koupal/The Occidental

Nonetheless, Nese continued with his plan with support from his daughter, who tried to help the store gain publicity by contacting news outlets. Nese said his daughter sent a letter to television personality Huell Howser, the producer and host for the TV program “California Gold.” His daughter sent the letter on a Thursday, and the following Monday, a crew from Howser’s show came to check out the store. Two weeks later, Howser came to film the show, and two weeks after that, the episode aired. Newspapers such as the New York Times and Los Angeles Times also wrote stories on his store, and press photographers visited to take photos. On one occasion, Nese discovered a customer who had a black-and-white newspaper tucked into his back pocket, a sight that momentarily confused Nese.

“I noticed that the newspaper — the photos — it was in black and white, it wasn’t in color like most of the ones that I had seen. And he came in and I said, ‘Excuse me, can I help you with anything? By the way, I noticed the photos on your newspaper is in black and white, it’s not colored,'” Nese said. “And he said, ‘This is Tokyo Times, that was in Tokyo, and I picked this up at the airport. I knew I was going to stop at Los Angeles, so I thought I’d stop by.'”

From this encounter, Nese said he discovered that the story originally reported by local newspapers ran for over a year, all over the world. Nese said because of the increased publicity, Galco’s distribution proportion of “little bottlers,” lesser-known soda manufacturers that produce special flavors in smaller batches, increased. After extensive television and newspaper exposure, customers purchased hundreds more sodas, and “little bottlers” could take up more shelf space than before.

John Nese, owner of Galco’s Soda Pop Stop, talks about the challenges and rewards of operating a time-tested local business. Oct. 30, 2019. Miles Koupal/The Occidental

Publicity may have attracted more people to visit the store, but according to customers, it is the variety of rare and exotic drinks that make them stay. Joshua Kiesel, an Eagle Rock resident, said he visits the store from time to time whenever he is free from work.

“I love it here. There’s so many good products. There’s soda, there’s water, there’s literally flavored fruit water right here, there’s teas, there’s all these different rows of beers and wines. That is so niche,” Kiesel said. “There’s a beautiful plethora of flavors.”

Nese started working in his father’s grocery store when he was 6 or 7 years old and has gained vast knowledge about where to find drinks. One of Nese’s business strategies is to promote a culture that minimizes competition. When searching for rare sodas that are only produced in small batches on the East Coast, Nese reassured the manufacturer they should not worry about being outcompeted.

“I said, ‘Whatever you sell, the guy next to you on the shelf is not your competitor. He’s gonna help sell your product, because he has something different to sell than what you make,'” Nese said.

The large scale of the business means Nese cannot do all the work himself. Over the past 64 years, Nese hired many young workers to help him with the day-to-day operation of the store. Juan Lopez is one of them.

Lopez works as the cashier and at the deli counter, and he helps send out packages of sodas all over the country to customers who order online. After graduating from high school in 2016, Lopez first worked in voter registration before coming to Galco’s. This is his third year here. Lopez said working at the store is not a typical retail experience because normally, people dread their work in the retail industry.

“I’ve never hated it. Sometimes I’m exhausted by it. I’ve been working a lot of hours, for example,” Lopez said. “It’s definitely unique. He’s passionate about what he does, and it rubs off on you.”

Nese said he is unsure about what will happen to his store in the future. Nese, who is 75 years old, said his grandchildren prefer to be soda-tasters rather than working to inherit the family business.

“They said, ‘Papa John, we’re interested, but you will have to work until your 90s,'” Nese said. “I mean, they were about 10, or 11 years old when they said that.”