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A shifting loganberry love: PJ’s Crystal Beach slowly passing Aunt Rosie’s

Jonathan Prokop visited four stores this month looking for Aunt Rosie’s loganberry before he finally found it at Wegmans in Amherst. It’s his favorite drink and a staple at home, but it has become more elusive over the past few years. He sees PJ’s Crystal Beach at every store, he said, but refuses to make the switch. It has to be Aunt Rosie’s.

“I could pick Aunt Rosie’s out of a lineup,” he said. “It’s sweeter.”

For nearly 30 years, Aunt Rosie’s Loganberry reigned supreme as Western New York’s loganberry of choice. But the signature Buffalo drink is getting harder to find at stores and restaurants, and sales of the drink are not what they used to be.

At the same time, PJ’s Crystal Beach Loganberry keeps growing, with a passionate family behind the brand and national opportunities coming to call. Could a competitor to the crown topple Aunt Rosie from her throne? Or has it done so already?

Buffalo’s loganberry drinks of yesteryear had such names as Loganberry Fiz and Queen-O. It originated in the west, after a California judge named James Harvey Logan first crossed a blackberry with a raspberry in 1883.

Aunt Rosie’s Olde Tyme Loganberry was born in 1987. Creator Al Pastor, then president of the Pepsi-Cola Buffalo Bottling Co., named it after his wife Rose. Pastor sold the Aunt Rosie’s recipe when he sold the bottling company, which has since been swallowed up by global food and beverage group PepsiCo.

PJ’s Crystal Beach loganberry was born later, in 1998. Town of Tonawanda natives PJ and Carolyn Davis created a loganberry to serve in their Saratoga Springs restaurant. Three years later, locally owned Coca-Cola Buffalo came knocking, looking for a loganberry to compete with Aunt Rosie in the local market. Today, the Davis family owns the brand and the recipe, Coca-Cola Buffalo produces, distributes and markets it. Johnnie Ryan handles the fountain drink.

According to local beverage managers, PJ’s Crystal Beach Loganberry outsells Aunt Rosie’s Loganberry at many Western New York stores. At others, they’re evenly matched. But Aunt Rosie’s has been on a steady decline while PJ’s Crystal Beach continues to grow.

Aunt Rosie’s obviously has its fans. So what’s going on?

A couple of things:

About 10 years ago, Aunt Rosie’s stopped selling loganberry in the 2-liter bottle and began producing solely 12-pack cans out of Syracuse. That alienated a portion of the customer base that prefers the more economical 2-liters. A family can buy a 2-liter of PJ’s Crystal Beach for $1.69 at Wegmans, while a 12-pack of Aunt Rosie’s costs $4 plus deposit.

Jeff Culhane, senior vice president of merchandising at Tops, said the grocery store’s 12-pack promotions have helped bolster Aunt Rosie’s flagging sales. Still, PJ’s Crystal Beach outsells Aunt Rosie’s at Tops.

He said he believes eliminating the Aunt Rosie’s 2-liter led many fans to switch to PJ’s Crystal Beach.

“There had to be some type of lost customer that was OK with moving over to Crystal Beach just to get the loganberry fix,” he said.

While Aunt Rosie’s was losing shelf space, Crystal Beach was gaining. In addition to two liters and 12-pack cans, it added syrup for do-it-yourself loganberry drinks and slushes, and another specialty syrup to be used over pancakes.

Another major shift affecting sales: the change in ownership of the Aunt Rosie’s Brand.

In 2003, the Pastor family sold its recipe and bottling operation to a company that eventually sold it to the largest Pepsi distributor in the world. Just like that, Aunt Rosie’s went from a special, homespun delicacy to just another SKU to be juggled in a national portfolio with hundreds of others. If someone thought, say, Diet Sierra Mist could perform better, Aunt Rosie lost her shelf space to Diet Sierra Mist.

That Aunt Rosie’s sales took a tumble after such an acquisition is no surprise to Charles Lindsay, a marketing professor at the University at Buffalo School of Marketing.

“It’s not uncommon to see this after a brand is taken over by another firm and not given the same marketing support it previously enjoyed,” he said.

But Pepsico think it’s doing just fine by Aunt Rosie.

“We are very happy with the brand,” said Kerry Erlanger, a Pepsico spokesperson.

At PJ’s Crystal Beach, though, loganberry is the center of attention. The family that created the product still owns it and runs the company. PJ himself still hands out taste portions of the drink at stores.

“People get a kick out of it when you say, ‘I’m the guy on the bottle,’ ” he said.

It helps that Crystal Beach’s distributor, Coca-Cola Buffalo, is local. It fights alongside PJ’s Crystal Beach to keep the brand strong and growing.

Not only is it winning over more local drinkers, it’s getting attention from national corporations. Dunkin’ Donuts approached the company about using its syrup to make loganberry Coolattas, which it did at its Buffalo restaurants last summer. Next, 7-Eleven came calling about teaming up for loganberry Slurpees. Those will be available at stores in Western New York and Rochester in November.

Just like the Pastor family used to, the family works to create partnerships and expand distribution. It’s their main focus.

“This is it for us,” said Jady Conboy, PJ’s daughter and vice president of Sarasoda Inc., which owns the loganberry.

email: schristmann@buffnews.com

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