If southern Ohio had an official drink it would most certainly come from Gem Beverages in Wellston. This longtime family business has been distributing Ski and Gem Brand drinks for decades, delighting generations with their unique flavors and colorful packaging.
The company distributes Ski, Diet Ski, Cherry Ski, Tropical Ski, Double Cola, Jumbo Orange and Gem Cream Soda from the 11th Street location that’s been home to Gem since the fifties.
Owner Rex Holzapfel is just the third owner of the business since it opened in 1923 and is proud of both his product and the business’ history.
The business began in 1923 when two local men – Will Corn and Harvey Malloy started a bottling business in an old garage that was located where the Kroger parking lot now stands. On Saint Patrick’s Day 1938, Holzapfel’s father and two uncles purchased the business with a little help from their mother. “My dad was born in 1923 so he was the same age as the business. He was fifteen years old when they bought it. He was the youngest but he worked and received a paycheck just like the other two,” Rex explained.
The bottling and distribution business expanded over time, as they bottled their own line of Gem flavors. In 1956, they replaced their Gem cola when they began bottling Double Cola. A few years later, the company began bottling Ski, which eventually became a regional favorite.
The elder Holzapfels – Henry, Frank and Rex’s dad Leonard – remained involved in the business even after Rex purchased it in 1996. Leonard would continue working on reports and making bank runs until shortly before his death at the age of 95.
“The three of them would go to Lee’s (Lee’s Steakhouse is a popular local restaurant near the Gem headquarters) every day at 1:30 or two o’clock. They always went for coffee. They could be arguing about something but once the coffee came, the argument was done and that was that,” he said with a smile.
This went on every day for nearly six decades. When Frank died in 1999 and Henry in 2000, Rex said that his wife suggested he needed to have coffee with his dad. “I thought I was too busy but I made the time. Ended up going every day for eighteen years and I’m glad,” he said.
The business has long been a family affair. His brothers, cousins and others have worked after school and summer jobs over the years. Today, Rex’s own children are involved in the family business. His daughter does the books while his son drives a route. “In fact, it seems like almost everyone has worked here at some point. The kids laugh because when I’m out I’ll say, ‘that person used to work at Gem Bottling and that person used to work at Gem’ and the kids will ask ‘WHO didn’t work there!’ I just laugh,” he said sheepishly.
Unfortunately, the industry has seen a number of changes over time that have made his work a bit more challenging. It was a tough decision but Rex said they chose to close the bottling division in 2006 and to focus on the distribution side of the business. “It was a hard decision but it was something that needed to be done. I went from working 55 or sixty hours a week and not making much money at all to turning a better profit in half that time,” he said.
Once up on a time, Rex said that soft drink bottlers could be found in nearly every town. “It’s just how it worked. Local drinks, national soft drinks, they all used local bottlers. Now it’s getting hard to find those smaller bottlers. It’s getting hard to find someone that will bottle for you,” he said.
The highly competitive soft drink industry is ruled by large national names that can afford to buy shelf space in grocery and convenience stores while some large retailers refuse to carry regional brands. “This makes it a lot harder. But our drinks have a following. Ski has a following and the customers demand it around here.”
When asked what he would tell someone who hasn’t tasted Ski, Rex laughed. “I would tell them they haven’t lived! It’s the best thing since sliced bread,” he said. “When people ask what it tastes like I always say it tastes like Mountain Dew but better.”
Ski was born in 1956, a product of the Double Cola Company of Chattanooga, TN. In their advertising, the company boasts that it’s made with “real lemon and real orange juices with a kick.” The country band The Kentucky Headhunters mentioned Ski in their 1989 song “Dumas Walker.”
The band originated in the Greensburg, Kentucky area which was a big Ski bottling area. When suggested that they immortalized Ski with their song, Rex laughed and suggested that Ski immortalized the Headhunters. “We were around a long time before they were,” he quipped.
Rex is also quick to point out that Ski has continued to grow in southern Ohio while Pepsi and Coke have not. He said that they first introduced Ski in Vinton County in 1961 and that the drink’s popularity spread like wildfire in that community. From there, it gained popularity in Jackson County and beyond and has continued to grow.
Today, Gem Beverages is responsible for distribution of the Ski brand and other drinks in eight counties including Jackson, Vinton, Athens, Hocking, Ross, Pike, Meigs and Gallia. They recently began delivering to the Duke and Duchess stores in Chillicothe because customers requested it.
He said the best way for customers to get a product in their local store is to simply ask store management to carry it. “That’s how we ended up in Duke and Duchess, customers were asking for it,” he said.
The drinks are available in a variety of sizes including twelve and six packs of cans, 20 ounce bottles, 12 ounce long neck bottles, 16.9 ounce six packs and two liters.
In looking toward the future, Rex says he plans to “just keep doing what we’re doing. By the grace of God, we’re still here,” he said. But he has a secret weapon in the form of a nineteen year old who he calls “the face of the future.”
Josh Lung started at Gem with an after school job a few years ago and says that he loves working there. “I just love being here. I don’t know. It’s a great place to work and great people to be around,” Josh said with a huge smile.
“You know how some kids like to play sports? Well, work has always been Josh’s sport,” Rex said of the young man who he has known since he was a small tot. “He reminds me of me sometimes, the way he gets so excited about this place. He’s definitely the new face of Gem.”
Today, Rex also enjoys working with his son Kevin and daughter Kerri. His wife Vicki owns Holzapfel Family Clinic in Jackson and the couple have four grandchildren- Olivia, Kash, Easton and Maizy plus another on the way.