Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 30 July 2014

When Tesco met the Maine man: Fizzy drinks of our childhood are coming to supermarket shelves

Margaret Canning speaks to Derrick Harkness of Maine Soft Drinks Ltd as he confirms the family drink brand has teamed up with Tesco to sell its products

Derrick Harkness, of Maine soft drinks Ltd, who learned the lemonade trade from his father.
A Maine lemonade van

For over 60 years, soft drinks by Maine in Co Antrim have been a feature of life in Northern Ireland, as are the lorries driven by the 'Maine man' who delivers the fizzy drinks door-to-door.

Now Derrick Harkness, the man who learned the lemonade trade from his father -- after he absorbed it from his father in turn -- is bringing the family business into a new era with a listing in Tesco, the first time its products will be sold in a major supermarket.

Tesco is expected to capitalise on the fond associations which many Northern Ireland people have with Maine, in how it displays the product following the deal, thought to be worth up to £200,000.

Mr Harkness is continuing the extended family's links to the drinks business, which date back to 1919, when John Harkness established Braid Mineral Water, named after a river in Ballymena. Ballymena contract bottlers, Norbev, can trace its routes back to that company.

But in 1949, John's youngest son, John Carson (JC) Harkness, set up Maine Soft Drinks, named after the other river in the town.

The coaching which his grandson Derrick received in the family firm started young. He said: "I was even out on the lorries back when I was six or seven, sitting with my father Bruce in Belfast on Saturdays. He worked in the factory five days a week -- then on Saturdays, he would go door-to-door.

"I wouldn't be much use to him on those Saturdays, but I would have sat with him for about 10 years. It was only a bit of fun being out with my daddy."

As he grew up, Mr Harkness would work on the delivery vans himself during the summer holidays. "One of the perks was lifting a bottle on a warm day and it tasted amazing and quenched your thirst."

The model of delivering bottled drinks emerged after the Second World War, with most having sold directly to corner shops before that time.

There were many lemonade companies on the road, like Thompsons, Briggs and Youngs -- and ultimately, Maine Soft Drinks outlasted them all and is now the only door-to-door lemonade company on the road in Northern Ireland.

As the business evolved, Maine brought their business to Belfast, and familiarity took hold, with the fleet growing from two to 40 lorries.

Maine also bought over the door-to-door business of Braid -- and JC Carson lived to see his company prosper well into the 2000s, until he died in May 2009, one month after his 101st birthday. In the last three years, the company has also sold to independent convenience stores to road test the public's receptiveness to their product.

That enthusiasm gave them the confidence to try out-selling in plastic bottles -- previously, the door to door Maine man, also known in some parts as the Mineral Man, sold the drinks in glass bottles, which were later returned by the customer.

But the delivery service remains an important part of the business, Mr Harkness said. There are around 40,000 customers, he added. The average customer orders four bottles, while others order as many as 12, sometimes in all six colours.

But Mr Harkness said the company wanted to bring its products to a wider customer base.

"With the delivery service, we would only supply 10% of the country, and there are 90% of homes we don't reach. That was another decision for us about how to get the Maine brand noticed."

But he vowed the company would not lose out or face any dilution -- pardon the pun -- through the association with Tesco.

"It's to reinforce the brand in people's minds. With only 10% of the houses in Northern Ireland buying from us, we feel that a lot of people remember the Maine Man, but don't have a Maine man calling with them.

"We don't want to lose the trade door-to-door, but we won't lose out by putting the Maine brand into Tesco. Because of changes in people's lifestyle down the years, they aren't in all day and aren't in their houses to get the service. The housewives were always the best customer. That was our bread and butter."

Now, does he make any big claims about any health properties of his product? "It is a fun treat. It is what it is. Traditional lemonade should be fun and we are not hiding what it is."

The company also bottles for other companies and has a contract with Scottish company Dunns Food and Drinks for Curries Red Kola, a soft drinks with "quite some following" in Scotland. Maine also bottles kids' soft drinks under the Smak and Vitazade brands.

Mr Harkness said advice from Invest NI had encouraged it to work on growing the Maine business. "We're very grateful to Invest NI for financial support which allowed us to invest in our production plant.

"These improvements to our business gave us confidence to approach Tesco and we are absolutely thrilled to have secured this deal with them."

Tesco buying manager Steven Murphy said: "This is an exciting new listing for us, not only as it's adding another local supplier to our portfolio of Taste NI suppliers, but, more importantly, because Tesco is part of such an important new direction for this family business.

"I myself have childhood memories of waiting expectantly for the Maine man to arrive each week.

"We're delighted the wait is over for shoppers across Northern Ireland as the range hits our shelves."

Flavour of Ballymena

Six Maine flavours will be sold in plastic litre bottles in Tesco in the run-up to Christmas -- Raspberryade, Pineappleade and Cloudy Limeade -- plus Sarsaparilla, Brown Lemonade and American Cream Soda. The range will be extended early next year to include White Lemonade and bright blue Bubblegum.

The plastic litre bottles on sale in Tesco will cost £1 each. The glass bottles sold on the road cost £0.75 for 750mls. Customers can also pay £3 for four bottles, but must return the bottles to benefit from that offer.

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