Maine Soft Drinks is now run by Derrick Harkness, the fourth generation of his driving family, and before that they had created Braid Mineral Water Co..
Rather than slogans, gimmicks, or cheap tricks, Maine stuck to traditional methods, including home delivery of its glass bottles, a strategy that has stood the test of time when many around them had to reinvent themselves.
Derrick said: âI think it has more to do with glass bottles than anything else.
âIf everything was done in a plastic bottle, it wouldn’t work. You would just buy them in the supermarkets.
âPeople feel they are doing a good thing for the environment, returnable bottles. They also do this because there is a myth, and we think it’s true, that lemonade tastes better in glass bottles.
âThe glass bottle keeps it cool, keeps it sparkling. A large two-liter plastic bottle does not have the same effect.
“It might not be practical to have a big load of glass along Tesco’s shelves, so it’s something that makes us unique.”
Of his team at Maine Men who drive the trucks and deliver the bottles door to door, he said, âWe have maybe 40.
âThere have been some reductions due to the lockdown, we have reduced a few delivery areas, but we can still deliver anywhere in Northern Ireland. There are deliveries to Donegal and others to Dublin as well.
He added: “You might think anyone can deliver lemonade, but it’s more than just selling lemonade – you deal with the public, you have to be friendly, you have to be respectful of the public. property of people, you must be reliable, you must have the gift of chatter, you must be talkative, you must also be careful on the road because you are an advertisement that rolls along the subdivisions and public places.
“One of the guys talks about all the times he was with customers and maybe installed a stove for a woman whose electrician let her down, a family had locked themselves in, he opened their house for them, he started people’s cars, he moved people’s sofas. It’s crazy the things you end up doing when you’re out.
âEveryone has these funny stories about what happened when they were making deliveries, whether it’s looking for a lost dog in the field, it’s more than just selling lemonade.
âWe’ve had some great men from Maine over the years who would feel bad about letting their clients down, they would be out in any weather.
“We always have Maine Men like that, I say men, we also have women working for us, but this has always been known as the mineral man, the lemonade man, or the Maine man.”
The Harkness family started a non-alcoholic beverage company in Ballymena in 1919 called Braid Mineral Water Co.
It was the founder’s son, John Harkness, who decided to go on his own in 1949 and founded Maine Soft Drinks.
In 1959, the company moved to its current premises in Ballymoney.
While maintaining its home deliveries for which it is famous, the business has grown and diversified in a number of ways, including supplying supermarkets and bottling under contract.
They also export to companies on the UK mainland.
Maine Soft Drinks employs more than 100 people, half of whom are based in Ballymoney and the other half in the province in depots located in Lurgan, Belfast and Londonderry.
Although Maine is best known for its delivery service, it has provided products under the Vitazade and Smak brands for many years.
Maine was formed from Braid Soft Drinks, which is linked to the manufacturing company Norbev in Ballymena.
Derrick, who is from Ballymoney but now lives in Portstewart, recalled his days as a junior man from Maine: âI can trace that by dating my dad when I was six or seven.
“Maybe not completely legal these days, but I would have just been an assistant.
“There aren’t many streets in Northern Ireland where I haven’t had a lemonade truck, where I haven’t knocked on doors and talked to customers.”
Derrick, who just turned 50, said: âI’ve been working there for maybe 35 years. Driving is only part of what I do in the company. I would have gone to take care of different depots.
âI would have gone to encourage our various men in Maine.
âThere’s a lot to do with selling, going to an area, maybe if there are only five customers on a street, we might go knocking the rest of the doors and maybe get five. other customers to double production, it is to encourage our men to seek new customers.
Derrick added, âThe online side of our business has taken off really well during the lockdown.
âIt kills the conversation, the face-to-face, some people like that.
âThe personal touch is still sought after by many people.
“There are customers that the men in Maine will just open their doors and walk in, they’ve been calling for so long, they’re welcome.”
Derrick said Maine has very loyal customers who have been buying the same drinks for generations.
He commented: âPeople like to rekindle their memories, maybe of what their grandmother used to have on a Saturday morning when they were visiting.
âIt refreshes the memory, it’s usually a good memory, a pleasant feeling. We want this to continue.
âWe don’t pretend to be totally health conscious, that’s what it is. Lemonade is fun, it’s a treat.
âPeople don’t have to eat there for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Do it in moderation, and it won’t hurt them. Drinking 30 bottles per week is not recommended.
He continues, âWe have customers who have been buying for generations, since the very beginning their families have been raised with. They buy maybe five bottles a week, they will always buy other drinks in other stores. They don’t get all the soft drinks from us.
âEmpty bottles are left out and the following week our man would replace their favorite flavors, be it sarsaparilla, cloudy lime, cream soda. Some people have had two brown lemonades and two cream sodas their entire lives. They just keep those flavors.
He said pineapple and raspberry are two of the most popular flavors.
Derrick added: âMany towns in Northern Ireland had their own soft drink businesses years ago. Larne had Inver Springs, Newry had the Rye clan, all named after rivers. Lurgan would have had Classic and Great Northern and Red Lorry. There was always a bit of a fight. I’m sure there was a lot of rivalry in the 60s and 70s.
âThere were maybe 30 companies in Belfast. C&C (Cantrell and Cochrane) was the largest company in the world during the time of the Titanic.
Historians widely credit Dr. Cantrell as the first inventor of ginger ale.
Derrick said: âWe really are the only ones left. Many of them have merged. Ross’s was also a big company, we took over their business. We still have men working for us who started at Ross. If it’s in your family, it spreads.
Derrick said the soft drink company is looking for new hires, people from an agricultural background who may be a perfect fit for the job.
He said, âThe right person can do a great job, the wrong person can fail.
âThe good guys stay a long time. We have guys who are in their 30th year on the job.
âIt’s hard work when the rain is falling or the snow is gone, but it’s a wonderful job when the sun is shining or it’s a very nice, cool spring day. It’s fun because you’re selling a nice, fun product to people – it’s not bad news that you’re delivering.
âI often thought that some of the good people would come from the farming way of life, from the outside people who work hard. We would be willing to hire someone part time, maybe two days a week, maybe someone who needs extra work away from the farm.
âWe’re always looking for people, it’s an open thing. I am looking for new faces in Belfast and our Lurgan / Craigavon ââcounty, but if the right person showed up in our Ballymoney or Omagh area I would be happy to speak with them.
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