Ahead of the New Year weekend, Nour was doing her supermarket shopping for a small gathering bringing together four couples and their children aged between eight and 14. In her shopping cart there were a wide range of soft drinks.
“We don’t drink alcohol, and for gatherings like New Year’s Eve fizzy drinks are essential. I serve them with nuts, sandwiches, and all types of finger food,” she said.
Nour’s cart contained several colourful bottles of Spathis, one of the oldest made-in-Egypt soft drinks that has been making a slow but steady comeback over the past couple of years.
Nour first “discovered” this drink in the summer of 2020. “It was the first summer of the pandemic, and I was doing my shopping with my daughter Malak. She pointed to a bottle of Spathis, and we picked out three for her and her two sisters. They all liked it, and now we get it every once in a while for them —for the weekends or the summer holidays,” Nour said.
The colourful bottle that the then nine-year-old Malak picked out was a Spathis classic — red apple in a plastic bottle with an easy-to-twist cap. Malak liked the red apple flavour, which is not very common in the fizzy drinks market in Egypt. According to her mother, “the girls also probably liked the fact that the drink has a lot of soda, which makes it bubbly when they pour it in a glass, and that it has a strong and sweet flavour.”
Nour, in her mid-30s, had not been introduced to this drink before, but her parents, in their early 60s, were familiar with the Spathis trade mark. They welcomed a few bottles of the ultimate classic: Spathis lemonade soda.
According to Youssef Talaat, chair of the board of the Spiro Spathis Company which makes the drink, “it was precisely this mixture of curiosity and nostalgia that allowed for the re-introduction of the drink in a market dominated by international labels and growing competition.”
It was in 1909 that Nicolas Spathis, a Greek Alexandrian, started a business making lemonade soda drinks that he sold in green glass bottles. Twenty years down the road in Cairo, Spiro, a nephew of Nicolas, started a bigger business that carried his name. It also carried the logo of a buzzing bee, an association with the apiaries that the family was then running.
In addition to the lemonade soda starter, Spiro, working out of his factory on the then very happening Rue Emadeddin in Cairo, added the red apple fizzy drink that was also very popular.
Hamed, an older attendant at one of the few remaining bars in downtown Cairo, recalls that both drinks were not just soft drinks but also served as the base for cocktails.
CHANGING TIMES: Spiro’s son and daughter kept the business running in Egypt after the death of their father in the early 1950s. According to Hamed, it was around 1977, when he started working as a bar attendant, that the decline of this previously buzzing bee started.
This was the moment of the Open Door economic policy that allowed big international companies to enter the Egyptian market with heavy campaigning that attracted clients eager to explore the new brands.
It was more about the introduction of US soft drinks and fast-food chains that started opening up stores in Downtown Cairo and elsewhere than about the declining quality of national products, Spathis included.
Hamed says that it took fewer than 10 years for demand to be almost fully directed towards the new drinks. Local drinks, except for the famous Stella beer, were pulling out, first into limited budget markets and then out of the market altogether.
According to Talaat, however, with the introduction of the first wave of the International Monetary Fund (IMF)-sponsored economic reforms in the early 1990s, “what we call class B of the market expanded.” This allowed national soft drink manufacturers, including ASPA, the company of his father and uncle, to find a place.
Talaat added that the fact that the 1980s and early 1990s saw a decline in the alcohol market with the increasing association between alcohol and poor religion practices meant that “more and more people were moving to replace alcoholic drinks with soft drinks.
“This allowed for the expansion of the market in general and also for a wide range of products at a wide range of prices,” he added.
Talaat said that the heavy campaigning of the international soft drink companies that were joining the Egyptian market “indirectly” promoted the concept of consuming soft drinks in general as they were being branded to associate fun, good digestion, and leisure time.
Soft drinks became what people would share in the evenings and what they would drink at birthdays, parties, and weddings. “This was the case in summer as in all other seasons,” he added.
All this led to the social-media campaigning that relaunched Spiro Spathis in December 2019. “In almost every house and certainly in almost every café there is a slot for soft drinks, big or small, all year round. This is what has been keeping the business going and expanding it for smaller firms like ours,” he said.
The Talaats originally started their soft drinks business in Suez in the early 1970s, aiming at the governorates of the south. However, with the 1973 War the business moved out of Suez and was relaunched in Ain Shams in Cairo.
The Open Door policy soon created growing consumerism or what investors like the Talaats call “growing shopping trends.” Whatever the label, the market for soft drinks was expanding. According to Saber, a sales assistant in a Downtown grocery, by the mid-1980s, when he started working, most houses would buy boxes of soft drinks for the summer.
“Some would buy 10 bottles every three days or so,” he said. By that point, it was new drinks produced in Egypt by multinationals that controlled the market. “I am not sure why, but I think it was part of the mood of the time of looking to imported items and international brands. Maybe it was considered a form of modernisation,” Saber said.
BUSINESS SCHEMES: The only surviving member of the Spathis family, the daughter of Spiro himself, resisted calls to relaunch the business.
Yet, by the late 1990s she was willing to accept that the bee that had been buzzing since the early decades of the 20th century was now failing. In 1998, the company and the brand were sold to ASPA.
“The production lines by that time were really old, even for the class B market that our business had targeted. Interest in local brands was not great either at that point in time,” Talaat said. However, he added that taking over Spathis seemed a good bet to make for the future.
“We thought there was potential there. We were not thinking that we would relaunch the brand the way we did, but we saw business potential,” he said.
It took the Talaats close to a quarter of a century to start the relaunch, which required entirely new production lines and a new concept. “Things were changing, and the competition was bound to be hard, especially as by 2017 or 2018 when we started working on the relaunch, the multinationals already dominated the market,” Talaat said.
It was not just the introduction of new production technology that helped Spathis to be “comfortably re-launched.” There were also other factors, including the decision of the company to mix “something old with something new.”
“Re-introducing the original two flavours was essential, not just because of the ‘nostalgia’ element, which was of course key to our relaunch, but also because the lemonade soda is very compatible with the dominant Egyptian taste for fizzy drinks and because the red apple flavour was not very common, either from local companies or the multinationals,” Talaat said.
He added that at the same time there was the introduction of another “all-time favourite for fizzy drinks in Egypt, mandarin.” Then, he said, “came the popular taste of pineapple that was not available as a fizzy drink but only as a non-alcoholic beer.