Maine Soft Drinks: company going strong since 1949 and looking for new recruits

It’s refreshing in both senses of the word that a Co Antrim company that started selling soft drinks in 1949 is still going strong.

Monday, 8th November 2021, 8:00 am
The familiar Maine Soft Drinks lorry

Maine Soft Drinks is now run by Derrick Harkness, the fourth generation of his family at the wheel, and before that they’d established Braid Mineral Water Co – you could said lemonade was in the blood, though it’s an advertising slogan unlikely to catch on.

Rather than slogans, gimmicks or cheap tricks, Maine has stuck to it traditional methods including door-to-door delivery of its glass bottles, a strategy which has stood the test of time while many around them have had to reinvent themselves.

Derrick said: “I think it’s to do with the glass bottles more than anything else.

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Some of the popular flavours

“If it was all done in a plastic bottle it wouldn’t work. You’d just get them in the supermarkets.

“People feel they’re doing a good thing for the environment, returnable bottles. They also do it because there’s a myth, and we believe it’s true, that lemonade tastes better out of glass bottles.

“The glass bottle keeps it fresh, keeps it fizzy. A big two-litre plastic bottle hasn’t the same effect.

“It’s maybe not practical to have a big load of glass along shelves in Tesco, so it’s something that keeps us unique.”

Customers standing at a Maine lorry on Harrisburg Street, off York Road in Belfast, around 1978

Of his team of Maine Men who drive the lorries and deliver the bottles door-to-door, he said: “We’ve maybe about 40 or so.

“There were a few cutbacks due to lockdown, we cut back a few delivery areas, but we can still deliver anywhere in Northern Ireland. There’s some deliveries in Donegal and some in Dublin as well.”

He added: “You maybe think any person can deliver lemonade, but it’s more than just selling lemonade – you’re dealing with the public, you need to be likeable, you need to be respectful of people’s property, you need to be reliable, you need to have the gift of the gab, you need to be chatty, you need to be careful on the road as well because you’re an advertisement driving along housing estates and public places.

“One of the guys talks about all the times he was in customers’ houses and maybe installed a cooker for a woman whose electrician let her down, some family had locked themselves out, 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.

An American Kola mural at the Ballymoney HQ

“Everyone has those funny stories of what happened when they were doing deliveries, whether it’s looking for a lost dog in the estate, it’s more than just selling lemonade.

“We’ve had some great Maine men over the years who would feel bad about letting their customers down, they’d be out in all weathers.

“We still have Maine Men like that, I say men, we do have women working for us as well, but it was always known as the mineral man, the lemonade man or the Maine man.”

The Harkness family established a soft drinks business in Ballymena in 1919 called Braid Mineral Water Co.

The Esdale brothers in 1975 at the Maine depot on Cambrai Street, Belfast

It was the founder’s son, John Harkness, who decided to branch out on his own in 1949 and formed Maine Soft Drinks.

In 1959 the business relocated to its current premises in Ballymoney.

While maintaining its doorstep deliveries for which it is famous, the company has expanded and branched out in different ways including supplying to supermarkets and contract bottling.

They are also exporting to companies on the UK mainland.

Maine Soft Drinks employs over 100 people, half of which are based in Ballymoney and the other half around the Province in depots located in Lurgan, Belfast and Londonderry.

Although Maine has primarily been known for its delivery service, for many years they have supplied products under the Vitazade and Smak brands.

Maine was formed from Braid Soft Drinks, which is linked to Norbev manufacturing company in Ballymena.

Derrick, who is from Ballymoney but now lives in Portstewart, recalled his days as a junior Maine man: “I can trace it back going out with my father when I was six or seven years old.

“Maybe not totally legal nowadays, but I just would have been on as helper.

“There’s not many streets in Northern Ireland where I haven’t had a lemonade lorry, where I haven’t knocked doors and spoke to customers.”

Derrick, who recently turned 50, said: “I’ve been at it maybe 35 years. Driving is only a bit of the thing I do in the company. I would have gone and looked after different depots.

“I’d have gone and encouraged our different Maine men.

“There’s a lot to do with selling, going to an area, maybe if there’s only five customers in a street, we would maybe go and knock the rest of the doors and maybe get another five customers to double the output, it’s about encouraging our men to look for new customers.”

Derrick added: “The online side of our business took off very well during lockdown.

“It kills the conversation, the face-to-face, some people like that.

“The personal touch is still sought after by many people though.

“There’s some customers who the Maine men will just open their door and walk on in, they’ve been calling that long, they’re that welcome.”

Derrick said that Maine has some very loyal customers who have been buying the same drinks for generations.

He commented: “People like to rekindle their memories, maybe of what their granny used to get on a Saturday morning when they were visiting.

“It jogs the memory, it’s usually a good memory, a nice feeling. We want to keep that continuing.

“We’re not pretending to be totally health conscious, it is what it is. It’s fun lemonade, it’s a treat.

“People don’t have to dine on it for breakfast, noon and suppertime. Do it in moderation, and it will do them no harm. Drinking 30 bottles a week isn’t advisable.”

He continued: “We’ve customers who have been buying for generations, since the very start, their family have been brought up with it. They’re buying maybe five bottles a week, they’ll still get other drinks in other shops. They don’t get every soft drink from us.

“The empty bottles are left out and the following week our man would replace what their favourite flavours were whether it be sarsaparilla, cloudy lime, cream soda. Some people have taken two brown lemonade and two cream soda a lifetime. They just keep those flavours.”

He said pineappleade and raspberryade are two of the most popular flavours.

Derrick added: “Lots of towns in Northern Ireland had their own soft drinks companies years ago. Larne had Inver Springs, Newry had Clan Rye, all named after rivers. Lurgan would have had Classic and Great Northern and Red Lorry. There was always a bit of a battle. I’m sure there was a lot of rivalry back in the 60s and 70s.

“There was maybe about 30 companies in Belfast. C&C (Cantrell and Cochrane) were the biggest company in the world back in Titanic times.”

Historians widely credit Dr Cantrell as the first inventor of ginger ale.

Derrick said: “We’re really the only ones left. A lot of them amalgamated. Ross’s was a big company as well, we took over their business. We’ve still some men working for us who started in Ross’s. If it’s in your family it gets handed down.”

Derrick said the soft drinks company was seeking new recruits, with people from a farming background perhaps being ideally suited to the job.

He said: “The right person can make a real good job of it, the wrong person can make a failure of it.

“The good ones stay a long time. We’ve some guys who are in their 30th year of working.

“It’s a tough job when the rain is going sideways or the snow’s out, but it’s a beautiful job when the sun is shining or it’s a real nice crisp spring day. It’s fun because you’re selling a nice, fun product to people – it’s not bad news you’re delivering.

“I’ve often thought that some of the right people would come from the farming lifestyle, hard-working outside people. We’d be willing to take on someone part-time, maybe two days a week, maybe someone who needs extra work away from the farm.

“We’re always looking for people, it’s an open-ended thing. I’m looking for new faces in Belfast and in our Lurgan/Craigavon department, but if the right person came along in our Ballymoney or Omagh area I would be happy to talk to them.”

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