Big Shot’s Big Anniversary
arthur nead illustration
There was a time when working guys would take their daily lunch break from unloading sacks of coffee beans at the dock, head to the nearest corner grocery and either order a poor boy or grab a prepared Mrs. Drake’s sandwich from the shelf. A bag of either Dickey’s potato chips or Chee-Weez would provide the side dish. Washing it down would be a Big Shot soft drink, either the cola or something fruit-flavored. Then would come the chaser, a Hubig’s pie, most likely apple or lemon.
No one worried about carbs, calories or sugar content back then because it would all be worked off by the end of the day. Laborers got to eat what they wanted, guilt-free.
Now, in an age when much of a workday’s activity consists of conducting Google searches, the caloric demands have lessened, but amazingly some products have survived. Mrs. Drake is long gone but Hubig’s pies are still made in their Marigny factory and Big Shot drinks still appear on selected grocery shelves.
This year is a big one for Big Shot because the brand celebrates its 75th anniversary. Times have been tough for small, local soft drink manufacturers, yet images of Mr. Big Shot with his rumpled bowler hat and a cigar sticking out from beneath his moustache still adorn bottles and faded signs around town. In 1935, the same year that Elvis Presley was born and Huey Long was assassinated, a big shot was a counter-image to the depression. When people are poor they dream big, so much so that a game released by Parker Brothers that year became a hit. It was called Monopoly. Getting out of jail free was a good thing, but what the nation really coveted was a ride on the Short Line to reach the Community Chest.
A person didn’t have to be rich to be a big shot back then, but had to act like one. Thus did the Pailets; Maurice, Samuel Jr. and Irbin, along with D.S. Puneky and H.J. Wallick, create a character for their drink. Their business was called the Jefferson Bottling Co.; eventually it was taken over by various relatives until the late 1980s when a livewire entrepreneur named Robert Corey acquired it. Corey became the personification of Big Shot. He would go around town wearing a bowler hat and bow tie while puffing on a cigar. I remember an early sports event in the ’Dome; for entertainment, mascot figures were invited to appear on the field. There, alongside the various tiger heads and walking booze bottles, was Corey as Big Shot, out-sized by the characters around him but taking his stand.
In 1992 the company was sold to National Beverage Corp., and though the drink is now produced out-of-state, its promotional material still proclaims, “New Orleans’ Own Big Shot.”
“New Orleans’ Own” was never the sort of drink that would make it to cocktail parties. Its effervescent bubbles have seldom been stirred with Herbsaint or bitters. Big Shot and Jack Daniels have rarely hung out together. It is just an old-fashioned out-of-the bottle drink that its promoters describe as an “on premise beverage,” meaning that it’s usually consumed shortly after it’s bought rather than being stashed away for some future party.
Big Shot’s big shot in this the anniversary year is Herman Marshall, an employee who, except for a stint away from home during the Korean War, has been working for the company for 63 years since, “shortly after Mardi Gras in 1947.” Marshall’s first job was to put bottles into a washer, then he graduated to operating the washer and then the filter. “When the syrup man quit, I got bumped up again.” Marshall, who works in the company’s Harahan distribution facility, is proud that he was among the employees who, after a taste test, approved of a proposed Pineapple Watermelon flavor which, he says, has become Big Shot’s second bestselling flavor.
His favorite Big Shot flavor? “Red Drink,” which is soda shorthand for strawberry. And, just for perspective, his favorite meal? “Black-eyed peas with stewed chicken and rice. Lots of gravy.” Sounds to me, a Big Shot Black Cherry would be the perfect pairing.