It was a far different world back in 1927 when the Nehi Bottling Company was founded in Cleveland. Most soft drink companies manufactured their products locally because dirt roads made it difficult to transport products very far. Today the soft drink industry has a far different model with most production consolidated in regional bottling centers.
As the Nehi Bottling Company celebrates its 85th year in business, it no longer manufacturers the soft drinks. But the company still employs 18 people distributing Nehi, Royal Crown (RC) Cola, Dr. Pepper, Seven Up, A & W, Country Time, Sunkist and Canada Dry products throughout its service territory.
Its products may not be the best sellers in the industry, but it certainly has loyal fans.
Homer Sledge Jr., 75, still enjoys going to work regularly.
“My father worked here until he was 90 and six months old,” said Sledge, whose favorite drink is RC. “If I live that long, I expect I will stay up here, too. My son (Homer Sledge III) is doing most of it. I’m just hanging around. It has been an interesting and rewarding business to me. I can’t complain.”
The parent company for Nehi was formed in Columbus, Ga., in about 1905. In 1933 the Nehi Corp. came out with RC Cola, which became very popular. In the early 60s the company’s name was changed from Nehi to Royal Crown Cola Corp.
“But we have still stayed as the Nehi Bottling Co. because Daddy wanted to and I’m more hardheaded than he was,” Sledge said. “We’ve stayed with Nehi because we started with Nehi.”
The business began in a building near their present location that no longer exists. Sledge’s father constructed the current building at 310 North Sharpe Street in 1948. The building next to the railroad tracks was on the route that earlier was U.S. 61.
Nehi Bottling Company currently distributes in an area 60 miles to the north, 60 miles to the east, 15 miles to the south and 20 miles to the west to the Mississippi River. Most of its product distributed is manufactured in Indiana or Texas.
High gasoline prices have made it more expensive to transport products. While it hasn’t crippled the business, “it sure would be nice to have $2 per gallon fuel instead of nearly $4 per gallon fuel,” Sledge said.
Sledge finds it fun and rewarding for the company to be actively involved in the community, including supporting Delta State University (DSU) and the Chamber of Commerce.
“We just try to do whatever we are asked to do,” Sledge said. “We are fortunate in Cleveland to have Delta State and an active Chamber of Commerce. We try to do what we can do to support them. The chamber and business people have worked hard to make Cleveland a beautiful place to do business.”
Libbi Logan, president of the Cleveland-Bolivar Chamber of Commerce, said Nehi Bottling Company supports the entire community.
“They are willing and able to support whatever is going on in Cleveland,” Logan said. “We recently had a fun run for St. Jude, and they were more than happy to donate all the products and drinks for that event. They are a huge asset. These are people who are dependable, familiar faces in the community. Several generations still work there in the local office. It is just someone you know you can trust.”
More on Nehi Bottling Company
Date Founded: 1927
Owner(s): The Sledge family (662) 843-3431
Coolest thing about business: “Historic business that keeps on trucking soft drinks to the Delta”