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Do you remember Joe’s Ginger Ale?

February 28, 2022

A Community Memory with David La Mantia

The La Mantia family have a special place in the local business community, having survived three generations as grocers.

Joe La Mantia set up shop in Lindsay in 1928. “He was an immigrant from Sicily, who didn’t speak the language. Who was going to hire you? So he had to make his own way.” But Joe understood what it meant to serve his new community, and quickly found a niche as a wholesaler for restaurants and other small stores, while he operated the Central Fruit Market, originally as a tenant at the present-day location of the downtown Shoppers Drug Mart.

The family came up with the motto, “Dial 1-0 and to your home we promptly go.” So if anyone called to order a dozen eggs, not only would they deliver, they would carry it in, free of charge. “You would not have thought of charging for delivery back in those days.” Grocers were sharply dressed, typically wearing a bow tie.

Being a grocer was certainly not an easy job. Joe would drive all over the province, buying produce for the store, often directly from farmers. Loading it all by hand onto his truck—just a flatbed, with stake pockets to accommodate homemade sides. With a tarp slung over top, Joe was ready to drive his cargo back to the Kawarthas. The La Mantias also made a habit of bidding on prize cattle from the annual Lindsay Fair competition.

Without the rapid, international food networks that we take for granted today, he also had to figure out how to preserve much of the produce for winter. At one point he was renting cold storage from McMullen’s Dairy (located where Kent Place is today) to store Ontario grown celery. “As the season went on, you had to peel off withered outer layers. By spring you were down to selling celery hearts… people just wouldn’t find it acceptable today.” But back then, customers couldn’t take for granted abundant year-round produce sourced from all around the world. For many fruits and vegetables, there was a season when they simply weren’t available.

Growing up in the La Mantia family meant learning how to be responsible at a young age. Because Joe was an immigrant, his children soon became his translators and cultural intermediaries. Joe Jr. did the bookkeeping and looked after the groceries, Gus cared for the produce and Jim was a butcher.

By 1956, the La Mantias had saved up enough that they could buy their own store, relocating to 138 Kent Street (now Houghton Creek). The National Cash Registers the store used at this time cost about $2,000 or $3,000 each—as much as a car would cost in 1956. Looking back at the photos of the grand opening shows how much grocery stores have changed over the years. The entire store was concentrated into two aisles, everything was stacked on wooden shelves that were not adjustable, and there was no such thing as social distancing in such a confined shopping environment. Not only were cigarettes in plain view at the cash, but it was socially acceptable to smoke while shopping. At their peak they owned the Central Fruit Market and a warehouse for wholesaling where the municipal parking lot is now located behind that block.

Joe’s Ginger Ale was one of the two products that were branded for the store—the other being butter, produced by Sunderland Creamery. Introduced about the time that the new store opened, the pop was in thin glass bottles that were not reused or recycled—back then recycling was not a thing.

In the 1950s and 1960s, pop was a rapidly growing industry, as ever more people could afford to drink bottled beverages. What was initially a special treat, became increasingly a daily staple. Back then most people would have found it strange to think that anyone would want to buy water in a bottle.  Soda was a lot like craft beer is today—there were many Ontario producers serving the area (Wilson’s, Pure Spring, Lindsay Soda Water Works, Boorman’s Peterboro Bottling Works, Port Perry Bottling Works). Many of them produced high quality products that their customers enjoyed. Even Coke and Pepsi just sold syrups and marketing rights to bottlers closer to home. Joe’s Ginger Ale did not continue into the era of returnable pop bottles.

The La Mantias sold the downtown Central Fruit Market in 1974, moving south of town on Highway 35, before returning to the present William Street location as La Mantia’s Country Market. Over the years, Joe made many friends, was very active in St. Mary’s Catholic Church and was one of those unforgettable personalities. “Any success that he had was the result of his years of hard work—and it is easy to admire a self-made man.”

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