What is your name, where do you live, and how would you life be different without seltzer?
My name is Michael Har-Even, born in the USA and now living in Jerusalem. Post-university I moved from Boston to Manhattan, kicked around for a while, and then hooked up with a friend, Steven Drucker, to start a seltzer business, which we called Gimme Seltzer. For the two of us it was the right thing in the right place at the right time. It gave us a chance to strike out on our own, do something fun and offbeat, but at the same time make a living and learn a lot about business and people. Here I can’t get good old real seltzer—and I definitely miss it.
Steven and I are still friends after being in business together and live a few streets from each other here in Jerusalem. I think we started the business in 1978. I left the States at the end of 1982. Steven kept at it a bit longer, I guess to the mid-80’s, and then sold it.
Where did the name of the company come from?
The name of the company was, of course, a take-off on the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter (it’s just a shot away). The name just popped up when we were brainstorming and we stopped right then and there. A couple of rock & roll kids were clearly going to use that one.
How does it feel that, a generation later, I came upon similar inspiration for my book project on seltzer?
Seltzer is history. It’s old time class from black and white movies. Laughs from Three Stooges and burlesque routines. Guys hauling cases through the Lower East Side. I grew up with seltzer delivery in suburban America. Yet, by the time my partner and I took it up, seltzer was dying out. All but a couple of the New York bottling plants had shut down.
To buy bottles, which hadn’t been made since World War II, we had to do detective work hunting down retired seltzermen who had cases in their basements and garages. The old timers—both the retired ones as well as the few that were still plying their trade—welcomed us (they thought we were crazy, but they welcomed us). They were happy to have someone to whom to pass the torch.
I’m pleased that a younger generation is taking an interest, but, in a sense, I’m not surprised. It keeps coming back.
How long did you run the business for? What made you start it and what made you sell it?
My partner and I ran the business together for four or five years. After that, I sold my half of the business to him and moved to Israel. He hooked up with our main competitor and eventually the two of them sold out to outsiders. My partner then moved to Israel, too.
Like I said, it seemed like a good thing for us to do at the time, being our own bosses, having fun, getting involved with a feel-good product. Of course, we had no idea if it would click, but it did.
America was into all things retro at the time, as well as health, and we fit right in. We were written up all over the place, including a full page story in the New York Times. Our delivery van, with a bright mural painted on its side, was recognized all over town. I still look on all of that as a very special experience.
What was your favorite part about running New York City seltzer business?
My favorite part, without a doubt, was the people. We had customers from all walks of life, from hoity toity Upper East Side where the doormen sniffed at us as they sent us around to the service entrance, to fourth floor tenement walk-ups. Pretty much any profession you can imagine. It was New York. Everybody with their own story, their own foibles, their own hassles, and their own laughs.
Out on the streets doing deliveries, we were right there with the doormen, the cabbies, the cops. Everybody added something to the experience. The crew at the bottling plant. The few old timer seltzermen.
I remember to this day a conversation I had with one of them—a guy named Bernie, may he rest in peace. We were trading stories about dealing with Manhattan traffic and squeezing through narrow, double-parked streets with our vans. “No problem,” he said. “I get as close as I can on my side of the van and God takes care of the other side.” I take that as my philosophy of life—straight from a seltzerman.