By Elaine Whitesides
Last summer, Beech Grove native, Dan Iaria, spent a lot of time reminiscing about his childhood. Not just daydreaming, Iaria had a purpose. He and partner, Greg Codozor, had just purchased the Rock-Cola Café on Brookville Road. “I was looking for something unique for the Café, something with retro appeal, something (people) loved as a kid,” Iaria said.
Of course, since he grew up in Beech Grove, it was natural that his reminiscing included thoughts of icy cold Choc-Ola. The brand was a local mainstay. It had been invented by Harry Normington, Sr. in Indianapolis in 1944 and was bottled on Churchman Avenue just south of Raymond from 1944 until 1985.
Iaria had no recollection of what ever happened to it. “It was perfectly positioned and I discovered it had disappeared,” said Iaria. With a little research, he found that the company had been bought and put out of business by a competitor.
He also learned that the 20-year patent for the drink had expired – just three days prior. It was exactly what he was looking for, so he applied for the patent and waited the six months for the previous owner to renew the patent, which never happened. So in August of 2010, Iaria became the owner of the Choc-Ola patent. “Along with the trademark, I obtained the recipe and the manufacturing process,” Iaria said.
He started offering Choc-Ola at the Rock-Cola Café and one day, Joe Wolfla and Bill Kelsey came into the restaurant. They struck up a conversation about the chocolate-y treat. “I worked at Choc-Ola for one summer between eighth grade and my freshman year at Sacred Heart,” Wolfla said. “Being brought up in Fountain Square, Choc-Ola was a big deal. You shake it and take it. I got excited and asked, ‘Danny, have you really got the original (recipe)?’ It was tremendous, the real deal.”
Iaria’s father, Pete, was a good friend of Wolfla’s growing up so it was a comfortable fit when the two started talking about bringing Choc-Ola back to the market.
Wolfla said he had a friend he might call; Dave Mayfield was head of marketing for Martin’s Super Markets, which is based in South Bend with 21 outlets in Indiana and Michigan. Mayfield was another South Sider, a graduate of Southport High School. He remembered Choc-Ola and he saw an opportunity to be part of bringing Choc-Ola back.
They decided they needed someone to make it and distribute it. Mayfield introduced them to a bottler, Prairie Farms, based out of Carlinville, Illinois. They met and within three days, an agreement was reached.
Iaria wanted to maintain the secret syrup recipe, so Wolfla called another long-time friend, Ronald Jones. Jones, the owner of BBQ Heaven, grew up with Wolfla and Pete Iaria. Wolfla explained what he and Dan wanted to do and Jones offered to let them use the facility where he produces his barbeque sauce to make the syrup. They would then provide the syrup to Prairie Farms.
They had the product ready to go, and places to sell it. They only needed one more thing – a spokesperson. Wolfla called college friend, Bobby Plump, of Milan basketball fame.
“Joe called and when they told me Choc-Ola was coming back, it just brought back memories. As a kid I had to save money to buy Choc-Ola. Shake it and take it. He told me I was going to be the spokesman for Choc-Ola,” Plump said. “I said OK.”
Wolfla said, “Martin’s Super Markets took us on the road and Bobby was there to promote it. Not only was the product good and tasted good, with Plump’s signature and backing it went. People would buy eight half gallons to get his autograph. It was unbelievable. It was really neat to watch this happen. A lot of people knew (Choc-Ola).”
Martin’s began selling Choc-Ola on its shelves on March 21, 2011. Now Iaria, Wolfla and Plump will be bringing the product back to Beech Grove in the coming weeks when it becomes available at the Beech Grove Meat Market. They will kick off sales with a special event. Bobby Plump will be autographing bottles of Choc-Ola for the public. A portion of the proceeds from Choc-Ola sales during the initial promotion will be donated to the Beech Grove High School Athletic Department from which Dan Iaria and Greg Codozor are alumni. “Keep checking the Southside Times for the announcement,” Wolfla said.
Eventually Prairie Farms will make Choc-Ola available in other stores locally and move it into 18 states.
What began as a Beech Grove phenomenon that was loved throughout the Midwest – and missed – is being resurrected by longtime South Side boys. Every step of the way, from Iaria’s first days of research to the production, distribution and sale of the revived brand, has been touched by a South Sider.
“We came together at the right time to help Pete’s son, Danny. It was all through friendship,” Wolfla said.
Iaria added, “To me, it’s like bringing back a long-missed tradition.”
Everyone grew a little quiet and Bobby Plump said, “It brings back the easier times, when you didn’t have the stress of life like today. It’s back in the times when it was easy to live. It was a great time to grow up. Looking back, it might have been the greatest 10 to 15 years of the United States. It’s a reminder of easier times.”
You can relive Choc-Ola-inspired memories now at the Rock-Cola Café (5730 Brookville Rd) or, as Wolfla says, watch the Southside Times for the announcement telling when the product will come to the Beech Grove Meat Market. Whichever you do, just know, the real, original, Choc-Ola is back.