By Frier McCollister
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
If there is one place that typifies Highland Park’s generationally diverse and eccentric nature, it just might be Galco’s Soda Pop Stop.
The store has been a reliably quirky neighborhood fixture on York Boulevard since 1955. John Nese, 78, represents the second generation of ownership at that location. Galco’s Soda Pop Stop was founded in 1896 as an Italian grocery store.
For those locals who are somehow unfamiliar with Galco’s, its shelves are crammed with bottles of obscure vintage sodas from around the world, as well as an impressively eclectic and refined selection of craft beers, wine and sake. There’s also a case of nostalgic candy brands and a small section of toys. The one-time deli case serves as a space to make its legendary Blockbuster sandwiches. Come to Galco’s for an Italian deli sub, a Green River soda, a Pez dispenser and a kite.
“It was always an Italian grocery,” said Nese, at a shaded table in the store’s secluded back patio.
“It was originally founded by a man by the name of Gallioti. He took in a partner, who then took my father in as a partner. I think it was ’43. (We’ve been) at this location since 1955. Before that, we were on Castellar and Ord, which was the center of Little Italy in Los Angeles.
“Before that, we were on Alpine and North Broadway and before that, they were out on Pico and before that I don’t know.”
In 1955, the business was divided, due to differences in opinion between Nese’s father and a partner.
“When I was 8 or 9 years old, I asked my father if I could go to work with him,” Nese said.
“He brought me to work with him every day, one summer vacation. I thought it was a pretty good deal. I got a Blockbuster (sandwich) to eat, and I got a Dad’s root beer to drink because we never had any sodas. You only had ice water and Kool-Aid. I thought it was a pretty good deal.”
Nese grew up in Pasadena and graduated from John Muir High School. Afterward, he enrolled in a six-month stint in the Army and then attended Pasadena City College, before graduating from USC with a degree in history.
Upon graduation, Nese intended to return to the family’s store, despite his father’s advice to work for a larger corporate firm.
“I came back to the store,” Nese said. “My father just looked at me with this nonplussed look on his face and he says, ‘You’re a damn fool. Go for the money because you’re not going to make any money here. You’re going to make a living and that’s going to be it.’ And I said, ‘Oh, OK.’”
With his father, Nese operated Galco’s successfully as a neighborhood grocery store and deli.
“We did pretty well up through the late ’90s,” he said. “The big chain stores bought the distribution channels of the little stores and closed them down. Regular groceries were costing more. In a five-year period, all the little grocery stores disappeared. I’m looking at this and I’m going, ‘What are we going to do?’ Most everybody got out of the business over a five-, seven-year period.”
Galco’s was in desperate need of a pivot. When craft beer took hold, Nese started stocking it.
“I thought about it. Craft beers were a big deal, and everybody was buying it,” Nese said.
“If I do craft beers, you have to be 21. But if I do soda pops, too, if you have the money in your pocket and you can reach the counter, I have just doubled the size of our audience.
“I told my father we were going to start featuring soda pops.”
His skeptical father promptly approached the store’s young clerk, Gail Coffin, and advised her to look for alternate employment. Suffice it to say, Coffin still works at Galco’s.
“When I went for the change, I thought about it. ‘How can you lose? You’re going broke anyway. How do you lose? All you can do is win. You can’t do any worse,’” Nese recalled.
He started with a small section of vintage sodas. “I had 200 to 250 sodas and I had a nice little compact section. When I got to 400, the question became, ‘Where are you getting them? Where are you finding them?’ I didn’t know they existed anymore.”
Nese stocks about 750 varieties.
In 2000, Nese’s daughter, Noelle, started to help with publicity. It marked a dramatic turning point for Galco’s.
“She stopped by and said, ‘Dad, what you’re doing is really great but if people don’t know, it really doesn’t do any good.’
“She says, ‘I’m going to write Sunset Magazine a letter. I’m sending one to Huell Howser, also.’”
Howser is the late popular TV host of “Visiting with Huell Howser” on PBS. The show featured Galco’s later that year. Before the segment aired, Howser stopped by and warned Nese to fully stock his store.
“‘You’re going to be busier than you’ve ever been in your life,’” Nese recalled Howser saying.
“The shelves were stocked. I had extra inventory and (after the show aired) that night it was empty. Just like that. There were two lines and they went all the way to the back of the store. It took people about 45 minutes to get checked out.
“Syndicated coverage in The Los Angeles Times followed. We were getting all these people from overseas. That story ran nine months, all over the country,” Nese said.
An escorted, personal tour from Nese is the best way to fully appreciate the store’s depth and breadth.
“Mead is the first alcoholic beverage that man produced,” Nese said, pointing to an array of Danish meads in unique ceramic bottles, including Viking Blod, with an ABV of 19%. Louis de Sacy Grand Cru is $44.99.
Pinot di pinot brut from Italy is two for $15. “The original champagne of beer,” Belgian DeuS Brut de Flandres, is $39.99. Galco’s is the only source for the beer in Southern California.
He also stocks the oldest beers brewed in Europe: Uerige Altbier from Dusseldorf ($7.99 a bottle) and Weltenburger Kloster, a dark lager from the oldest abbey brewery in Germany, at $16.99 for a six pack.
Galco’s also has one of the largest and most diverse selections of sake in Southern California.
“We have sake that no one else has,” Nese noted, pointing to a bottle of Kenbishi ($49.99) from the oldest sake brewery in Japan. He then showed off bottles of Yuzu Omoi, Taiten Shiragiku, and an unusual bottle of sparkling Sorah ($89).
On the lighter side, there is Swedish Kristian Royale strawberry apple soda (two for $10); Armenian Artfood fruit-infused spring water ($5.29); and Vichy Catalan Roman spring water.
These sophisticated international beverages share shelf space with a mind-boggling array of sodas from around the world. On the store’s website, they are grouped into more than 15 categories including brews & sarsaparillas (29 varieties); colas (25); root beers (58); ginger beers and ales (34) and cream sodas (49). The “Something Different” category is stocked with another 100 different brands.
Nese is stocking up for the holidays with Scandinavian Christmas soda and Austrian Samichlaus ale at $28.99 for a four pack. “It’s brewed one day a year on Dec. 6, Santa Claus’ birthday, and then aged for 10 months,” Nese noted. He also has cases up front of Fiasconaro Tradizionale Panettone ($23.99).
In addition to the dizzying array of craft beers and international sodas, Galco’s stocks a case of Old Tyme Candies, including: an impressive collection of Pez dispensers; Mallo Cups; Charleston Chews; Goo Goo Clusters; and candy and bubble gum cigarettes. In back, guests can mix their own sodas from a selection of 100 syrup flavors.
The “Retro Toy Corner” of vintage toys sits next to the candy case, all innovations suggested by Noelle.
The Blockbuster sandwiches were dubbed such after champion boxer, Rocky Marciano, sampled the store’s Italian sub and exclaimed, “Wow! This is a real blockbuster!”
The original with meat and cheese only, features dry and cotta salami, mortadella, and ham with provolone and pickles, on an 8-inch roll for $6.99. The other Blockbusters include, the Italian combo; roast beef; pastrami; ham; turkey; three-cheese vegetarian; and tuna or chicken salad, all of which come with lettuce and tomatoes. They are available on an 8-inch roll ($7.99) or a full footlong ($12.99). The fresh sourdough rolls are supplied by Frisco Bread Company on Avenue 43.
Galco’s did not close during the pandemic lockdowns. “We stayed open. We kept everybody working,” he said.
“At the very beginning, there was a big dip (in sales). But it was interesting because there’s not a whole lot to do when you’re locked up. So, they’d come and buy sodas,” Nese said.
When asked if he had a message for the local community, Nese joked, “We need two lanes of traffic in both directions on York Boulevard.”
Nese is the grandfather of two teenage twin boys. Is there any thought of retirement and succession for him at Galco’s? “I’ll go as long as I can. We’ve been here forever.”≠
Galco’s Soda Pop Stop
5702 York Boulevard, Los Angeles