|The Road Not Taken
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The World's Best Seltzer Bottling Futon Factory
I'd seen it a hundred times on the Three Stooges. "Look here, ya knucklehead," Moe would say, and then spritz Larry with a seltzer bottle. That was everything I knew about seltzer in seltzer bottles. So when Dave and Evan invited me over to their futon warehouse - seltzer works for an afternoon of bottling, I wasn't sure what to expect. It's not one of your everyday things.
"Hi!" shouted Dave as he threw open the rusty old door. Dressed from head to toe in heavy rain gear, he looked as if he belonged on the crew of a fishing trawler.
Of course, we weren't going fishing. We were in the Homestead area of Pittsburgh, a grayish neighborhood of old warehouses and apartment buildings, once the center of steel production for the entire world. The steel mills are gone from Homestead now, but the 109-year-old Pittsburgh Seltzer Works continues on, in Homestead, in the basement of the Futon Mill warehouse.
Dave Faigen led me past stacks of boxed futon frames, past bagged futon mattresses, past the bales of cotton and piles of foam. We kept going. Normally, when I visit, we talk about the futon business, about Dave and Evan's futon stores in Pittsburgh, about their days working for futon old timer Bob Loop, about all our futon friends, futon gossip. But today is not about futons. Today, it's seltzer time!
Dave and his partner, Evan Hirsh, have been longtime friends and partners in the futon business. Last year, they teamed up with a third friend to buy the Pittsburgh Seltzer Works. "The previous owner said from the moment he met us, he knew that we would buy the company," explained Evan. "That's because we went straight to the equipment instead of to the books!"
Ah, the equipment. Tucked away in a corner of the basement, behind stacks of old wooden soda cases, the seltzer plant ka-chunk-a-lunks along. My tour of the "plant", which is about the size of a two-car garage, takes only a minute. Stacks of wooden cases, each holding six seltzer bottles, are piled to the ceiling, thousands of them. These antique bottles are heavy thick glass, each topped with a metal spout and lever (syphon head, it's called). I pick one up, and ask a silly question, "Do you ever spritz anybody like the Three Stooges?" "You bet," they both answer, "All the time!" and start spraying seltzer at each other.
At one end of the room is a big clean area where the bottles are re-habbed and cleaned. The bottles, which are 50-80 years old, require a lot of TLC. At the other end of the room is the business office, a single desk with a phone on it; and ... in the middle ... ka-chunk-a-lunk!
Dave and Evan explain the process to me. They start with ordinary tap water, double filter it, and super-cool it down to near-freezing. "Water accepts the carbonation better when it's cold," explains Evan. From there, the water goes into the carbonation chamber, where water is pumped in the bottom, carbon dioxide from nearby cylinders is pumped in the top, and a mechanical paddle mixes them together. The newly-carbonated water is then pumped into the bottle-go-round.
Their explanation is accompanied by hissing and gurgling sounds in the background. Once the equipment starts up, all you can hear is the deafening ka-chunk-a-lunk, ka-chunk-a-lunk of the antique machinery. Dave hands Evan an empty bottle, Evan hands back a full one. While Dave gets the next empty from the case, Evan gets the next full one from the bottle-go-round. Ka-chunk-a-lunk, ka-chunk-a-lunk!
"Trouble with Number Three!" shouts Evan. "That's the second one half-filled!" The noise stops as he tinkers with a spigot. There are six. The clatter resumes. Ka-chunk-a-lunk, ka-chunk-a-lunk!
The bottles whiz by in a hurry, and they are fascinating. At one time, there were hundreds of seltzer bottlers in the country. As they went out of business, their inventory was bought up by surviving companies. Each glass bottle is printed or engraved with the name of a long-gone company. There are a hundred or more, from all over the northeast USA, with names like "Letzgo" or "Bubble-Up". Of course, a lot of bottles say "Pittsburgh Seltzer".
A case of seltzer is $7, delivered anywhere in Pittsburgh, $6 if you pick it up at the futon store. "Our delivery customers are the most unusual mix of people you can imagine," says Evan. "And us, we're the only people in the history of the world to be in the futon business and the seltzer business. Gotta be, right?"