"We have three categories of sodas at the arcade: glass-bottled Coke products, specialty sodas from craft soda companies and retro sodas," says Corey Hyden, president of Free Play Inc. "The hardest category to keep stocked is retro sodas. Retro is hot right now, so the manufacturers are always bringing iconic sodas back but only for a limited time in limited quantities — which creates a logistical nightmare given our volume requirements, so we've created a small network of grocery store contacts that give us the scoop on coming sodas and how we might be able to source enough product."
Their latest big get: Crystal Pepsi, the flash-in-the-pan soda sold only from 1992 to 1993. There was a bizarre marketing trend around that time in which companies tried to market clear versions of their products to consumers who somehow thought this made them more "pure" or healthy. While Crystal Pepsi sold like hotcakes at first, demand fell fast and it was quickly discontinued. A few years ago, the internet horde called for a re-release of the soft drink Surge, and suddenly failed '90s sodas once again became all the rage. Pepsi responded with limited releases of Crystal Pepsi, complete with vintage-style labels. But even though it was a failure in the '90s, it proved hard to nab present-day.
"For Crystal Pepsi, there was a press release about it shipping during the summer and then nobody could find the product anywhere," Hyden says. "Obviously this was the perfect product for our retro soda category, and we wanted it bad. When we spoke to someone at Pepsi, they said we might be able to get 24 to 48 bottles allocated to the arcade. We knew we needed 1,000-plus bottles, so it seemed unlikely that we would be able to stock it."
After one of their grocery contacts tipped them off to a massive shipment that the store had never intended to stock, Free Play nabbed a pallet of the good stuff. Customers reacted with the kind of enthusiasm not seen since Ty Inc. released the Princess Di Beanie Baby.
"Our first Facebook post had 1,200-plus likes and massive reach," Hyden says. "It was a hit right out of the gate and we're nearly sold out of our 1,400-plus bottle supply. We had a number of people buy six or 10 of them from us to take home, and even more people make a special trip to the arcade just to relive that clear soda magic."
Free Play makes a few cocktails with throwback sodas, like Bentley Bear's Crystal Elixir — made with Crystal Pepsi, Titos, lime and a splash of ginger beer — and in the past they sold a "spiked" Ecto Cooler. They're working on a new cocktail menu featuring drinks made with some of their curious sodas, but as with so many of these retro releases, they're not available forever. Free Play's stock of Crystal Pepsi is almost gone, and when it runs out, it's game over.
"We've been able to purchase a few reasonable lots of the product since that first purchase, but bulk buys are still rare," Hyden says. "Pepsi put some pretty aggressive expiration dates on the product and, given the logistical issues, some of our bottles had only a month shelf life based on the expiration date. We were fortunate to have such an awesome demand, but that really prevents you from stocking up on a product, which was likely Pepsi's intention with the aggressive dates."
The nostalgia doesn't stop at Crystal Pepsi — Free Play also sells Jolt, Ecto Cooler and Surge, along with Sprecher Cream Soda and Grapette, and Hyden says they're always on the hunt for the next weird or throwback soda. Even now that he's become the suit-wearing business man that kids grew up to be wary of, Free Play's retro soda program makes Hyden feel the nostalgia.
"I mean, can you believe it's 2017 and we have a local arcade where you can play Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and down Crystal Pepsi?"
Free Play Richardson, 1730 E. Belt Line Road