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This Week in Illinois History: Fudge Fever of ’85 (January 13, 1985)

On January 13, 1985, people across the nation opened their Sunday newspapers to read the latest column from Chicago Tribune syndicated columnist Bob Greene. Greene’s column, famous for its humor and nostalgic, folksy charm, appeared in over 200 newspapers. This piece began with a popular topic for any new year: losing weight. Greene shared the secret to his own recent weight loss: a little-known, two-calorie drink called Canfield’s Diet Chocolate Fudge Soda. He called it a miracle. He praised its “rich and chocolatey” goodness. And most important of all, he claimed that one sip was “like biting into a hot fudge sundae.”

Within weeks, fudge fever had gripped the nation.

Diet Chocolate Fudge Soda was manufactured in Chicago by the A J Canfield Beverage Company. Arthur J. Canfield started the company in 1924 after he saw several kids drinking soda at a roller-skating rink. He began small, filling one bottle at a time while his son pasted on the labels. They made a name for themselves selling through local drugstores. Their signature drink was 50/50, a mixture of grapefruit and lime.

In those early days, Canfield was just one of hundreds of soft drink manufacturers in Chicago. By the 1980s, it was one of five. To compete with the larger companies like Coke and Pepsi, it marketed unique flavors like Honee Orange, Anna Banana, Red Pop Strawberry Cherry, and a watermelon soda called the Mickey Rooney. Canfield even teamed up with Wrigley Candy to create a Hubba Bubba Bubblegum soda.

Diet Chocolate Fudge Soda was the brainchild of the third Arthur Canfield, grandson of the company’s founder. He wanted to lose weight without giving up his favorite dessert, chocolate fudge. So in 1971 he approached Canfield’s chief chemist, Manny Wesber, and instructed him to create a diet drink that tasted like chocolate fudge. Wesber spent six months experimenting with multiple formulas before discovering the right combination of ingredients. Because real chocolate has too many calories, Wesber’s final formula contained only artificial ingredients. Not a drop of real chocolate. But to the casual soda sipper, it tasted the same.

Diet Chocolate Fudge Soda hit the Midwest market in 1972. While it was never a great seller for the company, its loyal customers kept sales steady with little to no marketing. Canfield sold about 60,000 cases a year for the next 13 years.

Then came Bob Greene’s column. The next day, Canfield’s phone lines clogged with all the bottlers, distributors and grocers wanting to get their hands on Diet Chocolate Fudge Soda.

Sales jumped from 60,000 cases a year to 20,000 cases a day. The company, and its overworked employees, couldn’t meet demand, so it sold franchise rights to bottling operations around the country. By mid-1985, Diet Chocolate Fudge Soda was available in all 50 states. And it flew off the shelves. It also created several competitors eager to cash in on the chocolate soda craze. But within a couple years, the fad fizzled. Consumer demand plummeted and chocolate sodas disappeared from store shelves. Canfield’s famous drink returned to its modest, regional roots.

Because of chocolate soda’s brief success, Canfield became one of the largest independent bottling companies in the country. It was sold to Select Beverages in 1995 and is now owned by Keurig Dr. Pepper.

Clint Cargile is the host of This Week in Illinois History and the creator and host of the podcast Drinkin’ with Lincoln.
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