The history of the pride of Detroit has been deliciously documented.
Joe Grimm enjoys lots of Faygo flavors, but Rock & Rye ranks as his favorite. Besides the taste, he enjoys the story behind it, one of many bubbly stories he has written into The Faygo Book (Wayne State University Press).
“Rock & Rye started off as an alcoholic beverage, the first bottled cocktail,” reveals Grimm, whose topic at this year’s Jewish Book Fair, on Nov. 8, takes readers and listeners into the development of the locally based soda-pop company. “It originally was rock candy sugar put into whiskey.”
There’s also a story about the mystery of making Rock & Rye, and he clears that up while delving into the Feigenson family and its loyalty to Detroit beginning with two Jewish immigrants from Russia.
“The values of Ben and Perry Feigenson are values for our times,” says Grimm, who teaches at the Michigan State University School of Journalism. “Their classic values of working hard, innovating, caring for employees, taking their work seriously but not taking themselves too seriously are good values today just as they were 50 or 100 years ago.”
Grimm began working on The Faygo Book after getting a positive reaction to an earlier book, Coney Detroit, which came out in 2012 and traced the history of the dressed-up Motor City version of the hot dog, which features tempting trimmings originated by Greek immigrants.
“That book made people feel good about Detroit, and I thought I’d like to do that again,” says Grimm, a former Detroit Free Press newsroom recruiter who now teaches reporting, editing and career branding while leading students in publishing a series on diverse cultural explorations.
“In the 1960s, when I was a kid, they had a lot of great Faygo commercials on TV. Growing up drinking Faygo and seeing the commercials gave me an interest in Faygo. I wanted to know more about Faygo, and that’s the key to writing a book. Typically, when you write a book, you want to know more about the subject.
“The Faygo Co. [no longer owned by the Feigenson family] preferred not to help. I complained to a class, and one of my students asked if I knew Susie Feigenson, who had been his English teacher at Andover High School. He said she was a granddaughter of one of the founders.”
Supplied with an email address, Grimm contacted and later met with the family member as his main source and supplemented her information by talking with others and accessing published articles. He was able to find and use lots of pictures.
The more Grimm posts about the book on social media and the more places he speaks, the more he learns about what went on at the factory located on Gratiot and expanded to adjacent buildings as Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola moved away.
“I had hired an Orthodox Jewish woman from New York for the Free Press, and she said she was happy to find a local soda-pop company with all kosher flavors including grape,” Grimm says. “I found out that grape had to be handled differently because [plain] grape juice fermented and became wine.”
In researching the Feigensons’ interests away from business, Grimm learned they were very active in charitable projects. They sponsored scholarships at Jewish schools and helped the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan.
“I think the Feigenson family and how they treated people, especially in the early years when they were setting up the business, is an important part of the longstanding commitment of the Jewish community toward the African American community,” Grimm says about the business that spanned about 100 years and has employed many African Americans.
Although Faygo was sold in the 1980s when family members were not in a position to run the company, Grimm has learned that Feigenson descendants and employees’ descendants maintain a feeling of kinship with the brand.
“I’ve run into some people who said they will see me at the Jewish Book Fair,” Grimm says about remarks he heard at earlier speaking engagements, “so I’m preparing a different talk.”
Watch a Faygo pop commercial from the 1970s
Joe Grimm speaks at 8 p.m.
Monday, Nov. 8.