As leviathan rents and residential towers gobble up more and more Manhattan real estate, replacing hallowed neighborhood Jewish institutions like H&H Bagels, New Yorkers are hungry for nostalgia. Or should we say thirsty? Because there is one facet of old-school New York that is enjoying an unlikely renaissance: seltzer delivery.
“When I was a kid helping my father, I remember people saying that the seltzer men wouldn’t last through the 1960s,” Walter Backerman, a third-generation seltzer deliveryman, told LLNYC. But today, he says, the business is still going strong, with as many new customers coming on board as those kicking the bucket, so to speak.
Seven days a week, Backerman loads his delivery truck with hundreds of antique seltzer bottles of translucent blue and green glass. For just $40 ($4 a bottle), members of the cult of seltzer devotees in Manhattan, the Bronx and Westchester receive a case of bubbles.
Half a century ago, there were roughly 500 seltzer men delivering throughout the five boroughs, and dozens of filling stations. Today there are only five seltzer men left in New York City, says Alex Gomberg, the great-grandson of Moe Gomberg, who opened Gomberg Seltzer Works, the last operating bottling plant in NYC.
What was once a working- class mainstay
is now an upscale splurge.
Gomberg notes that most of the deliverymen are getting on in years. Eli Miller, who began delivering in the 1960s, is in his 80s. Ronny Beberman is almost 70. Backerman is in his 60s. It looks like seltzer delivery in NYC has one foot in the grave.
Moreover, competition from cheap store-bought seltzers and mineral waters as well as home carbonation systems like SodaStream have encroached on a business that seemed an anachronism decades ago.
Still, there appears to be a silver lining. With hundred-year-old glass bottles, triple-filtered NYC tap water (the cleanest you’ll get), home delivery and a price twice as high as store-bought drinks, what was a working-class mainstay now looks like an upscale splurge.
“I can get screwed from time to time,” Backerman said, referring to people who don’t return his rare and pricey bottles. “My solid customers, they own their apartment and their apartment is worth $3 million. But you have these people who are trying to live in Manhattan for $5,000 rent. They only last until the shit hits the fan, and then I get burnt.”
True to the creed of the seltzer men, he refuses to ask for a bottle deposit. As a result, Backerman said, he is forced to be selective about his clientele. And that means his customers are a Manhattan Who’s Who, including celebrities like Alec Baldwin, Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, Kyle MacLachlan, Franklin Delano Roosevelt III, Buzz Aldrin, Tina Fey, Kelly Ripa and even Mafia hit men.
But Gomberg is betting that seltzer can become more than a luxury novelty in the 21st century. Gomberg, 28, is in many ways the new face of seltzer in NYC, starting his own route catering to bars and restaurants. The business, called Brooklyn Seltzer Boys. has a website, and you can order online.
“I’m trying to build a business and promote old-fashioned seltzer,” Gomberg said, noting that almost all of his customers are millennials new to the product.
But, just like the seltzer men of yore, Gomberg said he doesn’t want just any customer. He wants the right customer. “The right customer is someone who isn’t going to put these bottles on their mantel. We want the bottles to be in constant circulation. We don’t want them as dust collectors.”