Cbus 201: Wasserstrom

Wasserstrom. It’s one of those names that locals kinda know, but can’t quite pin down. It has something to do with food, yeah?

Yes, it does. It fact it has a lot to do with food, but from a backstage point of view – how it’s made, presented, and stored. Wasserstrom is a national restaurant supply company with offices from the 614 to the 214. Frequent visitors to the North Market have seen their stall, resplendent with shiny gadgets of kitchen dreams, or driven by the outlet near Crew Stadium. The century-old outlet was also instrumental in giving a lift to local legend Dave Thomas as he was tossing around the idea of bringing his square burgers, from a little joint called Wendy’s, onto the national scene.

What almost no one knows is that it almost never happened, twice over.

Nathan Wasserstrom immigrated to the United States from Hungary, eventually settling in Columbus in 1902. Initially a salesperson, he vending goods from a horse drawn cart around the city before settling behind the bar as a side gig, later buying the bar where he worked outright in 1916.

Just three years later, with Prohibition looming, Wasserstrom found himself the owner of a soon-to-be dry bar. He tried to convert his new property to a sandwich shop, but it never clicked for the family or for his customers.

So, what was Wasserstrom to do without being able to serve brew? Perhaps he couldn’t brew, but technically, his customers could.

Capitalizing on the fact that home-brewing beer for private use was never outlawed, Wasserstroms quickly tapped into said market, and eventually opened up a dozen home-brew supply stores throughout the Columbus. In addition to home brewing supplies, the stores also sold a special malt syrup under the label of Na Wa So (Nathan Wasserstrom and Sons). Another specialty syrup was called “Darling,” which featured an image of Margie, the “darling” daughter born into the family in 1921. The Wasserstrom stores of the 1920s were as ubiquitous sights in Columbus as Waterbeds and Stuff stores were in the 1980s.

While the dawn of Prohibition became the dawn of an entirely new business model for the Wasserstroms, the end of that era – one they would have celebrated just years earlier – killed their business for a second time. When alcohol sales became legal again in 1933, the home-brewing market tanked, and faced with another pivot point, the family decided to go into the bar supply business.

Their first product, the Novelty Box, was a special cooler they manufactured to keep draught beer cold and they sold like…well, as well as you would think the world’s first commercial “kegerator” would (answer: REALLY WELL). The first one was delivered to the historic Great Southern Hotel on the very day Prohibition ended.

Today, the Wasserstrom Company has grown to be a national brand that serves needs for bar supplies, manufacturing, restaurant sundries and equipment, printing, concept design, and an array of services. It seems fitting that the company – which also received the first license to sell wine and spirits in the state – would settle their headquarters in part of the former Hoster Brewery in 1966 – not far from where the family of 14 lived at the beginning of the century. And that….is just the beginning of the story:

Other Prohibition Bits
• The Gambrinus Brewery/August Wager Brewery was the only Columbus brewery to survive Prohibition. It stayed afloat by selling ice, as well as sodas with names like Gold Top Ginger Ale and Champagne Mist. It also made malt beverages (try a Goya Soda sometime) and “near” beer that involved brewing beer, and then removing the alcohol from the finished batch. The brewery returned to beer production in 1933, continuing brewing until it closed in 1974. In 1964, brewer Alex Hostetler may have created the first light beer in the country, Mark V; it was marketed as having one-third the calories of regular beer.

• Ohio was the ground zero and epicenter of the drive for Prohibition. The Anti-Saloon League in Westerville had a printing office producing four tons of fliers per month. There is currently an Anti-Saloon League Museum at The Westerville Public Library. For more, visit www.wpl.lib.oh.us/AntiSaloon.

• While Prohibition was nationwide in 1920, in reality, it existed long before that in Ohio. In 1908, 55 of Ohio’s 88 counties were dry. State Prohibition went into effect on May 27th, 1919 but state liquor permits expired on May 24th. Nine Columbus bars each paid $305.00 fee for a permit to serve for the last three days. Those bars did quite well. •