A window rolls down on the passenger side of a black Hyundai Tucson outside Fishtown Market. Kelly and Diane Keech have heard I’m in the neighborhood to write about Arctic Splash. They want to unload on the neighborhood’s favorite beverage — or, at least, that’s what it used to be, until a change of ingredients alienated devoted drinkers.
“The breakfast of Fishtown was a pizza pretzel and a thing of Arctic Splash,” says Kelly Keech, a Fishtown resident for 39 years. “Now everybody is drinking a Turkey Hill or Arizona Iced Tea.”
Arctic Splash has long captivated Fishtown, with the popularity particularly rising in the last 15 years, according to corner store owners. You could see the colorful cartons in people’s hands and in the gutters, where they seemed to litter the whole neighborhood. Arctic Splash appealed to newcomers and longtime residents. This was evident in the popularity of Interstate Drafthouse’s Fishtown Iced Tea, basically a Long Island in an Arctic Splash carton. Two years ago, Metro Philly encapsulated the obsession in an article where it described the drink as Fishtown’s trademark. But Arctic Splash’s hold on Fishtown has loosened. Fishtown is over it.
Keech and her family are not alone in their disdain for the drink. Talk to any corner store. They say the same thing. Sales have plummeted.
“I used to sell 10 cases a week,” says Dennis Chi at D&C Deli, “and now it’s three-to-four cases.”
Twenty-eight Arctic Splashes come in a case. Anne’s Place used to go through 10 to 12 per week, last year this time — around 300 cartons. Now it’s more like four cases. The Fishtown Market has seen sales drop by half. The woman who works the night shift at Memphis Market sells somewhere around 25 Arctic Splashes in a night and used to sell closer to 75.
At D&C Deli on a Friday afternoon, Timmy Wentzell walks in to grab a sandwich and an iced tea with his teenage friends. He picks Turkey Hill. Wentzell used to drink Arctic Splash until a few months ago. Whereas Kelly Keech finds the new taste too sour, he finds it too sweet.
“They took something out,” Wentzell says, “and added more.”
The change appears to be the addition of real sugar and removal of high fructose corn syrup. That’s what K.H. says. She works at Anne’s Place and requested to be identified by her initials because she thought her comments would be too profane. She says she’s heard customers talking about a change in calories of the drink as the reason for the unpleasant taste. The newer Arctic Splash recipe has 80 calories, and the old one had 95.
“But I look at the ingredients,” she says. “I’m not an idiot.”
The second ingredient on boxes of Arctic Splash is now sugar. The second ingredient on the Arctic Splash of old, with 95 calories, was high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Corner store workers say the change happened several months ago. Chi believes it was last October. At first, Keech’s family thought there had been a bad batch of the tea, but after continuing to drink it and noticing the different taste, they stopped buying the beverage.
These types of changes aren’t uncommon, with food companies responding to demand for healthier, more natural products. Capri Sun switched to real sugar from high fructose corn syrup in 2015. Heinz did the same for its ketchup recipe in 2010 but brought back corn syrup two years later. Hershey’s has considered ridding its candy of HFCS, too.
Dean Foods, which makes Arctic Splash, has not yet responded to our questions about the change in ingredients, or about sales numbers in Philadelphia and other cities.
It’s really not known whether people drink Arctic Splash anywhere besides Philly. And even in other Philly neighborhoods it’s not common. Sometimes Center City food carts feature a stray Arctic Splash or two tucked in their trough of ice, but convenience stores and corner stores outside Fishtown are far less likely to carry the drink. K.H. says she’s never even sees it in Port Richmond (she did once notice Arctic Splash at a Dollar General in Hamburg, Pa.).
At Anne’s Place, customers have mostly switched to Hill Crest iced tea. That’s also been the case at Memphis Market. At D&C, customers have been like Wentzell and choosing Turkey Hill. Turkey Hill uses corn syrup, but Hill Crest, like the new recipe of Arctic Splash, contains sugar.
Belgrade Deli stopped selling Arctic Splash a couple months ago. It now stocks Clover Farms Icy Tea, which has proven popular. But Belgrade’s decision to forsake Arctic Splash had less to do with the taste than nutrition.
“That stuff was shit,” says employee Rob McCandless. “If you looked at the ingredients, there’s really nothing in it that says ‘tea.’”
Some residents and corner store employees say they’ve heard Dean Foods is going to switch back to the old recipe to placate Fishtown (again, Dean Foods did not respond). But for now, Memphis Market, Anne’s Place, Fishtown Market and D & C Deli have still been receiving the drinks with real sugar.
The only good news of this Arctic Splash controversy seems to be at Interstate Drafthouse. Apparently when you add rum, vodka, Triple Sec and tequila, the problems with the new recipe fade away.
“Interstate Teas,” K.H. says, “you can’t taste the difference.”