‘Boycott Israel’ breathes new life into 100-year-old Egyptian soda brand

Campaign to boycott Western producers linked to Israel has reignited demand for soda brand founded by Greek beekeeper.

Spiro Spathis logo in the colours of the Palestinian flag
The century-old brand is emerging as the poster child for Egyptians’ solidarity with Palestinians [Spiro Spathis via Facebook]

Cairo, Egypt – Spiro Spathis, Egypt’s oldest carbonated drinks company, is having a sensational comeback.

Founded in 1920 by a Greek beekeeper from Kefalonia whose name it bears, “Spathis” has been part of life for generations of Egyptians.

Now, thanks to a nationwide campaign to boycott Western producers supportive of Israel, the century-old brand is causing a stir as the poster child for Egyptian solidarity with Palestinians.

Spiro Spathis, which has always been proud of its role as Egypt’s first soft drink brand, is rolling out slogans like “100% Made in Egypt” and “Egypt’s original gazouza”, using an Egyptian term thought to derive from the French “gazeuse” (carbonated) and widely used to refer to fizzy drinks.

A surge in demand for Spathis

“I’ve been selling their drinks for four years. There were always a few consumers who preferred Spiro over other drinks, but not many,” Mohammed, who owns a grocery store in Sharqia governorate, said.

“But now, their bottles run out almost instantly. Before the boycott, I would sell four, maybe five, boxes of Spathis in a week, now I can sell as many as 50 boxes in a day if I have that many in stock,” he continued, adding that the surge in demand is “massive”.

“Demand has tripled over the past month,” Morcus Talaat, the company’s head of marketing and one of three siblings who own the firm, told Al Jazeera.

Talaat spoke to Al Jazeera between back-to-back meetings at the no-frills, two-bedroom, ground-floor apartment in an upscale Cairo neighbourhood where Sprio Spathis has its headquarters. “We’ve received hundreds of calls from new clients… offers from restaurants.”

Boycott Israel protest
Palestinians call for a boycott of Israeli products during a protest in support of the people of Gaza, in Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, October 28, 2023 [Mussa Qawasma/Reuters]

Spiro Spathis has gone on a recruitment drive and received more than 15,000 applicants for jobs it advertised to try to meet the demand.

In Cairo’s neighbourhood of Nasr City, a kiosk owner says he has not been able to source enough Spathis to meet the demand. “I’ve only had four deliveries in the past month, and it gets sold out on the same day. Previously, Spathis’ stocks lasted longer.”

Israel’s relentless bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza, which began on October 7 and has so far killed more than 11,500 Palestinians, has prompted mass protests around the world.

It has also caused many to boycott international brands like McDonald’s and Starbucks.

In Indonesia, consumers began boycotting Mcdonald’s and other businesses in mid-October after McDonald’s Israel announced on social media that it had handed out thousands of free meals to the Israeli military during its war on Gaza.

The announcement prompted several organisations, including the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS), the United People Front (FUB) and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), to call for a boycott of McDonald’s and other businesses perceived to be pro-Israel, including Burger King.

As protesters flood the streets of major cities around the globe, from Washington, DC, to London and Cape Town, branches of franchise restaurants, coffee shops and stores that were once bustling in the Arab World are largely empty.

“Boycotting is a form of popular tool for people to make themselves heard, and is the most powerful means to pressure Western colonialism and capitalism-fuelled states,” said Jamal Zahran, political science professor at the University of Suez. “Boycotting these products also creates opportunities for local products.”

Protestor in Washington
Protesters against the war on Gaza in cities such as Washington, DC, are calling for a boycott of companies with ties to Israel. In this image, a woman carries a bag with Boycott Israel written on it at a Jewish Shacharit morning prayer near the US Capitol, on November 13, 2023 [Probal Rashid/LightRocket via Getty Images]

‘Is that a fly?’

Since the start of the war, Egyptians have been using social media to exchange information about which brands are considered supportive of Israel and should be avoided. Some apps are also listing alternatives to Western brands, highlighting local producers of equal or similar quality.

“Is it with us, or not?” is a question frequently asked on Meta posts about various brands, as people research which to give up.

The result has been the rediscovery of local substitutes like Spiro Spathis, which was once the only soda drinks manufacturer in the Arab world’s most populous country.

But, as other international brands entered the market about 70 years ago, then flooded the local market, it was sidelined. Spiro Spathis even shut its doors altogether in 2014, Talaat said. “We’re the second generation of Egyptians to own the firm. Our father bought the company in 1998 and ran it up until he passed away in 2009. In 2014, we closed down Spiro Spathis, before returning again in 2019, and have been present in the market every single day since,” he added.

Although it is not the only local soda drinks company in Egypt, Spathis is being lauded by many online users in Egypt as the best.

An array of spiro spathis bottles on a desk
The original logo of Spiro Spathis, Egypt’s oldest soda drinks brand, is a picture of a bee, marking the original profession of the company’s founder – beekeeper [Yasmin Shabana/Al Jazeera]

Trending on social media, the company’s history and logo have gained attention and stirred the curiosity of younger generations not familiar with the brand.

“Why is there a fly in its logo?” some asked on social media.

According to Talaat, the century-old logo is, in fact, a bee, not a fly, marking the founder’s original profession as a beekeeper on the Greek island of Kefalonia.

Social media users also joked about the difficulty of finding a Spathis soda because of the increased demand and limited supply. “I’m trying to find myself, and Spiro Spathis,” quipped one Meta user.

“We’re working around the clock to meet the surge in demand,” said Talaat. “Since October 7, we’ve been executing a year’s plans of expansions, growth and distribution in a period of a month to meet the market’s needs.”

Besides expanding geographically, increasing production of its eight flavours and hiring teams to address consumer feedback and manage distributors’ orders, Talaat also said the company is planning to add a new cola flavour that customers asked for to replace the colas being boycotted in Egypt.

‘This isn’t temporary’

Since the war, Egyptian social media users have noted offers and discounts for Western-made products they have turned their backs on.

Many have also engaged in online debates about the efficiency of such boycotts which some see as harming the livelihoods of Egyptian workers employed by franchises.

Sahar Azazi, 31, who lives in Cairo, said boycotting brands is the most obvious action to take.

“It’s the least we can do to support Palestinians under attack, and it is not a temporary action on my part. I won’t be eating or drinking something that has made the murder of an innocent Palestinian possible,” she said, adding that Spiro Spathis as a local product is just as good as the drinks she’s given up.

“They’re not as available, though, since the boycott began,” she noted.

For Talaat, Spiro Spathis is very much back in business.

“We plan to be there for Egyptian consumers always, even if the boycott doesn’t last. We’re here to stay,” he said.

This story was published in collaboration with Egab.

Source: Al Jazeera