21st-Century Seltzer Man

21st-Century Seltzer Man

A young Brooklynite with a vintage business.

Editor’s note: This article accompanies “Time In A Bottle,” about third-generation seltzer man Walter Backerman.

Only 25, Alex Gomberg is a living monument to things past.

In a cramped closet of a workspace in Canarsie, he wears an unassuming T-shirt with a modest gold Magen David tucked inside, faded jeans, a Livestrong-style wristband and a baseball cap. “Do you know the Brooklyn Dodgers?” he asks, pointing out the cap’s classic embroidered B. The wristband was for a friend who died in college of a heart attack. “He was 18 years old. That was hard.” The necklace was once his great-grandmother’s.

Fresh out of grad school with a degree in higher education administration, Gomberg decided to become a seltzer man: a field in which he is, by far, the youngest member.

Gomberg, whose father’s company fills seltzer bottles for deliverymen like Walter Backerman (see accompanying story), has a worktable full of seltzer bottle parts. A collection of silver-toned metallic bits in a Junior’s egg cream glass. Drawers with flat white washers. A group of tall thin glass tubes. His job right now, beyond spreading word about his new business, Brooklyn Seltzer Boys, on Facebook and on the company’s new website, is rebuilding his inventory of vintage siphons, one siphon at a time.

Gomberg’s great-grandfather, Moe, was once a New York City seltzer man. With a group of his peers he shared ownership of a filling machine and hired a filler to keep the seltzer flowing. At some point he decided to put down the backbreaking crates used to deliver the seltzer and take full ownership of the filling machine. In 1953, Gomberg Seltzer Works was born.

This was back in the day when competition among fillers was fierce. But the business thrived.

Moe eventually passed the business down to his son, Pacey, who eventually did the same. But by the time Gomberg’s dad, Kenny, took over, in the 1970s, the Works had become an anachronism, supporting only a handful of deliverymen. It was just a small side business adjacent to his now dominant beer and soda distribution company, G & K Beer Distributors, Inc., kept alive more to honor tradition than to make a profit. Alex Gomberg, who graduated from Amherst last spring, as a slow economic recovery sputtered along, had little interest in the filling station. But looking back to his great-grandfather, and at his dad’s impressive bottle collection, he saw something else: opportunity.

First, Gomberg had to prepare the seltzer siphons for business. “We have right now, about my estimate, 3,000 bottles in stock that are in bad shape.” They were dusty. They needed fresh parts. Gomberg was ready to show a reporter how the repair is done, the old-school way, step by step: take off the head and shine it, add the washer, insert the glass straw, attach the collar and re-attach the head.

As he launches Brooklyn Seltzer Boys, a seltzer delivery service for the 21st century — using social media, eyeing the upscale eats at Barclays Center, the new local sporting arena, watching the rise in artisanal food trucks — his goal is that “all of these 3,000 bottles will be in circulation.” And that he would need to find more bottles, but “that’s a good problem to have.”

Barry Joseph, associate director for digital learning at the American Museum of Natural History, is writing a book about seltzer (tinyurl.com/seltzeronfb).

read more: