Generations of New Englanders grew up on ZaRex, a sweet fruity syrup they could make into a drink, into snow cones or as a secret ingredient in cupcakes.
It was a retro regional favorite, much like the Fluffernutter sandwich, Moxie, New York System Wieners or the Fall River Chow Mein sandwich.
ZaRex was sold on opening day at Fenway Park, and Babe Ruth was said to have eaten it on snow cones. Stephen King mentions Zarex in several stories and likely drank it as a kid.
By the 1980s the drink was losing popularity and then-owner One Pie Canning Co. halted production in 2008.
ZaRex came back, but only for a little while.
ZaRex was first made in 1912 by Za-Rex Food Products Inc., in Boston’s South End. Soon it had imitators.
In July 1923, a ZaRex display ad read:
To All Who Are Thirsty!
In an attempt to trade upon the great popularity of “ZA-REX” as the purest, most delicious and convenient of Fruit Drinks, a number of Cheap, inferior products — “Fruit Syrups,” so called — have been thrown upon the market and are frequently being substituted for genuine “ZA-REX” even when “ZA-REX” is called by name.
One of those imitators was a liquid concentrate called Fruit Smack. In 1927, its inventor, Edwin Perkins of Hastings, Neb., found a way to remove the liquid, leaving a powder that cost less to ship. He renamed it Kool-Aid in 1931.
By then, a new ZaRex plant pumped out sweet syrup in South Boston. The factory officially opened on April 1, 1924, with 100 members of the New England Association of Manufacturers on hand to watch production of the sweet syrup.
The visitors had an interest in the tremendous growth of the soft drink industry since the advent of Prohibition, reported the Boston Globe. The four-story plant was completely devoted to making ZaRex from fruit juice infused with sugar.
“There is no human contact with the product,” marveled the Globe.
Quick and Thrifty
ZaRex still had strong sales in July 1952. Nancy Norton, writing “For the Pantry Shelf” in the Boston Globe, recommended it: “There’s more for your money in the tastiest treat in town … Za-Rex, the full pint that makes a full gallon of tall, cool drinks. Easy to make, quick and thrifty. Just a dash of Za-Rex, add water and ice.”
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, newspaper ads and television commercials marketed ZaRex. One jingle went, “It’s as good as can be, just look for the Z.” On the In The 70s blog, ‘Patrick’ posted his memory of appearing in a ZaRex ad. His father worked in advertising in Boston, and use his children in commercials. Remembered Patrick:
When I was in Kindergarten (1972 I think) I was cast in a TV commercial for Zarex. I must have drank 10 gallons of the stuff. By the time we finished I could barely muster a smile for the camera.
In 2010, Arthur Dove went to the grocery store on the South Shore of Massachusetts to buy ZaRex. To his great dismay, he couldn’t find it. Dove had been brought up on the drink, and had given it to his children and grandchildren.
He called the manufacturer, One Pie, and learned the company stopped making ZaRex because it wanted to concentrate on its canning business – not because of declining sales.
“Then out of the blue, I asked if he’d be willing to sell it,” Dove told the Boston Herald. He answered ‘yes.’
Dove and his colleague in the ambulance sales and maintenance business, Joe Croce, bought the rights and recipe for ZaRex syrup in 2010. They also brought back the drink’s mascot, Zippy the Zebra. Now they make ZaRex — Fruit Punch, Grape, Lime-Lime, Raspberry and Sugar Free Raspberry — in Lakeville, Mass.
A 2012 story about the return of ZaRex in Mass. Market inspired a flood of nostalgic comments:
Marti Moore wrote, “Love Zarex….I make Rasbery Lime Rickeys ….add vodka even better…thanks Sonny for bringing it back.”
Sherry Herron: My grandfather (my Zadie) used to always have Zarex at my grandparents house. When he was at the Brockton VA hospital losing his battle with cancer (17 years ago) he asked my Mom and I to get him Zarex, that was what he wanted. We were lucky enough that they had it on a dusty shelf at a convenience store local to the hospital. I hated seeing him in that condition, but he loved that cup of Zarex punch!
Mr. Y: I drank quite a bit of Zarex back in the blizzard of ’78, making snowcones in all the mounds of snow around my house with my brothers and sisters. As nutritionally devoid a product as it is, I’d love to pass down that memory to my own daughter.
Lynn Briggs: I love Zarex, grew up with it at the beach and birthday parties, cookouts, you name it.
Before CoolAid was cool.
And then in 2013, Boston’s late mayor Tom Menino posed with Zippy the Zebra in the Bunker Hill parade in Charlestown.
Sadly for ZaRex lovers, production ceased by 2019.
This story was updated in 2022.