Article by Alex Brown, Inside INdiana Business

The owner of Rock-Cola Cafe on the east side of Indianapolis is nearing the final stages of bringing an iconic chocolate drink to the masses.

Daniel Iaria brought Choc-Ola to his restaurant as a means of driving in customers after several major employers nearby shut their doors; he got the recipe for the drink from the sons of its inventor and has been selling it in his restaurant ever since.

Inside INdiana Business spotlighted Iaria’s efforts in a July 2020 interview, and even then, he and his business partner, Dave Hunter, had plans for greater manufacturing and distribution.

But, like it did with so many industries, the pandemic put a wrench in their plans, Iaria said.

“The pandemic pretty much shut down the food industry to the point where food and beverage co-packers … didn’t have enough employees to get all their lines set up,” he said. “So many of them just shut down lines, and they didn’t have the capacity to produce anymore for smaller customers. So, people like us were kind of being shut out.”

Iaria said it has taken the better part of three years to find a manufacturer that was willing to partner with them. He credits Hunter’s persistence in pressing on with their plans for getting to this point.

“He’s tenacious. He just refuses to give up,” Iaria said. “They now understand that we’re serious about it, and I think they want to help, too.”

rock-cola cafe

Choc-Ola was invented by Harry Normington Sr., who began manufacturing the drink in 1944 in Indianapolis in a plant in the 2300 block of Churchman Avenue. The drink became the top-selling chocolate milk beverage in the Midwest, selling nearly two million cases a year.

Moxie Industries Inc. bought the brand in 1977 and moved production to Doraville, Georgia. After changing ownership several times, Choc-Ola was acquired in 2009 by Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, which retired the beverage in favor of Yoo-Hoo, its national chocolate-drink brand.

Iaria rescued Choc-Ola in 2010 when he discovered its trademark had expired.

When asked if he believes the demand is there for Choc-Ola outside of his restaurant, Iaria responded with one word: “Absolutely.”

“We have people coming here to the Rock-Cola Cafe from states away, driving just to get Choc-Ola, and many times it’s going to be for a relative or their dad or their brother or somebody who remembers Choc-Ola. People have moved out of the state, but they haven’t forgotten about Choc-Ola.”

Iaria mentioned a woman who drove four hours one-way from eastern Ohio to get a case of the drink for her dying father, who wanted to taste it again.

“That’s kind of moving, you know, when you realize you’re doing something that’s so important to somebody that they’re willing to drive four hours to get it. And I don’t think that’s rare; I think that’s really common. People remember it so much, and they miss it so much, they’re willing to do almost anything to get it.”

Iaria plans to package the drink in a wide-mouth, plastic container rather than the original glass bottles or steel or aluminum cans it was previously sold in. And plans call for two new flavors as well: Orangesicle and Strawberry & Cream.

The partners are targeting a first quarter launch, though Iaria said more details need to be ironed out, which is why they don’t have a specific launch date set. He said they want to connect with big box stores that can help them grow beyond the Midwest.

“We know there’s a demand for it,” he said. “It’s just getting it back packaged again, and I think we’ll be able to sign on some distributors to to help us out.”

Another goal for Choc-Ola is school systems. Iaria said he believes schools are a target market, primarily because of the response he’s seen from parents.

“They want their kids to try Choc-Ola. They would never say that about a soda drink, but they do when it comes to Choc-Ola because they have such fond memories of it. And it’s actually a somewhat nutritional drink. It has real milk in it. It’s got regular sucrose in it, not high fructose corn syrup. So it’s way more nutritional than soda beverages.”

Iaria said while they’re not making money on Choc-Ola right now, he and Hunter believe they’re sitting on a gold mine, which continues to drive their efforts for wider distribution.