It all started with a simple request. Native Houstonian Charleston Wilson was already driving back and forth each week between Bayou City and his construction sales job in Baton Rouge—could he pick something up from Louisiana, then, and bring it back here to a friend? He’d be paid for his trouble. Okay, cool, he thought.
When Wilson delivered the stuff to his buddy—a barber on Houston's southwest side—all the eyes in his shop lit up. “Hey, man, what you want for that?” they asked from their stools. The barber hurried Wilson outside. “Man, get them in my truck!” he ordered. Wilson made a small profit that day, and the barber—who resold the stuff in his shop later that night—made a bigger one.
After that the pick-ups and drop-offs continued, but soon Wilson decided to strike out on his own. He made an Instagram for his new venture in spring 2016, posting a photo of his goods along with his prices, phone number, and an offer for free delivery. The calls poured in, and the side hustle eventually overtook his full-time gig. Wilson went from selling out of the trunk of his car to building a national network of 15 distributors, and he’s not done—demand is only growing. The product he’s moving?
But not just any soda: Wilson has cornered the local market on rare, hard-to-find flavors and brands—Sunkist Peach and Fanta Berry, Crystal Pepsi and Canada Dry Pineapple. He calls his business Exotic Pop.
“I saw this huge demand for these sodas that I brought back that I knew nothing about,” Wilson says. “I started to dig more into it. What other sodas are out there, besides in Louisiana, that people don’t have?”
As Exotic Pop grew, Wilson learned firsthand the steep cost of importing liquids, in some cases from overseas. That came with tariffs, taxes, and occasional customs seizures, which led Wilson to increase his prices. Early critics had already balked at the original $3-per-soda rate, so imagine their reaction to prices of $5, $8, $12, even $30—yes, $30—a pop.
But as it turns out, people are willing to pay a premium for a taste of nostalgia. Take Fruitopia, the neon-colored, fruit-flavored beverage Coca-Cola started making in 1994 to compete with Snapple. Flavors like “kiwiberry ruckus” and “strawberry passion” were mainstays in middle school vending machines of the ’90s, but the line fizzled and was all but discontinued by the early 2000s. In near-death, it’s become almost exalted, another cult-like symbol of times past. Whatever happened to Fruitopia? Redditors regularly wonder.
These are Wilson’s customers. He’ll search far and wide to find the last corner of the earth where these drinks still exist, and he’ll deliver the goods. More recently he’s started doing the same with junk food through his Exotic Snax collection. He sells Strawberry Milkshake Pop Tarts ($8), Birthday Cake Froot Loops ($20), and, soon, the holy grail of long-lost snacks: Dunkaroos.
He found them in Australia, a discovery he likens to reaching “the end of the rainbow.” “A pack of Dunkaroos? Ain’t no telling how much it will cost you, but if you want it, we got it,” he says.
Wilson hawks his goods both on his website and in his own vending machines in corner stores and neighborhood smoke shops around the country, including five in Texas. “We knock down those borders and we just cherry-pick all the best things from all over the world,” he says.
He put his first machine in Watkins Grocery Store in southeast Houston and dedicated it to DJ Screw, decorating it with photos and symbols of the late rapper. Wilson, 33, grew up in the neighborhood where DJ Screw first rapped about Dirty Sprite, inextricably linking soda to hip-hop, especially here. “I gave it a spin by saying, You know what, I’m gonna keep it all the way cultural,” Wilson says today. “We’re gonna make this almost like a piece of art. When people come in here, it’s going to be something they’ve never seen before.”
He did the same thing at Big City Foods on Homestead, this time in honor of Pimp C. Fourteen more followed around the country, from Atlanta to L.A., including his most recent, in the Busy Bee on Old Spanish Trail. The brand-new 24-hour store has become something of a destination for the hip-hop set: “Rappers are going there shooting videos, doing photo shoots,” Wilson says. “It’s like, Oh, I’m in Houston, I have to check out Exotic Pop.”
That’s due in part to celebrity endorsement—first from Paul Wall, after Exotic Pop hosted a booth at Wall’s annual Slab Fest at 8th Wonder Brewery. “He really got behind us on it and gave us some real exposure, and at that point we took off,” Wilson says.
Another rapper brought even more hype: Drake. “Drake direct-messaged us randomly one day,” Wilson recalls. The Toronto rapper with well-known Houston ties was intrigued by an Instagram post about Clearly Canadian, so Wilson sent him a bunch of the stuff last fall. What happened next was a noted departure from Drake’s typical low-key social media presence: He posted a video, shouting out his “Houston family at Exotic Pop,” and tagged Wilson’s account.
It blew up. Today Exotic Pop has nearly 51,000 Instagram followers and an international network of people to help him source product. There’s more A-list clientele, too, like Cardi B, Migos, Travis Scott, and just about every major Houston emcee.
“For me to be in a position where I’m talking to Lil Flip every day, I’m talking to Lil Keke or Paul Wall and I’m, like, friends with these guys and we’re doing stuff together—I feel like I’m part of the team, as far as keeping Houston relevant,” Wilson says. “I feel like I’m putting points on the board for Houston, and it feels great.”
Three to Try
The Crowd-Pleaser: Canada Dry Vanilla Cream, $5
“If it wasn’t for Canada Dry Vanilla Cream out of the tri-state area, there wouldn’t be an Exotic Pop,” Wilson says. “We sell pallets of that, we move cases of it. People love it.”
The Gold Standard: Fanta White Peach, $25
“It’s one soda that’s really popular that I catch a lot of heat for because it stays out of stock. It’s a Fanta that comes out of Japan,” Wilson explains, “the most popular soda that we have that we cannot keep in stock. As soon as we get it, it’s immediately gone. My contact in Japan, in order for him to get it—they don’t sell it in stores—he has to go up into the mountains to get it; they only sell it in some real secluded area. Even if you were in Japan, you still can’t find it; it’s really, really rare. It’s like searching for diamonds or something.”
The Drake Pick: Clearly Canadian Mountain Blackberry, $8
The fruit-flavored sparkling water in distinctive glass bottles exploded in popularity in 1987. When a “new flavor alert” from Exotic Pop last year prompted Drake to slide into Exotic Pop’s DMs, Wilson sent him every flavor of the stuff, plus specials like Canada Dry Pineapple, Solo Banana, Tahitian Treat Fruit Punch, Jones Birthday Cake, and more, as captured on Drake’s Instagram video that’s since been viewed nearly 1.9 million times.