A Brief History of the Slush Puppie
By Garin Pirnia
In 1970, Cincinnatian Will Radcliff was at a Chicago trade show when he made a culinary discovery: a slush machine. The machine, which was manufactured by Stoelting and had been on the market for decades, didn’t have a name or any marketing materials. But Radcliff, who had already found success as a peanut salesman, saw an opportunity. “I saw there was nothing being done to make it take off,” Radcliff said in 1998. “There was no magic, as I say.”
One evening, Radcliff enlisted the help of his mother and sister to brainstorm some names for his would-be slushy drink. Over a six-pack of beer, they wrote down a handful of possibilities on a brown paper bag and came up with the idea for Slush Puppie, which would feature a cartoon dog as their mascot and logo. Shortly thereafter, Radcliff invested all the money he had (a sum total of $970) and founded the company.
Though other iced beverages such as ICEE already existed, Slush Puppie was different because it was a non-carbonated drink created with flavored syrups and water that are mixed together in a machine and then frozen.
When Radcliff started what would become a multimillion-dollar enterprise, only four flavors were offered: cherry, grape, orange, and lemon-lime. Today, there are more than 40 flavors available, ranging from cotton candy to pomberry açaí, many of which contain fortified juices and vitamins. Despite the juice content, the slushies are filled with artificial colors, preservatives, and some varietals have high fructose corn syrup added. An eight-ounce Slush Puppie contains 119 calories, which according to Calorie King, would take a 31-minute walk to burn off. Yet, it tastes delicious.
Radcliff’s flavored ice pellets beverage gambit took off and by 1999 sales had escalated to $25 million a year—that’s a lot of slush! An astute businessman, he eventually parlayed his idea into a global phenomenon; Slush Puppies have found their way into 62 nations, including parts of Africa and Europe, via 650,000 machines. “If it ain’t fun, to hell with it,” was one of Radcliff’s favorite aphorisms, though he admitted to the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1998 that, “It doesn’t always work that way all the time, but that’s what we shoot for.”
Besides the Slush Puppie business, Radcliff also started Lanikai Frozen Cocktails in 1986, which applies a similarly slushy methodology to mixed drinks such as frozen daiquiris. Because of his successful concepts, Radcliff had earned enough money by the age of 40 to purchase two Learjets and a Mercedes S500 with the license plate “1 SLUSH.”
In 2000 Cadbury Schweppes bought Slush Puppie Corp., and in 2006 J&J Snack Foods—which also owns ICEE—purchased the company from Cadbury. By this point, Radcliff was ready to retire and had purchased more than 3,000 acres of Florida wetlands, where he built a ranch and became a fierce advocate for land conservation.
Many convenience stores, movie theaters, and Kmarts sell Slush Puppies, but anybody can purchase a machine. It’ll cost you about $1,200 retail for the low-end model and $2,000 for a top-of-the-line one.
Unfortunately, Radcliff died on September 18, 2014 in Cincinnati, due to complications from a fall. He was 74 years old. His utilitarian Cincinnati home is currently on the market for a cool $695,000, and features a laundry chute, a dumbwaiter, and an elevator. Even though Radcliff’s no longer around, his legacy will live on. His infinitesimal contribution to the world doesn’t seem like much, but on any sweltering summer day, parched adults and kids alike should think of the maverick businessman as they suck down their favorite flavor of Slush Puppie.