Charleston Wilson, CEO/Founder, Exotic Pop

Screw’s Pineapple soda, Big Hawks Fruit Punch Soda, Lil’Keke Black Cherry Soda.

These are all nostalgic yet legendary names for a unique brand of soda called Exotic Pop created by Houston native Charleston Wilson in 2017.

This Black-owned beverage company is known to offer rare had to find flavors and brands that has made the company a hot commodity in the $406 billion-dollar soft drink industry. Wilson, 37, has carved a niche continues to break down cultural barriers providing a wide range of diverse products representing the very community that uplifted him. The Black community that is.

The luxury soda brand’s products range from a little as $5 to $30 and it has caught the attention of celebrities such as Cardi B, Lil’Wayne, P.Diddy, Drake, Rob Kardashian, and others.

No successful story comes without its struggle to get to the top and the Defender has the chance to speak with Wilson to build a multi-million dollar niche business from the ground up.

Talk about who you are and your connection with the Houston community.

I’m a product of Houston. My father grew up in Sunnyside South Acres which is the heart of the southeast side. That’s the home of the Fat Pack, Big Hawk, your Lil’Keke, DJ Screw. I grew up in that whole movement. And then my mother lived in Rosewood off of Homestead which is the heart and soul of the whole Swisha House movement. Being in the heart of these huge brands that were making a huge impact underground did two things for me. It showed me how guys from my own neighborhood could make a big splash and have a big effect on the entire country. It also showed me that you can be independent and become successful. You don’t need a major industry push in order to be successful. You can be a multimillionaire and right in your own hometown. Houston birthed the entrepreneur inside of me.  

The birth of this business started when a friend asked you for a favor?

I went to LSU (Louisiana State University) for college and I was coming back and forth between LSU [Baton Rouge] and Houston every weekend. My friend knew about my frequent trips and asked me to bring him back some sodas. Apparently, the sodas he [my friend] requested were only for sale in Louisiana and didn’t sell in Texas. There was a demand for it in a particular niche market. I wasn’t aware of it, so I spend about $100 and put the sodas in my truck, and drove to my friend’s barbershop. When I arrived, I saw a huge response from his clients at the shop and they bought out everything I got. After that, once he quickly cashed me out on what I paid for him, I went on to his Instagram page and saw how he promoted his sodas and the positive responses. I was like ‘Wow you are on to something.’ Once I was convinced about this whole model, I took my whole paycheck and filled my car up with drinks, and went back to the barbershop. My friend told me that he wasn’t interested in selling soda and that he cuts hair. I got stuck with the drinks. I went on Instagram out my number in the caption and said ‘free delivery.’ I called it Exotic Pop and it went from there.

Exotic Pop is breaking barriers in the industry? What does that mean to you?

I sold these out the back of my truck, I pulled up to different neighborhood parks and barbershops. I eventually got an account with Coca-Cola in Baton Rouge and was able to get the beverages wholesale directly from the company. I got my first vending machine and I placed it at my workplace in Louisiana and that led me to search for more locations to put these sodas in. This is growth and I have the community to thank. It means showing people who look like me that all things are possible. A lot of times we don’t have the support of our community, family, or just enough to believe in ourselves to see things through

What are some of the popular drinks/snacks you sell?

Our top-selling item is our own drink called Cool Cup Juice. Our second hottest seller is any of our cream sodas. We’ve collaborated with Drake’s father Dennis Graham; he has a cream soda. Lil’ Flip has a red cream soda that we do. Souljah Boy has a pineapple cream soda with us as well. Lastly, our water does really well. We have a state-of-the-art facility that we deal with in San Diego that bottles our alkaline water. Not only do we sell snacks we sell exotic snacks like cereal, cookies, skittles, and chips.

What factors contribute to the average costs of your product?

The number one reason is because of shipping. We have a deal with Pepsi in New York. Pepsi does our bottling for us. It was a huge deal that we closed a couple of years ago that put us in the position to have our own soda line. New York and Houston is a long-distance so by the time you ship our bottle products from New Jersey to Houston or to any of our other distributors, mixed with the high prices of shipping due to COVID, it causes our price points to be a lot higher. Also, you are paying for the exclusivity of the brand. We’re not oversaturated in the market. Licensing is another factor. The faces you see on the front of our products have contracts with us. They receive royalties. They know our brand charges handsomely so they expect to be paid as such.

How have you been able to give back to the Houston community?

We’ve shown so many people how to sales tax certificates and how to get an LLC. When we did our taxes for this past year, we sent out thousands of W-9s to people who were are looking to leave their 9-5 to transition into being business owners or people who lived a life of crime and were looking for better opportunities, or business owners struggle due to COVID and having an account with Exotic Pop helped them keep the doors open. We put on the Houston culture. We put QR codes on our products where you can scan the QR code to listen to the catalog of rappers you may not have heard of. A portion (25 percent of sales) of our proceeds go to benefit the community where that rapper grew up from.

Any new updates?

We are definitely adding to Black Wall Street here in Houston AKA Almeda Road. We have a 4,000 sqft retail location, that’s going to be located next door to Turkey Leg Hut this summer. We have a line of crème sodas we are releasing. They’re being marketed as premium mixers for sports bars and nightlife establishments. Our brand is big enough to stand on its own, so we took the likeness off our sodas, that’s going to give us the opportunity to lower our price point so we compete with the pricing of Coke and Sprite. So we’ll close distribution deals at gas stations and convenience stores. Lastly, we’re working on pet water that’s going to the released in H.E.B. We’re also closing deals with Petco and PetSmart.

Laura Onyeneho

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...