Iconic rock star unveils new Gene Simmons MoneyBag Sodas line at 7-Eleven
By Joshua Maloni
Gene Simmons might be a demon on stage as the leader of KISS, but in person Thursday he was a real saint.
At the Hyde Park 7-Eleven in Niagara Falls - which recently began carrying Gene Simmons MoneyBag Sodas - the rock legend posed for pictures, signed autographs and raised money for the Veterans One-stop Center of WNY.
"We're here to raise money for the vets. Nice people in the area, Western New York, are paying $20 for the privilege of meeting yours truly. But the money goes to the local vets right here," Simmons said.
Those who paid $20 for a four-pack of root beer, crème soda, ginger ale or cola were afforded the opportunity to meet Simmons, get a professional photo, and have him sign their pop box.
A line of people wrapped around the outside of the store. Fans began waiting in line before 6 a.m.
One admirer, Christine Johnson of Niagara Falls, was in tears when she approached Simmons. He consoled her, offering a hug and a conversation before he signed her souvenir and posed for pictures.
"I brought pictures of when I was a kid, of my family and I with my KISS memorabilia. My mother worked hard her whole life for me. She's a single mother. I was an only child. And I never went without KISS stuff," Johnson said. "I always loved Gene Simmons. And my name's Christine, so my family still calls me 'Christine Sixteen' (the name of a KISS song). And when he was looking at the pictures, he saw a picture of me and my grandfather, and he said, 'That man meant everything to you, didn't he?' And I said, 'Yes, he did.' And I said, 'I can't go back there physically, but when I hear your music, it brings me right back.' And he said, 'For that little moment, right?' I said, 'I'm back there. My mother, my grandparents, my aunts, uncles, all my cousins, it just brings me back to a wonderful time.'
"It was very sentimental."
Simmons took off his signature sunglasses and placed them on Johnson.
"I was really flattered, because I thought he would be, like, 'Get away!' But he understood," she explained. "He said, 'I get it. I understand what you're saying.' It meant a lot to me, because I always looked up to him.
"I just ... I can't believe he did it."
Gene Simmons with Christine Johnson
Simmons did the same thing with other fans, making sure each person felt comfortable.
Gene Simmons MoneyBag Sodas is currently sold in more than 1,300 7-Eleven stores, as well as Wegmans and Tops locations. It's distributed by Rock Steady Sodas, which is a subsidiary of the Johnnie Ryan Bottling Company.
The Hyde Park location was selected as the site for a meet-and-greet because "We've got a big location and a big parking lot. We're real close to Johnnie Ryan. Beautiful store. Run real well. Good staff. I think all those things played a part in it," store owner Michael Henel said.
Johnnie Ryan was founded in the Cataract City in 1935, so it only made sense to have Simmons visit Niagara Falls.
"People were excited as soon as they heard it. All of Niagara Falls was going crazy," Henel said. "So much chatter about it. Excitement. A celebrity was coming to town. Some people are saying it's the biggest thing to happen here in a long time. They were excited."
This was also an ideal location to raise awareness - and funding - for Veterans One-stop Center of WNY. With outreaches in Erie, Genesee and Niagara counties, the agency serves more than 10,000 veteran and active service members.
Simmons recently told journalist Dan Rather he considers America the greatest country in the world, and he unabashedly supports the U.S. military.
His Falls fans purchased a wall's worth of soda to support their hero's initiative.
Henel was quick to praise the product, calling it a "very good-tasting beverage" with a "very unique taste." His 7-Eleven carries the soda in clear glass bottles, as well as "on tap" in the soda machines.
Simmons invited readers to give it a taste-test.
"Put it up against Pepsi, Coke - all that - against ours. We'll knock it out of the park," he said.
The singer further explained he hadn't necessarily given a lot of thought to the soda-pop industry - "I never plan anything; it just happens. And then the rest is hard work," he said. But "Joe DePinto, who's a friend of mine, is the CEO" of 7-Eleven. "And the way we got in, initially, was simply a conversation between Joe (and me) to let him know we're here to add a product into their stores.
"It beats Pepsi and Coca-Cola, hands-down. They tested it, and it scored off the charts. And that's why we're at 7-Eleven."
Simmons said, "I'm a root beer guy, but I like the ginger ale. It's cane sugar. All-natural flavors. But forget all that: It just tastes better than everything out there."
The KISS star was set to continue his East Coast tour with stops at Wegmans in Rochester and Tops in Fayetteville. Simmons' message to fans: "Clearly, I just work here. Without them, I wouldn't be here. ... Readers and listeners, we are nobody and nothing without them. We owe everything to them."
7-Eleven officials said those who had a professional photo taken with Simmons should be able to find their image online at the MoneyBag Sodas website, www.GeneSimmonsMoneyBag.com
, in the next day or two.
Gene Simmons with his fans in Niagara Falls