Do you remember Meri-Mate’s fruity-flavoured fizzy drinks?
Donnie McNaughton established Carnoustie-based Stangate Soft Drinks which produced a number of products including their popular Meri-Mate range.
They originally came in plastic tubes with nipped closed ends and had a hole on the top for the straw before they started being bottled in the 1970s.
The Okhai family bought the range in 1981, adding to an already impressive business portfolio which had developed from relatively small beginnings.
Yusuf Okhai, who managed the Meri-Mate factory until 1998, remembers the family’s humble beginnings before taking up the reins of the soft drinks company.
Yusuf said: “My family first came to Scotland from Malawi in the 1960s.
“We were involved with a lot of different businesses as we started to build our brand.
“From cleaning rental properties prior to letting out for estate agents, to painting and decorating – we then moved into manufacturing.
“The Okhai lollipop sticks and Fabian Drinking Straws were particularly popular.”
The Okhai family then moved into packaging as they built up their business empire before saving one of Dundee’s most historic firms from closure.
Yusuf added: “We began producing printed film packaging for Rockwell Flexible Packaging.
“This was just before we took over James Keiller’s.”
The family took over the famous Keiller’s marmalade factory in Mains Loan in 1981 which was on the brink of being shuttered for good.
Shortly after, they purchased Meri-Mate.
The fizzy drinks originally came in plastic tubes with nipped closed ends and had a hole on the top for the straw.
Their unique packaging became their most popular feature as youngsters loved being able to explode the tubes onto their friends in the schoolyard.
For a handful of your spare change you could purchase your favourite flavour at the local corner shop.
Their catchy TV jingle, “Drink a Meri-Mate… they’re great mate!” kept the fizzy drinks firmly in people’s minds – and soon in their fridges!
Meri-Mate started being distributed, both in drinks and bottles, from the Keiller’s factory following the buy-out in 1981.
It appeared to be the perfect match with the Okhai clan now describing themselves on adverts as “the happiest family in soft drinks”.
Their famous slogan “Okhai The Noo” celebrated their Scottish connections.
Flavours of the popular soft drink included lemonade, orangeade, limeade and raspberryade alongside cola, Iron Brew (not to be confused with Irn-Bru of course!) and ginger beer – plus the tasty drink-it-or-freeze-it mini-mate gang.
The drinks became well-loved in the city and Meri-Mate were soon managing an annual turnover of around £17 million.
Yusuf remembers many happy memories from that time.
He said: “By 1984, things were booming.
“We didn’t see Dad much!
“The company had over 40 trucks delivering goods in a consistent Scottish Blue livery.
“I was only a pre-teen so I was not involved – but like everyone else, these guys were local heroes, and even more so to me of course!
“As a family, we loved Meri-Mate.
“We drank it ourselves all the time!
“I think it was so loved because of its unique resealable format; you could have a little, carry it in school, and have some more, unlike other soft drinks that were in cans.
“They could be carried easily, so kids got more utility out of them, and waste was minimized.
“Meri Mate also invented the one-piece plastic bottles everyone uses today.
“Before that they had a black base cup, but Aziz Okhai invented and patented the bottle with feet that have since become de facto.”
The Princess of Wales
Princess Diana was welcomed by the Okhai family when she visited the Keiller’s factory in Mains Loan during her first trip to Dundee in September 1983.
She donned the regulation white hat and Keiller-branded white coat while chatting to workers, and they gifted her sweets for her sons during the visit.
She impressed staff and owners alike with the research she had done beforehand and her kind manner although it’s not known if she left with some Meri-Mate!
The Okhai Group eventually sold the Keiller factory in 1985 as the tide was starting to turn for Meri-Mate.
Yusuf said: “Meri-Mate was underperforming and our costs became too high.
“We didn’t want to sell.
“But survival came first.”
The company opened a new factory at the Wester Gourdie Estate for the fizzy drinks operation, but it still wasn’t enough to save the Meri-Mate franchise.
Yusuf said: “I joined the family business to run the new factory.
“It was a difficult time.
“We couldn’t afford to buy decent machines, so the machinery we did buy was extremely prone to mechanical failures.
“Then we had a huge fire in the warehouse in 1990, just before summer.
“We ended up with nowhere near enough stock to fulfil our orders and our customers were forced to go elsewhere.
“By the time we got things up and running again in the following year, they had already settled with new suppliers.”
Bottles kept being produced and cans were introduced as the Meri-Mate operation staggered on until the mid-1990s, before it finally went out of business.
Yusuf remembers that the final straw for the company was when the workers went on strike.
He said: “Our friends in the factory went on strike over a pay dispute.
“The company was sent into receivership by the challenges we faced.
A family business
“However, even then, I remember the empathy my Dad, Ibrahim Okhai, had with the workers.
“They were friends, many of them.
“We used to go the picket line every week with a donation and some cakes for the guys on the gate.
“I am not sure I have ever heard of this kind of strange situation, even until today, but that was Dad.
“These were tough times, but care and empathy were always there for our team, even when we simply couldn’t afford to meet their demands.”
End of an era
Meri-Mate went into receivership in December 1995.
A series of redundancies followed.
By August 1996, 180 workers had lost their jobs, and the remaining workforce was left at less than a third of what it had been before the company went into receivership.
Three months later, the company told The Courier that production had ceased as they had been unsuccessful in finding a new buyer for its fizzy drinks arm.
The final collapse meant the loss of an additional 40 jobs in the city.
How did the family feel when Meri-Mate came to an end in 1996?
Yusuf said: “Overall, I think we were glad to be out.
“It had been a harrowing time for the brothers.
“Emotions ran high, but that was eventually dimmed in comparison with the need to survive.”
With the company no longer producing the goods, the Meri-Mate factory was put up for auction in 1998.
Yusuf left the company to start his own business.
He said: “I left Meri-Mate in 1998 to start my business Medea, which has now been renamed to Aydya.
“As for the original four Okhai brothers, my father, Ibrahim, passed in 2017.
“Bashir is still active in business, and his sons help him run Sweetzone, a confectionery company based out at Claypotts.
“Farook, the youngest brother, passed a few weeks ago from cancer.
“As for the ‘Doc’, Aziz Okhai, he now spends his time in Dubai and Nice, France, but still visits Dundee and still has a home here.”
Yusuf said: “In 1984, my Dad was awarded a Queen’s Award.
“In 2021, Aydya was similarly honoured with a Queen’s Award.
“I’m not sure how often a father and son have done that, but I’m guessing not often – and it’s great to still be in Dundee, fighting for our city’s position on the map.”
With the return of Creamola Foam and other popular soft drinks to our shelves, might we one day see Meri-Mate make a similar return?
Yusuf said: “You never know!
“We are back in the bottle business; maybe drinks are next!
“We have no plans today, and food production is a serious business.
“Maybe we’ll venture into a small niche local brand, but it’ll never be to the scale it once was.”