How the Red Solo Cup Became an American Party Staple

The stories behind the stuff we buy.
Oct. 10 2011 1:58 PM

The Solo Cup

How the disposable drinking vessel became an American party staple.

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Solo keg cups also hold a bit more liquid than the competition. They boast an 18-ounce “flush fill” as opposed to the 16 ounces offered by some competitors. (Healy explained that “flush fill” numbers measure the amount you could pour right up to the rim, while the “practical fill” stat shaves off two ounces to allow for ice cubes and spill avoidance.) Most partiers will agree: More is better when it comes to beer-containment capacity.

The Solo Cup Co. has had a rocky decade. Private and family-owned since its inception in 1936, Solo ran into debt problems after buying long-coveted competitor Sweetheart Cup in 2004. It was revealed that family members and c-suite executives at Solo had received ridiculous pay and perk packages. A leveraged-buyout firm seized control and helped clean house, and operations have since begun to stabilize. Never in doubt, though, was the market supremacy of the Solo party cup. “We’ve been number one since I’ve been here,” says Healy. “Our real competition only comes when the economy is down and people look to save money with generic cups.”

Solo Cups through the ages
The evolution of the Solo party cup: On the left, the first model that emerged in the 1970s. In 2004, the cup got two grips (center). In 2009, the cup changed again, hitting the market with a square base and four grips.

Courtesy Solo Cup Co.

And this is where that square bottom comes into play. It is hard to differentiate one red plastic cup from another. So, starting in 2004, Solo began to introduce distinctive elements. According to Healy, making any change at all to a sales juggernaut like the party cup spurred great trepidation at the company. But Solo went ahead and added indented grips—touted as a solution to the slippery-when-wet problem encountered by drinkers who slosh their beer over the cup’s rims. And then, in 2009, Solo squared the circle. “It makes it much easier to hold,” says Healy of the square sides, “and it actually adds strength and structure.”

Healy says the two design changes each spurred double-digit sales growth, so, mission accomplished. But I actually prefer the aesthetics of the original red cup (you can see it pictured in this Solo timeline, next to the label “1970s”). The current cup strikes me as a victory of function over form—a clunky, overdesigned beast. There are multiple carved-out hollows offering purchase for sweaty fingers. Thickly embossed “SOLO” logos running down two sides. There are even bumpy dimples to help maintain grip. It’s a bit of a mishmash, lacking the spare, sleek lines of its classic forebear.

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Stylistic quibbles aside, I had one vital question: How might the new shape affect the product’s famous role as a Flip Cup accessory? Healy wouldn’t take the bait when I asked her if such concerns were factored into the redesign. “We don’t market the cups that way,” she said, “and we count on our customers to use them responsibly.” Sure, sure. But that doesn’t help the Flip Cup assassins out there—the dudes and gals who need to know if this newly square bottom will alter the delicate balance of the cup. Will the same, subtle nudge still induce the elegant mid-air somersault that results in a clean landing?

I have been flipping cups at my desk all day (much to the puzzlement of nearby co-workers), and I can now assure you that there is absolutely nothing to worry about. Flip Cup with a square-bottomed Solo is the same game. So flip away. And if you see Toby Keith, best to lift your Solo cup high in a toast—to let him know you don’t drink from a glass.

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