Deep in the heart of Coca-Cola country, there’s at least one place where the iconic, caramel-colored fizz doesn’t reign supreme -- or at least the version most Americans know.
At Las Tarascas Latino Supermarket, 30 miles from the soft drink giant’s world headquarters, store manager Eric Carvallo adjusts prized bottles of Mexican Coke displayed prominently at the front of the store.
He then briefly points over his shoulder to a noticeably smaller display of American Cokes tucked in the corner.
Carvallo notes that his store goes through 10 to 15 cases of Mexican Coke each week -- his entire stock -- while he’s barely able to push the five cases of the domestic version he orders.
“Sometimes I have it left over. Sometimes a case, case and a half. So it’s a lot of difference,” he says.
Taste is the main reason his discriminating shoppers buy Mexican Coke -- they say the cane sugar sweetener used in Mexican Coke has a sweeter, cleaner flavor than the high-fructose corn syrup in the American version. Many are willing to pay $1.10 per 12-ounce bottle for the imports, even with cans of American Coke sitting nearby for 49 cents each.
“You drink it and taste it -- it’s something you tasted all your life,” Carvallo says, referring to the many immigrants who prefer Mexican Coke over its American counterpart.
Although the flavor of Mexican Coke provides a taste of nostalgia for immigrants hundreds of miles from home, its retro, green-tinted, contour glass bottles have also caught on among some baby boomers, who can recall a time when their cola was made with sugar -- before rising costs drove U.S. bottlers to switch to corn syrup in the 1980s.
With a niche market for Mexican Coke taking root in the United States, Coca-Cola Co. and its bottlers are quietly looking to block its passage across the border.
One reason the Atlanta-based company wants the drink to have a low profile in the United States is that bottlers here don’t profit from sales of the import, which are produced by independent Mexican bottlers. Mexican Coke, brought in by third-party distributors and retailers, infringes on franchise territory rights of the U.S. plants.
“We believe that those territory rights belong to the rightful bottlers,” Coke spokesman Mart Martin says.
John Craven, editor of BevNet.com, an online beverage industry newsletter based in Cambridge, Mass., suggests that Coke also might want to quell any potential demand for a formula that would cost more to produce.
“Coke fears consumers demanding cane sugar but not willing to pay extra costs for it, and Coke really can’t afford major material increases,” Craven says.
Martin declines to specify what action the company has taken to curb the gray market trade of Mexican Coke, saying only that “our bottlers discourage that practice.”
Discouraging the imports may be all they can do, since Mexican bottlers legally produce the drink and third-party distributors and retailers aren’t bound by contracts between Coke and its U.S. bottlers.
“It’s very tricky for them to enforce,” Craven says. “It’s not a product that they can get Customs to stop at the border since it’s not a counterfeit.”
Coca-Cola says it has been unable to track exactly how much Mexican Coke is sold in the United States, although some industry observers say the company’s concerns are unwarranted because sales probably pale in comparison with its American counterpart.
“If there’s a tiny amount of Coke from Mexico sold in the U.S., it’s a pin drop compared to the ocean of American Coke sold by the U.S. bottlers,” says John Sicher, editor of the New York-based industry publication Beverage Digest.
Craven agrees but notes the company’s resistance to this budding niche market. “Consumers are starting to wise up to a lot of these smaller brands that are out there, these regionally premium sodas,” he says.
At least one American bottling plant has found success catering to soda gourmets who prefer cane sugar sweeteners. The Dublin Dr Pepper bottling plant in Texas has been producing Dr Pepper using the original cane sugar recipe for 114 years as the soft drink’s first franchise bottler.
The bottler’s creative director, Jeff Pendleton, says its allegiance to the original recipe while selling the drinks at regular Dr Pepper prices has been less profitable for the small, family-owned operation but has earned it a strong following.
“Profit is a factor, but it’s not the only factor,” Pendleton says. “Sticking with quality has been beneficial to us. The idea to sell more for a lower price and use cheaper ingredients, that’s what everybody else does.”
Some U.S. Coca-Cola bottlers even produce cane sugar Coke each year for Passover, because many Jewish people won’t eat or drink corn products during the holiday. The company says it has no immediate plans to start producing it for a wider market.
Coca-Cola downplays the appeal of the cane sugar version, insisting that “there’s not a perceivable taste difference between Mexican Coke and Coke bottled in the U.S.,” Martin says.
But the company would have a hard time convincing fans of the import, who claim that there’s a world of a difference.
“It’s got a much different, cleaner taste,” Craven says. “You don’t have that syrupy coat in your mouth after you drink it.”
Rob Boyce, 28, of Dunwoody, Ga., discovered the drink while living in Yuma, Ariz., where he would drive about 10 minutes across the border to the town of Los Algodones each week to replenish his Mexican Coke supplies. “It was the fad,” he says. “If someone was going to Mexico, pick up the Coke!”
Now back in Georgia, Boyce savors the few Mexican Cokes that he comes across, sipping carefully rather than guzzling what he considers a treat. The born-and-raised Coke fanatic still drinks the American version, but “if I could get the real stuff, I would.”