Entertainment | Restaurants & Dining | March 2006
|Mexican Coke: The 'Real Thing?'|
Tom Ragan - Santa Cruz Sentinel
It's popping up just about everywhere in Latino communities across the United States: Mexican-made Coca-Cola in those old glass bottles, somewhat of an anomaly in the age of the plastic liter and twist-off cap.
|Since Coca-Cola was founded in the late 1880s as a syrup mixed with carbonated water, it's gone from the soda fountain to the bottle to the aluminum can to the plastic liter.|
Slightly worn and a bit gritty from all the coming and going, the 12-ounce bottles, which sell for roughly $1.25 a pop, are being bought up and sucked dry at record clips in cities across the country with large Latino populations.
And Mexicans and Mexican-Americans aren't the only ones swigging down the soda bottled south of the border, claiming it tastes different from its American-made counterpart, that its fizz seems to last longer because it's in a glass bottle.
If running diaries on the Web in the form of blogs are any indication, just about everybody who likes the heft of a good old-fashioned soda bottle is looking for the Mexican-made pop in the thousands of ma and pa convenience stores that cater to Latinos.
"Mexican Coke is selling like crazy bro, and I can't keep up," says Rudy Mendoza of El Gordo Taqueria on Main Street. Last week the 20-something Mendoza, Salinas born and bred, was cursing the underground distributor under his breath as the slightly green tinted bottles, with the words "Hecho en Mexico," started to disappear from his refrigerator.
In somewhat of a conundrum, the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. has condemned the recent imports across the country as a form of "bootlegging."
But at the same time the company has recognized that it would be remiss if it overlooked the Mexican pop craze, which is why it is now buying Coca-Cola in bottles from Mexico and importing them to Texas and Southern California, two of the largest Mexican markets in the country, according to Mart Martin, a spokesman for Coca-Cola's North American division in Atlanta.
"We believe that the appeal of Mexican Coke is as much about nostalgia as it is about anything," says Martin. "It's like getting a piece of home in a bottle. You can't deny the fact that it's in a tall glass bottle, something you just can't find in most parts of the United States."
But it's the "same exact product," and Mexican bottlers are buying the ingredients straight from the company, says Martin.
"It's not like they're stirring it up in some backyard," he adds. "Coke is Coke is Coke."
The company, however, rarely elaborates on Coke's ingredients, and the secret formula is actually in a vault in a bank in Atlanta. Instead, the company line all along has been that there is "no perceptible taste difference" between Mexican Coke and the American-made Classic Coke.
As Martin says, "You have to consider the circumstances: the packaging, whether there's ice over it, the temperature, or whether it's in a can or a bottle. But what often happens is people think it tastes different because it comes in a bottle, and that's what we're trying to get our arms around. The 'why?' It could just be psychological."
Yet there is one kicker, and it's a fairly large one: Mexican Coke may contain the same secret syrup, but its sweetener is entirely different.
It's made from sugar cane, not corn syrup.
'The Real Thing'
Latinos are the fastest-growing population segment in the United States, and Mexico accounts for well over half of the roughly 33 million Latinos who live in the country, according to the 2000 census.
Certainly, this is not the first time the Mexican market has flexed its muscle, with an occasional borrowing from U.S. popular culture.
Look closely at the Mexican man wearing that Texas Longhorns cap or the World Series-winning Chicago White Sox hat. There's a chance it came from a market just off the plaza in Any Town, Mexico.
But then there's the real Mexican deal, like tequila, which has anchored many a margarita happy hour; or tacos, as popular as hamburgers, without which there'd be no Taco Bell.
Mexico's a country that's put the popularity of chips and salsa right up there with ketchup and french fries.
And in yet another nod to the lucrative Latino market, Frito-Lay just came out with a "fiery habañero" flavor of Doritos that all but requires a bottle of water during consumption.
It's no secret that the meteoric rise in the Mexican population in the past few decades in the United States has given rise to all products Mexican, which has made its way into the mainstream of the American psyche — from canned jalapeños to cheaper laundry soaps to the corn tortilla.
But taking a brand name like Coca-Cola and undercutting the American-made Coca-Cola distributors on their own turf hasn't gone over well with the largest soft drink supplier in the world, according to Martin.
Although the bottlers in Mexico are authorized and are making the cola above board, it's the non-Coca-Cola distributors — the guys who are wheeling and dealing it in an underground market — that are causing all the problems.
Lawsuits have been filed, but no dispositions as of yet.
"They're trespassing on the territory rights of many U.S. bottlers," said Coke spokesman Martin. "Bringing it into the country is not illegal. But what it does do from the Coca-Cola standpoint is it violates contractual rights that we have with our bottlers. And it has potential trademark right infringements as well."
A blog is a blog
The controversy has even bubbled to the surface in several blogs.
Ordinary Joes are mixing their thoughts and opinions with the best of the high-browed corporate types who've made careers out of analyzing products that sell and those that don't.
Grant McCracken, a noted anthropologist with a doctorate from the University of Chicago, wrote: "Some consumers now insist that Mexican Coke is a more robust brand than American Coke, not least because it is charged with meanings that American Coke never had, or long ago gave up. In particular, Mexican Coke is charged with a powerful nostalgia, a remembrance of childhood south of the border."
Karina Alejandre, 22, a recently arrived immigrant from Mexico who now cooks at El Gordo Taqueria in Watsonville, remembers her first sip of Coca-Cola.
And guess what? It didn't even come from a bottle.
"We'd drink from plastic sandwich bags with straws inside," she said in Spanish, an imaginary straw in her hand. "We couldn't leave the store with the bottles."
Since Coca-Cola was founded in the late 1880s as a syrup mixed with carbonated water, it's gone from the soda fountain to the bottle to the aluminum can to the plastic liter.
And now it's back to the bottle, courtesy of Mexico, a country that's usually a few years behind the times, often fashionably retro because of it.
And in the backrooms of some Mexican tiendas in Watsonville, from El Gordo to D'La Colmena, cases upon cases of the Mexican Coke bottles sit, proof that there's a demand, which is causing a stir but saturating a Latino and non-Latino thirst across the country.
As McCracken notes, "The bigger challenge of the Coca-Cola Co. is to admit that even the magnificent corporation that has created and preserved the 'real thing' authenticity must now admit to the possibility that there are many authenticities. This is the lesson of plenitude. This is the lesson of the long tail."
Miguel Perez and Leticia Martinez, Watsonville residents, don't know anything about corporate lessons learned.
They just know what they like.
"When we run out," says Martinez, "I buy the smaller American-made bottles. They cost more, but they're worth it. I love drinking Coke from the bottle."
Contact Tom Ragan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Founded by an Atlanta pharmacist John Stith Pemberton, on May 8, 1886, Coca-Cola started as merely a mixture of carbonated water and syrup.
Today, it's the largest soft drink maker in the world, and its bottle, resembling the contours of a woman, was created in 1915 by Root Glass Co. of Terre Haute, Ind., setting it apart from copy cats who tried to capitalize on its popularity.
Think of Coca-Cola and the memories coming flooding forth, which is chronicled in its Web site.
It's been said the red from Coca-Cola advertising, developed just a few years after it was invented, actually helped create the modern-day image of Santa Claus.
Even gravity can't stop the cola. In 1985, Coke became the first soda consumed in space. And of course, there's the group of people singing "I'd like to buy the world a Coke in perfect harmony," in 1971.
Since then, it's grown in unprecedented popularity and has been bottled, canned and now comes in plastic liters.