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Mexican Coca-Cola a Hit in Michigan
Michigan Ag Connection - 07/20/2010

If Jennifer Luth is eating at Maggie's Kitchen on Bridge Street NW, a cold bottle of Mexican Coca-Cola will be next to her plate.

"The first time I had it was when I traveled to South America," the public relations professional told recently.

But when she came home, she noticed the difference between Mexican Coke and its U.S. counterpart.

"(Mexican Coke) seemed so much better," she said. "It's just not as fizzy or harsh tasting."

Why the difference?

Some fans chalk it up to drinking from a cold glass bottle. Others credit the cane sugar that sweetens it, in contrast to high fructose corn syrup used in U.S. production since the 1970s.

Whatever it is, Mexican Coke has developed a cult following. A Facebook page dedicated to the drink has thousands of fans claiming allegiance to Mexicokes.

The Viceroy, a new speakeasy-style bar in Grand Rapids, offers Mexican Coke for its mixers. And fans seek out the 12-ounce glass bottle at Mexican restaurants, supermercados, specialty food stores or ethnic sections of grocery stores, willing to pay a premium.

"It's a strange thing," said Genaro Vazquez, who owns a Hispanic convenience store near East Fulton Street and Diamond Avenue. It's more popular with non-Hispanic customers.

While Vazquez sells it for $1.35 a bottle, some places price it as high as $2.50. But the search for Mexican Coke is now easier and cheaper.

Area Spartan stores began selling it by the case in May after Coca-Cola North America and its largest distributor expanded its availability from only a few border states to the Northeast, Southeast and Midwest.

Spartan Stores Inc. used to stock small quantities in some stores. Now, Mexican Coke and Mexican orange Fanta are available in 88 of the 97 corporate-owned stores. That includes Family Fare, D&W Fresh Market, Felpausch Food Center and Glen's Market.

They go for a buck a bottle and company officials say, on average, 51 cases per store have sold since the beginning of May. Costco stores also carry the drink as do other stores that use the local Coke supplier.

Meijer stores have carried the 12-ounce and 16.9-ounce glass bottles of Mexican Coke in the international-food aisle for some time, spokesman Frank Guglielmi said.

"We're seeing more people look for it," he said. "It's a combination of people who like the throwback Coke, and we're also seeing people who are avoiding the high fructose corn syrup.

"If the interest continues to grow, we're going to look at bringing more of it into the stores and expanding our offerings."

Steve Antaya, owner of Tom's Food Center in Portland, said the store has been offering Mexican Coke for $1 a bottle for a few months, much cheaper than they would have been able to sell it through a specialty food supplier.

"We've been selling the bejeezus out of it," he said. "More so than regular pop."

Antaya, who also owns Grand Rapids-area Biggby coffee shops, is a fan and used to seek it out at Mexican grocery stores.

Many fans will dissect the difference in taste or experience of the two Coke recipes and the glass versus plastic bottles, but Coca-Cola research shows there is no perceptible taste difference.

Both are real Coke, said Greg Galvez, vice president and general manager of importation and commercialization for Coca-Cola North America.

But he added that taste is a complex sense.

"(It) is affected by many things, including the food you consume with the product, the size of the glass, and the amount of ice in the glass, the temperature of the beverage, etc.," he said.

Coca-Cola, in most Hispanic countries, is sweetened with cane sugar and is primarily available in a glass bottle, Galvez said.

"By making it available in the U.S., we are looking to provide an important segment of Coca-Cola consumers with a more familiar beverage experience."

Ada Township Trustee John Westra remembers the Coke from his youth. He recalled his dad filling up washtubs with glass Coca-Cola bottles on ice and they would add lemon or lime for an extra touch.

Now, when he occasionally drives by his grandfather's former home on Naylor Street SW, he will swing by the Roosevelt Market on Grandville Avenue SW and snag a Mexican Coke out of the cooler.

"It's what I refer to as the real original Coke in a bottle," he said. "It's interestingly less sweet -- you would think with real sugar it would be more sweet -- so, it's crisper with less aftertaste."

Westra said he doesn't drink a lot of pop.

"But, now that this is more widely available, I'll probably be buying more," he said.

Getting back to basics

Coca-Cola's expansion of its Mexican Coke brand is part of several moves by soda makers to return to their roots and woo customers with vintage recipes.

In honor of its 125th anniversary, Dr Pepper this summer is stocking shelves with Made With Real Sugar cans through early September.

While the moves play on nostalgia, they also give a nod to a growing number of consumers raising questions about the health effects of ingesting large amounts of high fructose corn syrup, the main sweetener in most pops today.

Studies are ongoing, but some fear high fructose corn syrup may be contributing to the nation's obesity problem.

Galvez said Coca-Cola believes in the sweetener, which is made by changing the glucose in cornstarch to fructose. The combination extends the products' shelf-life and is cheaper than real sugar.

"It's a great sweetener made from corn and has the same number of calories as sugar," he said. "Like any caloric sweetener, it's perfectly safe when consumed in moderation."

Despite its popularity, Galvez said sales of Mexican Coke in the U.S. is minimal compared with the American-made version. But he said it will be available on a regular basis where it is distributed.

Coca-Cola North America started importing the Mexican version in large quantities in 2005 for two primary reasons, Galvez said. One was to capitalize on the growing Hispanic population. But the company also wanted to have more control over the quality of the product and its distribution lines.

Until recently, most of the Coca-Cola from Mexico was coming into the U.S. through unauthorized independent distributors, Galvez said. Coca-Cola wants to be in control of the product from the time it is made until it hits store shelves.

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