Friday, October 22, 2004

North of the border, cola drinkers crave the real thing

Mexican Coke in short supply

By Anna Guido
Enquirer contributor

Lourdes Leon, co-owner of Taqueria Mercado in Fairfield, doesn't stock Mexican Coca-Cola because she can't guarantee she will always have it. She does serve Jarritos, a Mexican soft drink.

At Taqueria Mercado on Dixie Highway in Fairfield, Mexican-made Coca-Cola is absent from the menu - not what you'd expect at a bona fide taco shop.

"It's really hard to get," owner Lourdes Leone said.

"Sometimes you can get it, sometimes you cannot, so I decided not to carry it."

Rosalba Arreaga, on the other hand, sells 15 to 20 cases a week of the Mexican Coke at El Valley Verde, a small grocery she operates on Vine Street in Carthage with her husband, Manuel.

She buys it from a distributor in Chicago.

"When we can't get it in Chicago, we get it in Atlanta," Arreaga said.

At these and other Hispanic retailers in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, Mexican Coke has become a popular choice.

Mexican Coke - produced for the Latin-American market - is made with real sugar and not the high-fructose corn syrup used in American-made Coke.

But its availability - through independent entrepreneurs outside Latin America - is sporadic.

Coca-Cola Co. would prefer the product be purchased from authorized distributors.

Coca-Cola Enterprises in Cincinnati, which has franchise distribution rights to sell Coke products in the area, doesn't sell Mexican Coke, though.

"It's a violation of franchise rights, and the Coca-Cola Co. discourages it," Cincinnati franchise spokeswoman Ashlie Keener said.

"We want them (independent entrepreneurs) to be respectful of franchise territories."

But Keener says stores and restaurants still get the soda by importing it through unauthorized distribution networks. Then they sell it, primarily to immigrants living in the United States.

The only way retailers in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky can purchase Mexican Coke is through their existing networks or directly through the manufacturer in Mexico, Keener said.

Because Mexican Coca-Cola is not a counterfeit product, Coca-Cola Co. cannot ask U.S. Customs to stop it at the border.

Alfonso Cornejo, vice president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cincinnati, said the area's growing Hispanic population - now estimated at about 65,000 - is fueling demand for Mexican Coke at the 20 or so area Hispanic markets.

This is not unique, but mirrors a trend that's been going on for years in California and Texas.

And Cornejo has a solution.

"If Coca-Cola in the U.S. would produce the cola here with the Mexican taste, then there would not be any reason for people to buy it from the unauthorized distributors," he said.

Fuller, sweeter?

Mexican Coca-Cola is a favorite of both immigrants and U.S.-born residents. Buyers insist the Mexican bottlers' use of the sugar-cane syrup delivers a fuller, sweeter flavor than U.S. cokes.

Coca-Cola Co. spokesman Mart Martin in Atlanta said there is no discernible difference.

But Coca-Cola connoisseurs beg to differ.

"It's real sugar - it's the real McCoy," said Gilberto Esparza, founder and director of the Hispanic Resource Center in Covington.

Sharonville grocer Hector Rodriguez said "the Americans are the ones who have been saying that this is a good flavor."

For space and availability reasons, Rodriguez sells only a limited supply of the Mexican cola at his East Kemper Road store, Miscellaneous Rodriguez.

But when it's in stock, he said, "it sells quickly."

12-ounce glass bottles

The soda is bottled in Coca-Cola 12-ounce glass bottles and sells for about the same price as the American-made 20-ounce plastic bottles - $1.09 to $1.30 at grocery stores and $1.50 at restaurants. A case (24 bottles) runs about $20.

One enterprising retailer, Ifs Ands & Butts of Dallas, ships six-packs nationwide for $10.95 plus $11 freight. That works out to $3.66 for each 12-ounce bottle. In Mexico, the same Cokes retail for about 30 cents apiece.

Coke around the world varies in choice of sweetener from high-fructose corn syrup and sugar-beet sugar to cane sugar.

In the early 1980s, the U.S. soft-drink industry switched from sugar to a 50-50 blend with high-fructose corn syrup, then shifted gradually to just the corn sweetener, said Richard Adamson, the American Beverage Institute's vice president of scientific and technical affairs.

The syrup is preferred because it doesn't crystallize like sugar, blends easily with the acid in cola and costs one-half to one-third as much, Adamson said.


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North of the border, cola drinkers crave the real thing
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