Chicago Sun-Times

Virus mys­tery: The case of the miss­ing Fresca

- NEIL STEIN­BERG nstein­berg@sun­times.com | @NeilStein­berg Rioting · Coca-Cola Company · Cherry Chocolate Diet Dr Pepper · Molson Coors Brewing · Germany · Coca-Cola HBC

It is not the most press­ing ques­tion. Let’s get that said right away. Among the clamor of im­pas­sioned de­bates and thorny con­tro­ver­sies, solv­ing this par­tic­u­lar puz­zle is not high on any­body’s list. Not even mine, which is why through April, May and the first half of June, I sti­fled my cu­rios­ity, cer­tain that even ask­ing is the def­i­ni­tion of priv­i­lege.

The world in chaos — sirens scream­ing through the streets, a rag­ing pan­demic, flames of un­rest lick­ing the foun­da­tions of our deeply racist so­ci­ety, jobs shat­tered, the helm spin­ning. En­vi­sion a tu­mul­tuous land­scape, smoke bil­low­ing, thick with cops in riot gear bat­tling pro­test­ers wav­ing signs, all noise and con­flict and com­mo­tion.

I raise a fin­ger and clear my throat — “A-hem!” — and it some­how mag­i­cally falls still and silent. All heads — sweaty, masked, soot­stained — swivel in my di­rec­tion, and I in­quire:

“What hap­pened to Fresca?” Be­cause I really like Fresca and typ­i­cally en­joy a can at lunch. Then Fresca just van­ished from stores in March. But un­like toi­let pa­per, it never came back, at least not to the

Sun­set or the Jewel or other stores near me. There must be a rea­son, right? If only there were an or­ga­ni­za­tion, a com­pany per­haps, that I could ask... but who... who...?

Here is where 35 years of jour­nal­ism ex­pe­ri­ence comes in.

“I’m a news colum­nist at the Chicago Sun-Times,” I be­gan in my plea to the Coca-Cola Co. “I’m won­der­ing where Fresca is and when it might come back.”

That was June 15 and, of course, elicited noth­ing. So I tried again a week later and, mirabile dictu, re­ceived this re­ply from Erin Russ, man­ager, brand and busi­ness com­mu­ni­ca­tions:

“Given the cur­rent en­vi­ron­ment with COVID-19, we have ex­pe­ri­enced some de­lays in the dis­tri­bu­tion and stock­ing of Fresca prod­ucts in cer­tain lo­ca­tions and stores. That said, pro­duc­tion of the prod­uct has not been stopped, and we’re do­ing ev­ery­thing we can to con­tinue to stock Fresca to meet con­sumer de­mand as quickly as pos­si­ble.”

That is a col­lec­tion of words mak­ing gram­mat­i­cal sense. But what is she ac­tu­ally say­ing? The only new in­for­ma­tion is that they’re still mak­ing the stuff.

I de­cided to press on — an­other key jour­nal­is­tic skill.

“I know Fresca isn’t be­ing stocked, that’s why I wrote to you,” I replied, with a touch of as­per­ity. “The ques­tion is, why? Coca-Cola ob­vi­ously gets through. Is it a mat­ter of fo­cus­ing on core prod­ucts?”

In the mean­time, I tried Diet Squirt, both the soft drink — nowhere near as good as Fresca but at least avail­able for pur­chase — and the com­pany that makes it.

“I’m won­der­ing how Dr Pep­per can keep it in stores while Coke seems unable to,” I asked Katie

Gil­roy, di­rec­tor of cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Keurig Dr Pep­per.

The ques­tion seemed to con­fuse her.

“Can you clar­ify what you are re­fer­ring to . . . ?” she asked, and though I did, care­fully, I never heard from her again. I’m still try­ing to choke back the Squirt I bought.

To my sur­prise, Coke replied to my fol­low-up, Russ writing:

“Dur­ing COVID-19, pro­duc­tion has slowed slightly on a va­ri­ety of prod­ucts in var­i­ous lo­ca­tions, in­clud­ing Fresca, to al­low us to en­sure we could fo­cus pro­duc­tion on meeting the high de­mand of water and other bev­er­ages dur­ing the pan­demic. This was also cou­pled with in­creased de­mand of a va­ri­ety of our prod­ucts, in­clud­ing Fresca, given the pan­demic. We have since re­turned to nor­mal lev­els of Fresca pro­duc­tion and con­sumers should see reg­u­lar lev­els of the prod­uct in mar­ket again soon.”

My wife solved the prob­lem — as she of­ten does — quizzing a bev­er­age de­liv­ery man. He told her there is an alu­minum can short­age due to peo­ple buy­ing six-packs of beer be­cause the bars are closed. De­mand for 12-ounce cans “shot through the roof.”

“It’s some­thing many of us who have worked in the beer in­dus­try for a long time have sim­ply never seen,” a sup­ply chain of­fi­cer for Mol­son Coors told Ger­many’s In­sid­eBeer web­site.

Makes sense. As to why Coke or Dr Pep­per couldn’t come up with that — well, con­sider it a re­minder that those weepy “We’re in it to­gether” TV com­mer­cials are just so much self-serv­ing cor­po­rate pif­fle. In the real world, they can’t even bother to ex­plain why their swill isn’t in stores. My­self, I’ve taken to squeez­ing a lemon in ice water and drink­ing that. Health­ier, far cheaper and tastes good, too.

FRESCA JUST VAN­ISHED FROM STORES IN MARCH. BUT UN­LIKE TOI­LET PA­PER, IT NEVER CAME BACK.

 ?? NEIL STEIN­BERG/SUN-TIMES ?? What’s wrong with this pic­ture? No Fresca. In the soft drink aisle at Sun­set Foods in North­brook, Fresca has been miss­ing for three months. Coke couldn’t really say why.
NEIL STEIN­BERG/SUN-TIMES What’s wrong with this pic­ture? No Fresca. In the soft drink aisle at Sun­set Foods in North­brook, Fresca has been miss­ing for three months. Coke couldn’t really say why.
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