Seeing Red

THIRTEEN YEARS AGO, I WROTE AN ode to Big Red, the made-in-Texas original soda pop that tastes like liquid bubble gum. It has become the story that won’t die, thanks to prominent placement on Texas Monthly’s Web site, texasmonthly.com. Every few months, readers query the magazine, establishing that they’re Texans stuck in some faraway place, missing home and especially missing Big Red. And they can’t find it anywhere.

I feel their pain. I’ve been in exile before and grew to miss stuff like Shiner Bock, Talk O’ Texas okra pickles, Chic-O-Stix, and for sure Big Red. No other red soda water would do. My appreciation of Big Red has grown as many other Texas icons like Lone Star and Pearl have been absorbed by multinational conglomerates. The soda water industry may be little different from the brewing industry, but somehow, some way, Big Red remains a small privately held business based in Waco. Dr Pepper has been bought out, Tex-A-Cola has come and gone, but Big Red is still here and, if my powers of observation aren’t failing me, growing in stature. I realized the magnetic appeal of Red #40 mixed with a secret blend of orange and lemon oils firsthand a few years back, when I demonstrated on the CBS This Morning show how to eat barbecue at Kreuz Market in Lockhart. I chomped some brisket, downed a jalapeño, and topped it off with a swig of Big Red. That prompted an off-the-cuff response from the beautiful and charming cohost Paula Zahn, now a tough-cookie anchor on CNN. She grabbed me and planted a big kiss on my lips—no lie—all because of Big Red. The Big Red folks even tracked me down. Evidently, following my appearance, they’d gotten a fair amount of phone calls from fans across the U.S. I informed them of the unbridled passion that Big Red inspired.

Just the other day, I was thumbing through a slick magazine with sumptuous photographs of food. One image of Texas barbecue showed a longneck bottle of Big Red, right in the middle of slices of brisket, round links of sausage, and a rack of ribs, implying that Big Red was as much a part of the authentic Texas barbecue experience as smoked meats (it really is).

So I decided to stop by Big Red world headquarters and check up on things. The place with the brick facade and the sign out front that reads “Big Red Inc. Extracts Flavors” could be dismissed as unremarkable like the rest of the industrial park surrounding it, if it weren’t for the distinctive scent of bubble gum wafting in the air. I was escorted into the office of Marc Fowler, the executive vice president and chief operating officer, where we were joined by the chief executive officer and president, Donal Sharp (Mr. Big Red). We talked about the state of the beverage business and where Big Red fits into the big picture.

Big Red’s territory depends on partnerships the company makes with local bottling companies around the country. The home office supplies the flavoring concentrate. The bottler makes and packages the soda pop. The drink remains extremely popular in Texas, where it retains particularly strong blue collar and “ethnic” followings. In San Antonio, it is variously referred to as East Side champagne and West Side champagne. Statewide, Big Red is strengthening its market position in Dallas and gaining a toehold in El Paso. Nationally, the drink is in 43 states, and it established beachheads last year in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and upper Michigan. Big Red has been in Florida and Southern California for four years now. The only part of the U.S. not on the Big Red bandwagon is the Atlantic coast. Sharp says the company is contemplating expanding into Mexico and Central America, but for now, the only foreign country where Big Red is readily available is Tahiti (it’s a long, complicated story).

Competition is relentless, Fowler and Sharp report, especially from industry giant Coca-Cola, which promotes its Red Flash brand, a product that in my opinion is inferior to the real deal. Sharp says if Judgment Day rolls around, he’s not sure if even then the secret recipe merits being revealed. The Nesbitt’s and NuGrape brands were added to the Big Red roster three years ago. Both Fowler and Sharp drink Diet Big Red, which is the fastest growing brand in the family. Big Red purists should drive to Dublin, Texas, where like Dr Pepper, the soda is still sweetened with Imperial Pure Cane Sugar instead of corn syrup. Joining the late Sir Doug Sahm and John Cougar Mellencamp in the Big Red celebrity circle of honor is Karl Malone, the National Basketball Association legend who plays for the Utah Jazz. Malone, who runs a trucking company in the off-season, developed his taste for Big Red growing up in Louisiana.

We think as long as we’re doing the things we’re doing—continuing to grow the business—the potential for this brand is tremendous,” Sharp says. Fowler agrees that the future looks bright, especially at home. “Our per capita market share is stronger in South Texas than it is in North Texas, but there’s no reason we can’t raise our per capita consumption to at least the level of Southern Indiana and Kentucky [which, next to South Texas, is the heaviest Big Red drinking market in the nation].” As often as Big Red leaves that shiny red gloss on my lips after I finish a bottle or a can, I’m inclined to believe him.

Fowler says the company has resisted putting up a Web site because it is not set up to ship Big Red. (Ifs Ands & Butts soda shop in Dallas does do mail order for $10.95 a six pack plus shipping; 888-712-8887; ifsandsbutts.com.) Still, the home office in Waco gets cards, letters, and calls. “I remember this girl called from Florida,” Sharp says. “She said she was originally from Kentucky but that she was pregnant in Florida and addicted to Big Red and couldn’t find

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