Dublin Dr Pepper’s Last Obit
A twelve-ounce oral history of the long-awaited documentary, ”Bottled Up: The Battle Over Dublin Dr Pepper.”
As every Texan knows, on January 11, 2012, Dublin Dr Pepper ceased to exist. The state’s first bottler of our most beloved soft drink was best known in recent years for sticking with the original, Imperial cane sugar–sweetened formula long after the parent company had switched to high-fructose corn syrup, and long before it came back into vogue with corporate “throwbacks.”
Dublin Bottling Works, as it was first known in the 1890’s (and as it is called again today), was the original small-batch natural soda company. Its 6-county, 44-square-mile distribution area was based on how far a salesman’s horse could travel in a day. That geographic limitation, along with the real sugar, eventually gave Dublin Dr Pepper “bootleg” status, with people selling bottles out of the back of cars and pickups, and retailers from other counties driving up to purchase cases on the sly.
Dublin itself produced only fountain syrup and refillable, twelve-ounce bottles (the true cultist’s delight); cans and eight-ounce bottles of “Dublin Dr Pepper” were produced in Temple and became more widely distributed, including via mail order. But after years of giving Dublin their tacit and, in some cases, explicit, blessing, the Plano-based Dr Pepper Snapple Group filed a trademark lawsuit on June 30, 2011, demanding that the smaller company cease using the term “Dublin Dr Pepper” and stop selling soda outside their contractual region.
Six months later, the two sides settled, putting Dublin out of the Dr Pepper business. The company now has its own line of cane-sugar sweetened sodas, while DPS still sells “Dr Pepper Made With Imperial Cane Sugar.” A visit to DublinDrPepper.com displays the logos of both companies.
Now comes Bottled Up: The Battle Over Dublin Dr Pepper, a feature-length documentary about the history of Dublin Dr Pepper, the lawsuit, and its aftermath. It was made by Dallas-based director Drew Rist, who produces and directs video for the city of Rowlett, and producer Don Merritt, a longtime film and TV freelancer. The two men and their company, Spittin’ Image Films, were previously best known for the award-winning horror short Jasper. I talked to Rist and Merritt about how the movie came to be.
(Full disclosure: Texas Monthly’s Bucket List, which had “Sip a Dublin Dr Pepper” at number ten, is in the film.)
A LUCKY BREAK(DOWN)
Rist and Merritt hadn’t planned to make a Dublin Dr Pepper movie. Their intent was to shoot a series of short films, possibly for public television, about different Texas companies and places.
Don Merritt: We were just, on spec, going to shoot small Texas towns that have kind of erupted into big businesses. We were thinking of Shiner, and Brenham, which has Blue Bell. And Dublin, of course. And that was the closest one [to Dallas]. Me and a good friend used to make trips there all the time. There’s an awesome chicken-fried steak place in Strawn—Mary’s—and then we’d go 45 minutes south to Dublin to sit in that soda shop and have them make you a Dr Pepper from the fountain—I don’t think I’ve ever had a better soft drink experience.
On the January day they went down to shoot footage of refillable Dr Pepper bottles coming off the Dublin line, a piece of the equipment failed.
Merritt: So we decided to go back out there, on what wound up being the day that it all went down.
Drew Rist: Everybody knew about the legal battle. But nobody knew the settlement was coming down when it did. That was actually the last run of Dublin Dr Pepper ever made.
Merritt: That’s when I met [Dublin Dr Pepper vice president] Jeff [Kloster]. I said, “Hey, we’re here. We’re a camera crew. We weren’t here to do this, but would you mind talking to us?” It kind of fell into our laps, honestly.
Rist: I called up my job and took off from work so I could hang out there for a day or two.
The camera was there to capture Dublin employees covering up “Dr Pepper” logos with duct tape and to see the corporate truck arrive to haul off all the inventory.
THE CASE OF THE $15,000 CASE OF DR PEPPER
Another thing they got out of being there that day? Some of the last cases of Dublin Dr Pepper. The film’s IndieGoGo campaign even offered one for $15,000 (along with an executive producer credit). There were no takers, but the soda still helped finance the movie.
Merritt: It went a long way, believe it or not. I got a lens we needed for the doc—there’s some slow-motion footage—and that’s like a $7,500-a-day camera package. I know the guy that owns the camera and I know the guy that runs the camera, so I was able to get that for a few hours, for a case of Dublin Dr Pepper and $37 worth of Whataburger.
Rist: Our voiceover guy, Danny Balis, from the [radio station] the Ticket, we gave him some Dublins and promised deferred payment. The Dublins helped seal the deal.
Of course, they also drank some of the stuff themselves.
Rist: I was trying out all the different kinds of Dr Peppers. Like the Frosty Pepper, which is with ice cream. I tried a hot Dr Pepper, which was probably my least favorite. Dr Pepper with peanuts. We’d make a big deal of it whenever we’d bust open a Dublin Dr Pepper while we were filming, to remind us what it tasted like.
Merritt: I have a case left. The taste is altered at this point, which I was a little surprised by. I thought that they would last a long time. They’ve only got a ten-month shelf life.
LIFE ON A LOW BUDGET
While much of the film is focused on the Kloster family and Dublin’s fans, beverage consultant Tom Pirko is the most ardent defender of Dr Pepper Snapple who doesn’t actually work for Dr Pepper Snapple.
“If anybody was in the wrong here, it was Dublin Dr Pepper,” he says in the film. “Everything they’re suffering now is a self-inflicted wound . . . . If there’s a good guy here, it’s Dr Pepper Snapple.”
Rist: It was a great counterpoint. We lucked out because our DP was doing a job in California, a couple of hours away from where he lives.
Merritt: I certainly didn’t have the money to fly out there. That interview was all done on speakerphone.
The movie had been all but done for months when Dr Pepper Snapple finally agreed to make a representative available.
Merritt: I didn’t want to do the doc where we didn’t have their viewpoint. We weren’t doing this Roger and Me, “let’s show up at a board meeting” approach. I started talking to their head of communications, and we did an interview [at the Dr Pepper Museum] in Waco—they put in a good word for us. It was a good five months between discussing it and them sitting down to do it, and we didn’t know who we’d be interviewing until we showed up that day.
They’d asked for Dr Pepper Snapple CEO Larry Young (who had once publicly praised Dublin Dr Pepper) but got executive vice president and general counsel Jim Baldwin, who stayed very much on point, calling the settlement a “win-win” and saying he couldn’t personally taste the difference between HFCS Dr Pepper and can sugar Dr Pepper.
Merrit: He was definitely a good person to talk to, but it wasn’t Larry Young.
WHAT DUBLIN BOTTLING WORKS’ JANUARY 11, 2012, PRESS RELEASE SAID
“‘We want to thank our many customers for their support of our family-owned business during the past 120 years, and we want them to know that Dr Pepper is still a big part of Dublin,’ says Dublin Bottling Works vice president Jeff Kloster in a statement. ‘We hope customers will continue to visit our town, the W.P. Kloster Museum and Old Doc’s Soda Shop, where they can still enjoy Dr Pepper sweetened with cane sugar.’ To which Rodger L. Collins, president of Packaged Beverages for Dr Pepper Snapple Group, adds this: ‘Our main focus has always been on protecting the strength and integrity of the Dr Pepper trademark. We’re pleased to reach an agreement that accomplishes that while also preserving the history and the special relationship Dr Pepper has with the Dublin community.’”
“DPS will continue to support the popular ‘Dr Pepper, Texas’ celebration as well as related ‘10-2-4k’ run held each June in Dublin.”
WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED FIVE MONTHS LATER
While most of Texas rallied around Dublin, blaming Dr Pepper Snapple for flexing their legal muscle, some people in town blamed the local company for not fighting longer.
Merritt: Yeah, they did. They blamed the Kloster family for settling. For “taking the money.” The Klosters just spent so much money fighting legal battles, there’s no way they could have kept up the fight and kept Dublin Dr Pepper going at the same time. I think they got the settlement at just the right time, before it all went bad—where they didn’t get any money and would have had to close down [the bottling line and soda shop] and close the museum down. It turned out okay for them, for being able to keep the museum and all that, with the Dr Pepper heritage still going.
Dr Pepper had offered to buy Dublin outright, but that would have left the Klosters with no business at all. Jeff Kloster and his father, Bill, were also not willing to give up the years and years of artifacts that Bill’s father, W.P. Kloster, had accumulated since he began working for the company at the age of fourteen, in 1932 (it wasn’t until 1991 that W.P. formally took over the company from the heirs of founder Sam Houston Prim).
Drew: I can truly see both sides. I hate to say it, but the Klosters maybe could have been a little more—they didn’t budge at all, they stuck to their guns.
Don Merritt: I don’t know man. What would you do, if a $7 billion company is coming after you? I just don’t know.
By the time the annual “Dr Pepper, Texas” celebration, always the town’s biggest tourist draw, came around on June 9, it was called something else. Dublin Bottling Works had launched its own sodas and, despite what the press release had said, was celebrating its 121st birthday without any Dr Pepper branding.
But, in a twist that felt like something out of a Christopher Guest movie, Dr Pepper along with some other folks in Dublin had their own ideas.
Merritt: That birthday went the complete opposite of what we thought. We had hoped that we would be there for that birthday, and that it would be packed, and it was the opposite, which we showed.
Rist: We tried to make the structure like a feature film. We kept on hoping that a third act would appear, and luckily it did.
Overall, the crowds were sparse. But the local newspaper, the Dublin Citizen, changed its front page to the Dr Pepper Citizen, infuriating Kloster. The local Lions Club accepted sponsorship from Dr Pepper Snapple for the 10-2-4 run. And there were free samples of non-Dublin cane sugar Dr Pepper, in the same green color Dublin Bottling Works has always favored. Anyone who brought one into Dublin’s Old Doc’s Soda Shop could trade it for one of the Bottling Works’ sodas.
Rist: Major drama going on. Like I said, we lucked out as filmmakers when Dr Pepper showed up in town. There were rumors flying around: “There’s going to be pranks, somebody’s going to vandalize the Dr Pepper truck.”
THE SMOKING CAKE MIX
Another moment of drama comes when an anonymous “Deep Throat” gives Jeff Kloster a tip, which the film captures on speakerphone, using a disguised voice. The caller says the real reason Dublin got shut down was because of a local resident’s cake mix, which used the “Dublin Dr Pepper” brand—a licensing and trademark slippery slope.
Merritt: The person that it came from and the person that they heard it from, it was all high-end people. It was not hearsay, by any means. It was one degree of separation.
After the movie wrapped, Jeff Kloster, who spent much of 2012 working tirelessly to relaunch the family company (after spending much of 2011 on the lawsuit), suffered a stroke. The filmmakers chose to leave that out of the finished movie.
Drew Rist: We had to battle with that one. It would have been so one-sided, and a little exploitative. It just didn’t feel right.
Dublin Bottling Works’ sodas are still available, but Dublin itself is struggling. Imagine if Lockhart lost all its barbecue joints. That’s what it’s been like for Dublin without Dr Pepper, even though the Bottling Works and the museum are still around.
Rist: I’ve seen the number a couple of different places, that 70,000 visitors used to travel there to see the Dr Pepper plant. We stopped filming about a year ago, maybe, and it was getting worse by the day. I went there for the last birthday party [in 2013] and it was even more unpopulated. Especially the downtown area.
Merritt: I don’t think that thing [the birthday celebration] is even going on anymore.
BOYCOTT DR PEPPER?
Much of the social media anger at Dr Pepper Snapple has dissipated with the passing of time, though the movie could revive those feelings.
As filmmakers, Merritt and Rist tried to stay objective. As Dr Pepper drinkers, one is more emotional than the other.
Merritt: You know what? I honestly don’t think I have bought a Dr Pepper. In the very rare exception where I’m at, like, a sandwich place and it’s five choices of something I don’t want, I might. I haven’t had many. I guarantee it’s less than six, since that’s all gone down.
Drew: It’s still awesome. I can’t turn my back on it. The things that happened are very unfortunate, but the drink—yeah, it’s still good.
The film gives a broad, almost Ken Burns-like taste of the many historical artifacts Dublin Bottling Works has, both in its W.P. Kloster Museum and in multiple storage buildings. Among them is the original handwritten map defining the company’s distribution area. Dublin essentially worked off that original contract for 120 years.
Rist: For that to stand up for so many years, to me that kind of shows the trust that corporate had in them. When you talk to the Klosters, they’d talk about the relationship they had with different people at Dr Pepper.
Merritt: We daydream that maybe they would somehow meet up with Dr Pepper again.
Rist: It’s totally a dream. That if enough people saw the movie and there was a demand great enough, it would be really cool if corporate and Dublin would somehow work together to produce Dublin Dr Pepper again and create some kind of national campaign. But I don’t think that will ever happen.
Merritt: I don’t have a good sense of how [Dublin Bottling Works] is doing. All the stuff’s really good. I see it everywhere. But I don’t know how you replace $7 million a year in Dr Pepper inventory. So another goal would be, people start buying their drinks, they realize they’re not closed, they go check out Dublin and the soda shop. How often can you say something’s been around for 120 years?
Rist: It would be great if people would go to Dublin and try out their soda and support the business. Because the new sodas are all great. It’s just not Dr Pepper.