Jeff Kloster is a soft drink evangelist, a Pied Piper of pop. He also used to be a “pepper.” Kloster and his family own Dublin Bottling Works, Inc., the soft drink company that was known as Dublin Dr Pepper until Jan. 11.
That was the day the Klosters agreed to sell their rights to the Plano-based Dr Pepper Snapple Group, which had filed a lawsuit claiming the small bottler had violated its licensing agreement by selling beyond its distribution territory and using an unauthorized logo. The settlement ended both a 120-year relationship and Dublin’s run as the state’s iconic — and, for several decades, only — bottler of Dr Pepper made with real cane sugar.
The news surprised people. Calls for a Dr Pepper boycott went out over social media. But six months later, the company lives on. On June 9, Dublin Bottling Works began bottling and selling its own line of fountain drinks — including Vintage Cola, Tart and Sweet Lemonade, Retro-Grape and several others, all, of course, sweetened with Imperial Cane Sugar, which Dublin employees still lug off of pallets, one fifty-pound bag at a time.
“Instead of folding up the tent we said, ‘No, we’re going to keep doing what we do,’” Kloster said on a blazing July day as he hauled cases of soda and “bag in box” syrup into the bed of his Toyota Tundra from an Austin storage space he calls “the South Texas office of Dublin Bottling Works.”
Kloster, who lives in Austin and spends two days a week in Dublin, is like many boutique, restaurant or retail shop owners who chucked an old life (he had practiced law since 1992) for something different and more fun — he just happened to already have a family business to buy into.
His grandfather, W. P. Kloster, known as Bill, started working at Dublin Dr Pepper when he was 14, and in 1991, took over from the family of Sam Houston Prim, the company’s founder. When Jeff Kloster was young, he spent every summer with his grandparents in Dublin. He was inspecting bottles for chips and dirt at twelve, drove a truck for the company in high school and worked there full-time while he attended Tarleton State, located just twelve miles away. Talking about this history, Kloster gets choked up and tearful remembering his grandfather’s work ethic and perfectionism. “He demanded things be done the right way,” he said. “It was a good lesson.”
He also still remembers his grandfather and grandmother fighting over the decision to stick with cane sugar in the late 1970s, when everybody else had given into the more cost-effective high-fructose corn syrup.
“He always said, ‘You know, they’ll figure this out one day, and they’ll come back,’” Kloster said.
His grandfather was right. These days, cane sugar-sweetened soda is in high demand, be it Mountain Dew’s “Throwback” drink, Retro Big Red or the healthy upcropping of boutique sodas. And Austinites appear to have an insatiable appetite for them. The locavore burger shop Wholly Cow carries 3,000 different kinds of soda but has only Dublin on its fountain; Home Slice Pizza, located on tourist drag South Congress Avenue, used to carry Dublin DP and now goes through twenty cases a week of Triple XXX root beer, a Texas-founded soda that Dublin also distributes.
Kloster personally delivers seven to ten cases to Home Slice twice a week. “We’re still a little old school in how we do our business,” he said. Customers call on Monday or Thursday, he writes down their orders on a business card or scrap paper, then shows up the next day, writing up the formal invoice as he delivers.
“It’s kind of a sad thing,” Jeffrey Mettler, general manager of More Home Slice Pizza, said about the end of Dublin Dr Pepper. “But it’s not that sad to see all the things that Jeff is doing to keep his business prospering.”
Kloster still feels strongly that “we were doing what we were authorized to do,” but even if he had fought the lawsuit, there was nothing to stop Dr Pepper from ending the relationship anyway.
“This is a situation that would have made most people stop doing business. We took it on as a challenge,” he said. “You can’t kill this business; we’ve been around a lot longer than they have!”
“And just six months after the settlement, our warehouse is full. Well, it was full two weeks ago. It’s empty again. That’s a good problem to have.”
In the front right corner of Kloster’s storage space, conspicuously, there are some Dr Pepper cans that were made in honor of his grandfather, as well as a single case of the eight-ounce glass Dublin Dr Pepper bottles — his personal reserve.
“I’d be lying if I said I’d never drink another Dr Pepper,” Kloster said. “It’s part of our history. It’s still part of our life.”