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Friday, October 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Mexican Coke a hit in U.S.
By Kevin Pang
"It was full this morning," said Mari Rodriguez, a waitress at the restaurant. "It outsells American Coke five to one."
Up and down Chicago's West 26th Street, where ranchera music thumps and street vendors hawk pork rinds called chicharrones from gallon pickle jars, residents take nearly as much pride in their imported Coca-Cola as they do in flying red, white and green national flags.
The neighborhood is one of the nation's largest consumers of Mexican Coke, a sweeter, some say, version shipped north in heavy glass bottles. U.S. Coca-Cola, which does not make money from Mexican Coke, has noticed and is trying to win over cola drinkers in this economically bustling area known as la Villita.
The import typically costs a little more than U.S. Coke, but residents are willing to pay extra to be reminded of home.
"It has a way different taste, better than American Coke," said Tomas Rios, a customer at La Chiquita canteen. He tossed the straw the waitress gave him and gulped down half the bottle.
His lunch companion, Edgar Flores, added, "When I was a baby, my mom used to feed me Coke in a bottle."
Though Coca-Cola is seen as part of the American ethos, it takes on an iconic stature in Mexico.
"A lot of products that Americans think are quintessentially American, Mexicans think are quintessentially Mexican," said Chris Boyer, a professor of history and Latin American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Coke is part of the Mexican cultural landscape."
Last year, Mexico consumed 55.2 billion cans of Coca-Cola products 526 servings of Coke a year for every man, woman and child, making it the largest per capita consumer of soda pop in the world. (Americans consume 414 8-ounce servings per year.)
The brand's influence even reaches into politics: President Vicente Fox once was an executive for Coca-Cola's Mexico division.
But what is so different about Mexican Coca-Cola?
Some describe it as sweeter closer to Pepsi than American Coke because it uses cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup, the sweetener found in the domestic recipe, said Coke spokesman Mart Martin.
There is also the rustic charm. There are no fancy labels or bottle cap promotions with Mexican Coke. The glass bottles have a worn, hand-me-down feel, and they are reused again and again in Mexico. It is a one-way trip for most of the bottles that come to the U.S., however, as they typically are not shipped back to Mexico to be refilled.
The bottles are like coins the date on the label shows how long each has been in circulation. Some bottles date to the 1980s.
Some residents believe it is not just a drink, but a cure-all elixir.
"When you have a stomachache, they give you Coca-Cola with lemon," said Maria Lopez, a clerk at Chicago's Delray Farm supermarket. "And your stomachache, it's gone. I don't know if it's mental or if it's real."
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