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Coke smugglers… but not what you think

19 October 2004

From the 7 October Philadelphia Inquirer

A thirst for imported Coke

The Mexican version’s retro recipe is simply better-tasting, fans say.

By Gaiutra Bahadur

Inquirer Staff Writer

It’s nostalgia in a slender-necked, curvy glass bottle.
But this is no throwback to a Rockwellian era of white picket fences and apple pie. In fact, this Coca-Cola signals an edgy new America: one inscribed, like the green-tinted bottle, with the words Hecho en Mexico.

Made in Mexico.

And for sale on Federal Street in Camden – or at almost any of the bodegas and taquerias shooting up across the region and country.

The customers at the city’s San Lucas Restaurant, many of them from the region of Puebla in Mexico, wash down their enchiladas de mole with Cokes made and bottled in their native country rather than the local brew.
“It has a different taste,” owner Adela M. Trinidad, 30, explained in Spanish.

It’s common for immigrants to seek out and buy products shipped from their homelands. For them, brand names such as Chandrika or Jarritos re-create Bombay in a bar of soap or Oaxaca in a fizzy tamarind drink.
But the attachment to Coke, Mexican-style, is another story.

The company is, after all, based in Atlanta. It is so symbolic of Uncle Sam that writer Salman Rushdie famously coaxed its consonants into a word for America’s global dominance in economics and culture: Coca-Colonization.
What’s more, cans and plastic bottles of the soda are a dime a dozen in the United States – or, actually, $7 a dozen. The Mexican Coca-Cola sold by Philadelphia-area distributors costs $10 to $12 a dozen.
Why bother with an import that will cost customers more?

“Because they’re looking for it,” said Camden shopkeeper Juan Medina. “They come and they ask for it.”
The cooler in his corner grocery contains both plastic bottles of Coke, 20-ouncers for $1 each, and the Mexican incarnation, 12-ouncers for $1.35 each.

“They know which tastes better,” Medina said, without swagger, in the same matter-of-fact tone he might use to say:

Mexicans drink more Coke, 487 servings per capita a year, than people in any other nation.

  • Their president, Vicente Fox, was a Coca-Cola executive.
  • The beverage giant began bottling in Mexico in 1927, one of its first global forays.
  • Its bottler there is the second-largest worldwide and has captured 70 percent of the soft-drink market there.

Medina, brand-conscious in his white Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt, leaned against his store counter to say the two versions are just flat-out – diferente.

“The other people, they don’t care. For them, it’s the same brand,” he said. “But the American Coke has more gas inside. It doesn’t taste right.”

That feeling has fueled ever more business for distributor Carlos Romero, owner of Philadelphia’s La Tienda Wholesale. Every week, he trucks about 1,000 bottles of Coca-Cola – twice as many as when he started in 1998 – to retailers in Norristown, Center City, North Philadelphia and elsewhere in Pennsylvania. And his is not a monopoly.

Coca-Cola responds to the trade across the turf lines it has drawn for its bottlers with some head-scratching: “It’s essentially the same product going into the bottle or can,” said spokeswoman Racquel White.

Still, there’s more to favoring the imports than the glow of a flashback to another time and place. Mexican Coke does, usually, have a retro recipe. It uses sucrose made from sugar cane or sugar beets, as Coke once did in the United States and still does now in other parts of Latin America.

This is less and less the case, however. The North American Free Trade Agreement has meant that cans of Coke are cropping up south of the border, and the caffeinated concoction made in Mexico sometimes contains cheaper corn syrup just like its American counterparts.

Even if it uses the same sweetener, the bottled Coca-Cola still hooks believers, including foodies not from Mexico who have discovered it at restaurants.

“Most of them ask for the glass bottles,” said Martin Herrera, owner of Taqueria Veracruzana in South Philadelphia. “They say it’s like the old times in the U.S.”

Contact Gaiutra Bahadur at or 856-779-3923. Inquirer staff writer Joseph A. Gambardello contributed to this article.

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