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Virus mystery: The case of the missing Fresca

The popular diet soda vanished along with toilet paper. Unlike TP, it hasn’t come back. Why?

Cans of Coke products on a shelf at Sunset Foods in Northbrook.
What’s wrong with this picture? No Fresca. In the soft drinks aisle at Sunset Foods in Northbrook, Fresca has been missing for three months. Coke couldn’t really say why.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

It is not the most pressing question.

Let’s get that said right away.

Among the clamor of impassioned debates and thorny controversies, solving this particular puzzle is not high on anybody’s list. Not even mine, which is why through April, May and the first half of June, I stifled my curiosity, certain that even asking is the definition of privilege.

The world in chaos — sirens screaming through the streets, a raging pandemic, flames of unrest licking the foundations of our deeply racist society, jobs shattered, the helm spinning. Envision a tumultuous landscape, smoke billowing, thick with cops in riot gear battling protesters waving signs, all noise and conflict and commotion.

I raise a finger and clear my throat, “A-hem!,” and it somehow magically falls still and silent. All heads — sweaty, masked, soot-stained — swivel in my direction, and I inquire:

“What happened to Fresca?”

Because I really like Fresca and typically enjoy a can at lunch. Then Fresca just vanished from stores in March. But unlike toilet paper, it never came back, at least not to the Sunset or the Jewel or other stores near me. There must be a reason, right? If only there were an organization, a company perhaps, that I could ask . . . but who . . . who . . . ?

Here is where 35 years of journalist experience comes in.

“I’m a news columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times,” I began in my plea to the Coca-Cola Co. “I’m wondering where Fresca is and when it might come back.”

That was June 15 and, of course, elicited nothing. So I tried again a week later and, mirabile dictu, received this reply from Erin Russ, manager, brand and business communications:

“Given the current environment with COVID-19, we have experienced some delays in the distribution and stocking of Fresca products in certain locations and stores. That said, production of the product has not been stopped, and we’re doing everything we can to continue to stock Fresca to meet consumer demand as quickly as possible.”

That is a collection of words making grammatical sense. But what is she actually saying? The only new information is that they’re still making the stuff.

I decided to press on — another key journalistic skill.

“I know Fresca isn’t being stocked, that’s why I wrote to you,” I replied, with a touch of asperity. “The question is, why? Coca-Cola obviously gets through. Is it a matter of focusing on core products?”

In the meantime, I tried Diet Squirt, both the soft drink — nowhere near as good as Fresca, but at least available for purchase — and the company that makes it.

“I’m wondering how Dr Pepper can keep it in stores while Coke seems unable to,” I asked Katie Gilroy, director of corporate communications at Keurig Dr Pepper.

The question seemed to confuse her.

“Can you clarify what you are referring to . . . ?” she asked, and though I did, carefully, I never heard from her again. I’m still trying to choke back the Squirt I bought.

To my surprise, Coke replied to my follow-up, Russ writing:

”During COVID-19, production has slowed slightly on a variety of products in various locations, including Fresca, to allow us to ensure we could focus production on meeting the high demand of water and other beverages during the pandemic. This was also coupled with increased demand of a variety of our products, including Fresca, given the pandemic. We have since returned to normal levels of Fresca production and consumers should see regular levels of the product in market again soon.”

My wife solved the problem — as she often does — quizzing a beverage delivery man. He told her there is an aluminum can shortage due to people buying six-packs of beer because the bars are closed. Demand for 12-ounce cans “shot through the roof.”

“It’s something many of us who have worked in the beer industry for a long time have simply never seen,” a supply chain officer for Molson Coors told Germany’s InsideBeer website.

Makes sense. As to why Coke or Dr Pepper couldn’t come up with that — well, consider it a reminder that those weepy “We’re in it together” TV commercials are just so much self-serving corporate piffle. In the real world, they can’t even bother to explain why their swill isn’t in stores. Myself, I’ve taken to squeezing a lemon in ice water and drinking that. Healthier, far cheaper and tastes good, too.