YAKIMA — Those who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, or enjoyed a cold soda then, might remember the “cola wars” between Coca-Cola and Pepsi for the hearts, minds and taste buds of America’s pop drinkers.
Catchy jingles, celebrity endorsements and blind taste tests were among the advertising gimmicks trying to sway soda fans across the nation from one brand to the other.
In local markets such as the Yakima Valley, everything from the tastes of individual business owners to the perks offered by local bottling companies made the difference in cola choice — and still do in 2023.
“It’s personal preference, but it also comes down to what the company can provide,” said Anthony Wade, co-owner of Stop N Go.
The longtime Fruitvale Boulevard burger stand, which dates to 1948, makes its choice of beverage clear with a giant Pepsi-Cola sign along the road.
“Pepsi is really good to us. They’ll help us with advertising and even come switch out the menu board. And they’ve always been good with supplying us (with soft drinks),” Wade said.
He noted that Stop N Go served Pepsi products when his parents, Wilbert and Christine Wade, bought the business in 1994.
“But even before that, we’ve always been a Pepsi family … that’s what we have in our fridge at home,” he added.
Two bottling companies
Bottles, cans and fountain drink versions of Coca-Cola and Pepsi products are provided in the Yakima Valley and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Washington by two companies, both of which are family-owned businesses that have been here for generations.
Both also are involved in community events and sponsorships, such as the illuminated Coca-Cola truck that appears in numerous Christmas light parades, and the Pepsi Pak and Beetles youth baseball teams.
Coca-Cola Bottling Co., led by Bill Dolsen in the third generation of Dolsen family ownership, is headquartered in the northeast corner of Yakima at 607 E. R St. The cursive “Coca-Cola” logo can be seen in red lighting by traffic traveling on Interstate 82, near the famous “Palm Springs of Washington” sign.
Noel Corporation was founded in 1934 by John Noel Sr. and Frank Noel and is the local Pepsi-Cola bottler (among other soft drinks). Located in central Yakima at 1011 S. First St., its headquarters is notable with an illuminated “Pepsi-Cola” bottle cap high atop a pillar along First Street.
While neither company was willing to disclose company secrets such as contract details or market share, both have a roster of businesses offering their soft drinks. Coca-Cola and (especially) Pepsi signage can be seen at convenience stores, restaurants and even schools.
“The Dolsen family and Coca-Cola are proud to serve the Yakima Valley community with our portfolio of beverage offerings,” said Jeff Smith, general manager of Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Yakima.
“While we cannot disclose current sales data, we continue to deliver strong quarterly business results and remain committed to driving growth of our Coca-Cola brands across the region,” Smith added.
In a previous Yakima Herald-Republic story about the company’s expansion, Noel family members and Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of Yakima general manager Mike Trammell said their company is relatively unique in the beverage industry.
Unlike most distributors, Noel Canning purchases concentrate from beverage companies to mix and package drinks. It then ships the bottles and cans to Noel Corp.’s Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. locations in Yakima, Pasco, Walla Walla and other bottlers and distributors throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Because Noel Corp. is independent of Pepsi, it can manufacture and distribute other soft drinks, including 7-Up, Dr Pepper and Squirt.
More than soda
While soft drinks are the products for which Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola are best known, consumer trends and preferences continue to move toward other items such as bottled water, energy drinks and iced tea.
Each local bottling company offers its versions of these drinks. The Dolsen family-owned Coca-Cola Bottling Co. offers “more than 400 beverages in Central and Eastern Washington, with everything from soft drinks to sports drinks to organic teas and premium juices,” the company website states.
Besides the Coca-Cola soft drink brands, that includes PowerAde sports drinks, Monster energy drinks, Minute Maid juices, Dasani and other bottled waters, Dunkin Donuts iced coffee, and Gold Peak and Peace Tea flavored teas.
Noel Corp.’s bottling company offers, besides Pepsi and its other soft drinks, Gatorade sports drinks, Mountain Dew Kickstart energy drinks, Dole fruit juices, Aquafina bottled water, Starbucks iced coffee and Lipton tea products.
A July article in the Beverage Industry trade magazine and on its accompanying website notes that sales of carbonated soft drinks have flattened or declined for several years, with health concerns the main reason for the category’s decline.
Senior industry research analyst Arielle Rose noted that consumers are opting for healthier beverages such as bottled water, flavored water and ready-to-drink teas, which tend to be lower in sugar and calories.
Another trend has been “zero sugar” soda brands sweetened with aspartame, sucralose or stevia. These options include Coke Zero and Pepsi Zero Sugar, with updated recipes and new sweeteners that produce a different taste than Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, Rose stated.
The article also cited a Beverage Marketing Corporation report that showed the top soft drink flavors for U.S. consumers in 2021: Cola (50.4 percent), heavy citrus (11.5 percent), lemon-lime (10.9 percent), “pepper/spicy” drinks like Dr Pepper and Pibb Xtra, formerly Mr. Pibb (11.4 percent), orange (4.6 percent), root beer (3 percent) and others (8.3 percent).
Soft drink projections for 2026 show cola falling slightly below 50 percent, continuing a trend, while “other” flavors such as club soda and seltzer increase from 8.3 to 9 percent, the BMC report states.
The competition for customers between the world’s two largest cola companies dates back to the founding of the Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola companies in the 1890s. Coca-Cola has long been the most-purchased brand nationally and worldwide, but Pepsi made a push in the 1970s and 1980s with its “Pepsi Challenge” and “Pepsi Generation” marketing campaigns.
Typical TV ads featured young, attractive people playing sports, jumping off tire swings into swimming holes and laughing at backyard parties while clutching and drinking ice-cold bottles of Pepsi-Cola.
While it may or may not have been the “choice of a new generation” nationally, the Noel Corp. has run advertisements this year calling Pepsi “Yakima’s Choice Since 1934.”
An extremely unscientific poll of signs during a recent drive around the Yakima Valley seems to support this advertising claim, with Pepsi logos on everything from school signs (including Perry Technical Institute in Yakima) to giant soda cup statues atop businesses (the two Major’s Restaurant locations in Union Gap and Yakima).
While businesses such as New York Teriyaki and Burgers, Burger Ranch and Tammy’s Mexican Restaurant sport the Coca-Cola logos, another argument for Coke will be evident later this month.
Beginning in 2022 and again this year, Coca-Cola beverages are the official soft drink served at the Central Washington State Fair.
“Last year we issued an RFP (request for proposal) for an exclusive carbonated beverage provider and the local Coke-Cola distributor was selected — with Coke products being exclusive at all venues at State Fair Park,” Kathy Kramer, president and CEO of the fair, told the Herald-Republic.
Local franchises of national restaurants typically serve whichever soft drinks have contracts with the corporation. Taco Bell sells Pepsi and Mountain Dew, for example, while McDonald’s has always served Coca-Cola.
So for those who care about which brand of cola accompanies their meal, choices abound across the Yakima Valley.