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RC Cola's Sweet Success
Local bottler wins with loyalty, brand diversity

By Dan Shaw, Courier & Press - April 20, 2009

Although Evansville shares many things with cities of similar size, few of its peers can boast a local bottling plant.

“It’s becoming less and less common,” said Nancy Hodge, Royal Crown Bottling Corp. president. “As you look, there are fewer producing plants for the RC brands or for any of the other carbonated drinks. The bigger the plant, the more efficient you can be.”

Keeping the Royal Crown Bottling Corp. here was no easy task, says Leo King, Hodge’s father and general manager of the plant for decades. Over time, King had to find ways to stay abreast of competitors when most of the advantages were going to the side of the bigger companies. Yet as important as those changes were, others tend to stick in King’s mind.

One of his least fond memories came from the government’s ban of cyclamate, an artificial sweetener. The RC plant had gained a great advantage by being the first in Evansville to introduce a diet soda.

Diet Rite had helped to distinguish King’s operation from other local plants, which at one time had numbered as many as eight.

“We had it before any competition came out,” King said. “That gave us a big boost.”

But then came research suggesting cyclamate, Diet Rite’s sweetener, caused cancer in rats. The Food & Drug Administration banned the substance in 1969.

According to some reports, a person would have to drink more than 300 cans of Diet Rite a day to heighten his risk. Still, King took the order seriously.

Within a week, the Royal Crown Bottling Corp. had taken back all of its products containing cyclamate. Other bottlers, in contrast, waited toward the end of the 21/2 month period allowed for the recall.

A replacement was found in saccharine. King thought it inferior but was glad to have something.

“That was an anxious time,” King said.

Another hardship came when the company’s original plant, on Diamond Avenue, burned in 1966.

King’s business partner recently had died, forcing King to not only go it alone but to do so at a new location. He chose a site off South Kentucky Avenue, where the plant stands to this day.

King’s start in the business had come years before, during World War II, when many older workers were fighting overseas. He worked at the Nehi Bottling Plant in his hometown of Henderson, Ky. The plant produced RC Cola and a variety of flavored soft drinks under the Nehi brand.

After college and service in the Army, he returned to the Henderson plant for a short time and then, in 1958, became a general manager of the Royal Crown Bottling Corp. in Evansville.

“He was getting married and needed more of a job,” said Nancy Hodge, King’s daughter and current company president.

King soon found his new employers were also short on money and in need of a way to distinguish themselves. The opportunity came with the introduction of the 16-ounce bottle.

“That helped us quite a bit,” King said. “Coke and Pepsi were several years behind us.”

Jeff Cioletti, the editor-in-chief of Beverage World magazine, said King is also noteworthy for his early use of 24-pack cubes. It was for those and other innovations that King was inducted into the magazine’s Soft Drink Hall of Fame last year.

“For an independent bottler, that was a very shrewd business decision,” Cioletti said. “He has always been very forward-thinking.”

At one time, the local competition had been strong indeed. About 14 bottling plants were within an hour of Evansville, Hodge said.

The U.S. as a whole contained nearly 9,000 bottling operations, according to King’s estimates. A single plant, he explained, could only bottle enough soft drinks to supply customers within a small area.

The decline in the number of bottlers was chiefly brought about by an increase in the rate of production. Evansville alone contained plants for Coke, Pepsi, 7UP, Dr Pepper, Canada Dry, Ski, Double Cola, RC and a line of flavors called Vogel. Each would bring in soft-drink concentrate and mix it with carbonated water before packaging it — the same method used today.

But with time came improvements to machinery and a greater reliance on automation. Fewer plants were needed and many soft-drink makers moved to cities such as St. Louis or Louisville.

The reasons for the consolidation show up in the Royal Crown Bottling Corp.’s history. When King started, his machines could fill 23 bottles a minute. Now it’s about 500 bottles a minute. Cans are filled at a rate of 1,100 a minute.

King said there were many reasons he fought to keep his business through those years. Perhaps most important among them was loyalty to the employees, many of whom had worked for the company nearly as long as he. To this day, the turnover rate is fairly low. The average length of employment is about 17 years.

“A lot of them have not worked anywhere else,” Hodge said. “We have a knowledgable, adaptable and loyal group of employees that have made our growth and success possible.”

Through acquisitions, the Royal Crown Bottling Corp. continued to add to its capacity. In 1971, King bought the Canada Dry plant in Evansville. Next came bottling operations in Paducah, Ky., Carmi, Ill., and Vincennes. About a decade later, he added four: in Marion, Ind.; Terre Haute; Beaver Dam, Ky.; and Bowling Green, Ky.

The bottling plant has expanded accordingly, from 25,000 square feet to 150,000 square feet today. With it and seven warehouses, the company distributes products as far away as 170 miles.

Contracts with soft drink makers give the company exclusive rights to sell its wares within certain parts of the Tri-State.

Apart from the need for more and faster equipment, the plant’s expansion has been driven by variations on old drinks. Some have resulted from new ownership of the RC brand, now part of the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, based in Plano, Texas. New products include anitoxidant Cherry 7UP and Sunkist Lemonade.

The wide array has in turn led to changes in the way the company conducts sales. In the past, a delivery truck would carry an assortment of soft drinks, from which store owners could select what they wanted.

Predicting what customers will want has become impossible, though. So since 1988 the bottling plant has used a presales method, in which products are usually delivered the day after a sales order is taken.

The company now churns out about 250 products, among them RC, Diet Rite, Ski, Sunkist, 7UP, Canada Dry, Big Red, A&W, Sunkist, Country Time, Sundrop and Welch’s Grape. It distributes but doesn’t produce nearly 150 others.

“We are considered a small plant to our competitors in bigger cities,” Hodge said. “It’s always a challenge to keep our plant efficient. We do that by continuous capital investment and, most importantly, having a knowledgeable and dedicated workforce.”