Most Southern legends were born of anonymity, accident, and, more often than not, dispute. In Columbus, Georgia, in 1905, young Claude A. Hatcher, a pharmacist, was in the throes of one such debate with a local soda bottler. With a signature Southern brand of stubbornness, Hatcher dismissed the soda bottler and intentionally struck out on his own. Intending to create his own brand of the increasingly popular bubbly beverage, Hatcher began bottling operations in the basement of his family’s grocery store. What began as a simple solution to an argument would grow into one of the most eponymous Southern brands of the century.
In that fortuitous basement, Hatcher began brewing Royal Crown Ginger Ale. The delicious ginger drink propelled the brand to quick success. By 1910, Union Bottling Works—the appellation of the growing company—had moved out of the basement and into the capacious and formidable world of big-brand bottling. With their move to the big leagues, Union Bottling Works expanded their line to include Chero-Cola—a nearly instantaneous hit. The new, cherry-flavored beverage was so popular, in fact, that it quickly surpassed the ginger ale in popularity and prompted Hatcher to rename the company to, naturally, the Chero-Cola Company.
With the company’s change in moniker in 1912 came another extension of their products. Chero-Cola Company, rather than restrict bottling to their local plant, began selling their distinctive syrups and flavors to franchised bottlers. This sagacious move by the young company allowed them to increase production substantially without increasing expenditures. The growth of the company and the demand for Chero-Cola set the bottling company up for success over the following decades.
Never one to accept stagnancy or moderate success, Hatcher again pushed his enterprise in 1924 by increasing their lineup to include Melo, a sweet and fruity beverage to please the masses. But the Melo moniker (later claimed by a different bottler) was short-lived for the Chero-Cola Company; when a salesman described the soda bottle as “knee-high,” the new name stuck and Melo became Nehi. Nehi, in a variety of fruit flavors like peach and grape, became a Southern summertime favorite for generations. The initial acclaim for Nehi allowed Chero-Cola Company to expand yet again and by 1925 315 bottling plants were in operation across the South (where the sodas were primarily sold). And just as the company had changed its name following the initial spurt of fandom for Chero-Cola, so did they change it again to reflect the celebrity of Nehi. In 1928, on the cusp of the Great Depression, Chero-Cola Company became Nehi Corporation and was listed on the New York Curb Exchange.
Despite their precarious position on the stock market, the Nehi Corporation continued to thrive through the country’s most harrowing years. In 1934, in fact, the new president of the company (Hatcher only leaving his position with his passing) prompted his chemists with a new task: develop a unique cola named after the bottling company’s first successful draft, Royal Crown. By the end of the year, Nehi Corporation introduced Royal Crown Cola to the public. The rest, as they say, is history.
Like Chero-Cola and Nehi before it, RC Cola quickly gained popularity among the masses. A series of well-planned marketing moves helped Royal Crown establish itself as one of America’s great colas. Celebrity endorsements over the following decades gave the cola lasting power; with the faces of Bing Crosby, Joan Crawford, Lucille Ball, Ronald Reagan, and Shirley Temple plastered across billboards, magazine, and regional printings, the brand was hard to ignore. In 1941, Royal Crown Cola performed its first “Best By Taste Test,” introducing the public to this particular form of marketing (taste testing) more than thirty years before its competitors. In 1959, as precluded by its various name changes in the past, Nehi Corporation became the Royal Crown Cola Company—a name it retains to this day.
Over the decades, RC Cola has achieved many “firsts” in its market; the first company to use aluminum cans, the first to incorporate sixteen-ounce bottles, and the first to introduce a low calorie, caffeine-free alternative to cola with Diet Rite in 1962. Though the RC Cola Co., under various monikers, has always led the way into the future with innovation and change, the company has always invariably held onto its past. In a sense, even RC Cola’s practice and particular brand of innovation has become a tradition. And that is why generations of Southerners have long enjoyed RC Cola—with or without that token Moon Pie.
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