Soda Jerked

Can an Orlando housewife and her lime-flavor soda compete with the big boys of carbonation?

Then she had to find a bottler, which proved to be a frustrating task. "One [industry insider] in Miami told me not to bring it down to Miami," Vaughan says. "He said [other soft drink companies] could go after my product. He said things like, 'They can push your stuff off the shelf.'" It was only after her chemist recommended she call the Miami bottling factory Southeast-Atlantic, and drop his name, that she signed up with a bottler. "But since Southeast-Atlantic distributes RC Cola, they can't distribute [Havana Cola]," Vaughan explains. "They can make it for me, but they can't distribute it."

Havana Cola debuted in Miami this past March at the famous Carnaval Miami. Steve Cabezas, an account executive with Radio Unica, the Spanish-language AM chain that was a festival participant, convinced Vaughan to set up a promotional booth at the Calle Ocho festival. "She doesn't know Miami so she was a bit hesitant," Cabezas remembers. "Our major sponsor was going to be Pepsi, but Pepsi didn't come through. That was my chance to say, 'America, come on down. You're gonna get an immediate response. People are gonna go crazy.' And that was exactly what happened. We had Gloria Estefan's Mi Tierra playing on the speakers and I think we went through 7000 cans. You should have seen the lines. We were giving out Havana Cola T-shirts, too."

Vaughan also crowned Miss Havana Cola at the booth: Lexdiana Ortiz (who happens to be Colombian). "I found a crown at a magic store," Vaughan recounts proudly, "and I made a sash with glitter all over it. She played the part beautifully."

Even after the Calle Ocho triumph, it wasn't easy to find sales outlets in Miami. In March Cabezas arranged for her to work with a small company, R&M Distributors, which has managed to place cans of the beverage in Varadero Market, Tropical Supermarket, and in several Popular Discount store locations. Vaughan herself works a 40-plus-hour week calling on restaurants and stores. She also ships samples to "anybody who calls me who's interested in distributing it anywhere in the United States."

Barnie's Coffee and Tea Company recently agreed to sell Havana Cola. And it will be on the menu at the Latin Quarter, a new Disney World restaurant in Orlando. Other restaurants from Orlando south are also picking up on it. Major supermarkets, though, still don't stock it. Vaughan often encounters refrigerators, shelves, and displays reserved exclusively for Coke or Pepsi.

So Vaughan has resorted to some folksier promotional strategies. For instance, Havana Cola was a featured beverage April 23 to 25 at the revelrous mullet toss, a three-day, dead-fish-throwing contest held every year at the Flora-Bama Lounge near Pensacola. Never mind that Havana Cola hasn't reached many stores in north Florida yet; about 35,000 people showed at the Flora-Bama to pitch fish and drink rum, Havana Cola, and beer.

Watch for the Havana Cola logo, too, on Ron Burkett's racecar, currently competing on the Slim Jim NASCAR circuit. "One of my neighbors is a friend of [Burkett]," Vaughan says. "He takes Havana Colas with him to all these races. I went to one in Lakeland, and I saw my car going by. He's got the logos of Big Daddy's barbecue sauce and Havana Cola on there. These races are in places where I'm not even selling Havana Cola, but it always seems to be real popular."

Vaughan admits she's not a millionaire yet. In fact she's not making any money. "I'm living off my husband's retirement pay," she giggles. But already she and her chemist are working on a diet Havana Cola. And she hopes to come up with a few other soft drinks in different flavors. In a few years, Vaughan figures, she'll take the company public. "I didn't really know what I was getting into," she says, "but I'm figuring it out pretty well."

kathy_glasgow@miaminewtimes.com

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