Fans have a soft spot for old soft drink–A soda with a following

(“Fans have a soft spot for old soft drink–A Soda with a Following,”, September 19, 2005, — by Elizabeth Cohen)

Sometimes Broome County runs dry. When it does, Tammy Kocak scrambles. “Recently we drove to Scranton, to check out the Wegmans there,” said the Binghamton office administrator, 43, speaking of one recent shortage. “If I locate a place that has some stock, I’m tempted to buy it all up.”

Tammy Kocak of Binghamton works as an assistant to Broome County Executive Barbara Fiala. Kocak admits to drinking two cases of TaB a week.

If all else fails, she’ll buy it off the Internet. “You know, you’ve got a problem,” her husband has been known to say, as she maneuvers a couple cases in a shopping cart across a parking lot.

“I know,” she says.

Kocak’s not talking about beer, wine or booze — it’s TaB that she can’t live without, that 1960s-era diet soda with those ’60s graphics and that ’60s nostalgic appeal. The logo hasn’t changed, the can hasn’t changed and Kocak’s taste for it hasn’t changed — in more than 30 years.

“While it isn’t one of our biggest sellers, TaB continues to have a small but passionate following of dedicated fans in different parts of the country, for no apparent rhyme or reason,” said Scott Williamson, spokesman for Coca-Cola, which makes TaB.

Popular snack foods and beverages have a way of going the way of the dinosaur. Remember, if you can, Wispas, Spangles or Space Sticks? Popular in their day, they all have followed the T-Rex and dodo bird into obsolescence. Those that don’t disappear entirely, like the beverages TaB and Fresca, bubble along below the junk food radar, forgotten by most — except their devoted few and the occasional new convert.

“We at Coca-Cola think there is a new generation who are drinking TaB for its retro appeal,” Williamson said.

The pink-canned drink is often seen in the hands of the characters on That ’70s Show.

Considered the gateway drink to diet colas, TaB first hit the market in 1963 In its heyday (“How can one calorie taste so good?” piped the ad) it was huge — the fifth most popular soft drink in the United States. In 1983 almost 237 million cases were sold. In 2002 that number had plummeted to 3.8 million cases, about a 98 percent drop over 20 years. Still, it defies extinction, perhaps because of consumer tastes of those like Kocak, who can’t seem to live without it. They remain faithful to the soda that has now, in 2005, all but fizzled away.

Obsessed might be a better word.

“I drink two cases a week – it is about the only beverage I consume besides water,” she said.

Tabulate that and you get 104 cases a year. “I must have a stomach of iron,” she said of her TaB habit (could you call that a “tabit”?).

Her co-workers say they constantly hear the sound of TaB cans popping open in her office, where the empties are stacked and piled. “Right now I’ve got a few empty cans behind me, and the one I am drinking right here on my desk.”

There is pretty much always “one she is drinking.”

Find the vendors

TaB drinkers are a unique cadre of sodaphiles. Typically, they started in on TaB back in the happening ’60s and ’70s. They sometimes call themselves TaBaholics, TaBies, TaB-heads and assorted other nicknames. They have Web sites — such as And, yes, they are aware theirs is an odd beverage habit.

“I drank TaB as a young girl,” said Denise Mathewson, a Broome County social worker who calls TaB her “beverage of choice.” For a while she strayed, sipping Diet Pepsi and Pepsi Light instead. But after the birth of her first son, she discovered TaB on sale near her Vestal home, got back in the TaB groove and hasn’t stopped. “Since most restaurants don’t offer TaB, I take it with me when we eat out, and even to people’s homes when we visit,” she said. “I am constantly teased about it.”

The teasing is part of the TaB experience. Aficionados get used to the jeering. “Whenever I walk into work with my six-pack of TaB, someone on the elevator makes a comment,” Kocak said. “They say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize they still made that stuff.'”

TaB drinkers would rather people not know. “I don’t want to spread it around that you can still get it or where I am getting it, because I don’t need any more competition for the few cases around for sale,” said Kathi Cook of Binghamton, who has been drinking TaB since she was 15. “The other day I ran into someone else — another TaB drinker — at the market. We talked a little bit and then agreed to split the eight six-packs on sale.”

Strange brew

The taste, agree many, isn’t exactly good. It is just what it is. Not sugary-sweet, not bitter, not sour, not dry, not quite delicious. “Maybe it’s that TaB aftertaste,” surmised Cook, who has a single can a day in the morning, instead of coffee. “It’s my morning beverage,” she said.

“There’s just something indescribable I like about it; I’ve got to have it,” said Terri Stilwell, a 25 year-plus drinker in Johnson City.

Over the years, the basic recipe of the Coca-Cola company’s first diet soft drink has changed little. Early on it contained cyclamates, a sugar substitute eventually banned in 1969. A small amount of sugar was added until a saccharin-aspartame version was marketed in 1984.

A few TaB experiments included: Root Beer TaB, Orange TaB, Black Cherry TaB and TaB with calcium, all launched in the mid-1980s and later discontinued, in the words of David Aaker, a consumer analyst, “because of the disagreeable taste.”

“TaB Clear” was brought out in 1992 and was an immediate and horrendous flop.

Urban TaB Legend

The soft drink actually has its own mythology. For example, it was rumored that the name TaB was an acronym for “totally artificial beverage.” In fact, the name was meant to signify, at the height of the diet-crazed ’70s, that it was a way to “keep tabs” on your weight.

When Diet Coke was launched, many TaB drinkers feared that the final nail had been hammered into their soft drink’s coffin. Interestingly, the company has continued to produce the drink, apparently to appease TaB loyalists such as Ben Gardiner of Windsor. “My wife and I love TaB and drink it whenever we can find it,” he said. In fact, he said, most of the guys on his National Guard unit are into it, too.

“I’ve actually made some enemies because of TaB,” Stilwell said. “At the Giant grocery store, I constantly call the managers when they run out. I am relentless.”

“We are always flattered when one of our products achieves iconic status,” Williamson said of the dated diet drink that chugs on, in an industry that is always onto something bigger and better and new. This month the company launched Coca-Cola Zero, a new no-calorie soda.

“Sometimes you just want a drink you are used to, that you know,” said Stilwell. “OK, I admit it, I’m an addict.”

Thanks Mike

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