“The plight of the TaB Addict [in Canada]” – by Jennifer Wells

(“The plight of the TaB addict. VICES | The lengths to which some Canadians will go …,” TheStar.com, February 12, 2006 — by Jennifer Wells)

When it comes to vices, ya do what ya gotta do. Even if the vice in question isn’t anything near as illicit as say, crystal meth, but instead is sold over the counter in a pink pop can that recalls the era of Mary Quant, paisley shirts and winkle pickers.

Except it isn’t sold over the counter. Not in Toronto. Not in Ontario. Not in Canada, writ large.

Now if you live in, say, Botswana, you can rest easy that a stash is near at hand. Ditto Lesotho, Mozambique, Iceland, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, and the Virgin Islands (U.S. version). And, of course, the United States, but only in select pockets, which, of course, adds to the brand’s cachet.

If, however, you are a resident of Canada and you are a TaB addict, then you’ve got trouble. You either need to do a run south of the border or you need a mule. Subterfuge may be involved, which seems like a serious commitment when we’re talking about a beverage that tastes like licking a frost fence in summer, but in a good way. (Even some of TaB’s fans say it tastes “metallic,” so it’s not like we’re criticizing. We’re just sayin’.)

The hurtin’ is only going to get worse. This month, Coca-Cola Co. is launching TaB Energy, and it’s making a very big fuss about it, if we may say. The tireless Lindsay Lohan was at the launch party last week. An advertising campaign is set to debut during the Academy Awards in March.

The new beverage comes in a sleeker can of a deeper pink, though it retains the iconic TaB lettering that was very Swinging Sixties — the pop was launched in 1963 — and remains endearingly unchanged. However, and this is a very big however, the new pop is nothing like the stalwart diet cola but is rather a pink, hyper-caffeinated “energy drink” aimed at women and powered with a stout five calories, which is a long way from the “one-calorie beautiful” appeal of the original TaB. Coca-Cola is touting it as the “most anticipated new energy drink launch of 2006.” Oh, but there are no plans to launch the super-charged pop in Canada.

Now how is that supposed to make us feel?

About the original TaB. “It was a big drink, oh yeah,” says David Fenster, a top-ranked real estate agent with Royal LePage. “I loved it. Loved it.” He will not countenance any negative taste assessment. His eyes dance merrily to some far off place as he exults the “sweet” taste, the “soft” taste of his beloved TaB, which, with just a squeeze of lemon and lots of ice… Well, oh my. There is nothing metallic about it, he says. “No, no, no.”

In its heyday, TaB was huge, the biggest. The name does not stand for “totally artificial beverage,” as has been theorized, but rather is a reference to keeping “tabs” on one’s weight. Other names that vied for the honour of being Coke’s first diet beverage: Gaag (a gag, surely) and Flug. In 1985, Coca-Cola sold 70 million cases of the stuff. What happened? “What happened to TaB was Diet Coke,” says John Sicher, editor of Beverage Digest, the U.S. bible of the beverage industry. Diet Coke was launched in ’82, a massive assault on the diet cola market.

But TaB would not die. “You find it in Atlanta, you certainly find it in New York,” says Sicher. “It’s a brand that has a small but loyal following. People remember it fondly. People remember the taste of it.”

“People” have been outed. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Ben McGrath explored the “cult of TaB lovers,” exposing the likes of writer Steven Brill and Air America Radio CEO Danny Goldberg, each of whom keeps a TaB-stocked fridge.

It’s enough to make David Fenster jealous. Even though he is in the throes of a $2-million-plus real estate deal, and even though we’ve held him up in his 2,000-square-foot Annex penthouse condominium with its fabulous wraparound terrace, Fenster takes the time to revisit those days when he was a nursing-home inspector for the provincial government, a job that would take him to the Niagara region, deliciously close to the U.S. border. “I used to leave home at 5 o’clock in the morning,” he says wistfully. He’d head straight to the border crossing and from there straight to the nearest Tops Market in Niagara Falls, NY. “I would pick up eight or 10 boxes of 24 cans,” he says. “I’d swing around and do a loop.” Sort of a border U-ee.

When it came time to leave the government, he had a plan. “I said to them, `I want to make one last trip to the Niagara region.’ I had a government car. I rented the big one, the Grand Marquis. If I’m not mistaken, I had 20 cases of 24. The car was loaded with TaB.”

That was, thinks Fenster, sometime in the late Seventies. The status of TaB in Canada at that time is somewhat murky. The drink, you may remember, was sweetened with saccharin, and saccharin was banned as a food additive in prepared foods and pop by Health Canada in 1977. Coca-Cola subsequently put a marketing push behind TaB in Canada, replacing the saccharin with aspartame. It is not known within the Coke empire when the beverage exited the country altogether. (The use of saccharin as an additive was never banned in the U.S., although manufacturers had to include a health warning on all products beginning in the Seventies after saccharin was found to cause cancer in lab animals. In December 2000, President Bill Clinton relieved manufacturers of the requirement of posting any such warnings.)

This much is clear: After David Fenster became a real estate agent, his strategy changed to Buffalo and TaB pickups at a BJ’s warehouse.

“And then all of a sudden one day I’m in the garage (of his condominium) and there was Alfred taking TaB out of his trunk and I said, `Where’d you get that?'” Ever since, Fenster’s mule has been a Toronto Star editor who brings the stuff back from his trips to the folks in Burlington, Vt.
Fenster doesn’t think much of TaB Energy, which has adopted “Fuel to be fabulous” as its marketing pitch. A very pink website offers visitors an opportunity to create “fashionable social cards,” upon which one may print one’s name, along with one of a series of sayings. “Princess” (comes with a graphic of a diamond ring) and “Mistress of shoes” (comes with a picture of pink pumps) are two.

The old brand, says John Sicher, does resonate, so maybe Coke is on to something.

“It’s an interesting paradoxical idea to use an old brand to launch a new, cutting-edge product.”

Will it work? “I can’t predict the future,” he says. “I was taught that by my grandmother a long time ago.”

Fenster thinks the idea is all wrong.

“They should bring back the classic TaB,” he says. And yes there is longing in his voice. He hasn’t had a fix since Christmas. “It would be a triumph.”

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ILoveTaB.com has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is ilovetab.com endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)

Thanks to Alfred for alerting us to this article!

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