DUBLIN — This was a town in love with its hometown sweetheart, the famous "Dublin Dr Pepper," made with real cane sugar. Now the drink and the love are gone, and the townsfolk feel jilted.
The Dublin Dr Pepper Bottling Co. announced this week it would no longer make or distribute any Dr Pepper products after settling a licensing lawsuit with Plano-based Dr Pepper Snapple Group and selling its franchise to the corporation.
By noon Thursday, the day after the buyout was announced, the soda shop sold the last of its distinctive Dr Pepper bottles to a horde of visitors. Meanwhile, the town mourned and seethed.
The Dublin Chamber of Commerce draped black cloth over its Dr Pepper clock. At the Three Sisters gift shop on South Patrick Street, the owner cleaned Dr Pepper products out of her refrigerator and stacked them on a table outside with the sign: "We will no longer drink Dr Pepper products! Help yourself!"
"I don't know if people realize how devastating this is to Dublin," Three Sisters owner Lisa Leatherwood said. "It's devastating for the people who worked there. It's kind of like when you get the news someone has been killed. It's just disbelief. . . . I'm not going to say Dublin is over with -- there's too many great people here -- but it's a huge loss."
With the buyout, Dublin loses its claim to have the oldest Dr Pepper bottling company in the world, one that remains in the same building it started in 121 years ago.
The family-owned firm, now known as the Dublin Bottling Co., will continue bottling and distributing other lesser-known soft drinks and running its museum and soda shop, which are dedicated largely to Dr Pepper lore.
The Dr Pepper Snapple Group had accused the bottler of selling outside its six-county trade area and confusing customers with an unauthorized "brand," that is, "Dublin Dr Pepper."
Now, the corporation itself will market and distribute its products -- including a sugar-sweetened Dr Pepper -- within the trade area, which includes Erath, Eastland, Comanche, Bosque, Hood and Hamilton counties.
Meanwhile, with the loss of its distribution business, the Dublin Bottling Co. laid off 14 of its 40 employees this week -- a blow in a town of 3,654.
It would be hard to find a place more Dr Pepper-crazy than Dublin, not even in the drink's birthplace of Waco, 80 miles to the southeast.
And once a year, Dublin changes its city limits sign to say "Dr Pepper, Texas," a tradition unlikely to be continued.
The bottling company started in 1891, the same year the Waco plant started bottling on a large scale. Businessman Sam Houston Prim tasted the new drink at a soda fountain in Waco and was so impressed he bought the rights to bottle it in Dublin and sell it within a 40-mile radius, company co-owner Jeff Kloster said.
The bottler remained tiny and obscure until the 1970s, when its officials made the fateful decision to stick with cane sugar when the rest of the soft drink industry shifted to cheaper high-fructose corn syrup. In the next few decades, cans and bottles marked "Dublin Dr Pepper" earned a cult following throughout the region and even the nation.
Last year, the company sold an estimated 370,000 cases.
"I don't know of an independent bottler anywhere in America that has the kind of fame Dublin had," said Jack McKinney, executive director of the Dr Pepper Museum in Waco.
Julie Vitek, owner of Vitek's in Waco, said Dublin Dr Pepper is her biggest-selling soft drink, and she was scrambling Thursday to find how to replace it with another sugar-based Dr Pepper.
"Businesses always like to set themselves apart, and (Dublin Dr Pepper) has been a popular thing for us," she said.
Dr Pepper Snapple Group's lawsuit this June noted that much of the so-called "Dublin Dr Pepper" actually was outsourced to a bottling company in Temple.
Kloster acknowledged that the new Dr Pepper bottles were filled in Temple, but the return bottles were filled in Dublin, as were the boxes of sugar-based concentrate that went out to restaurants.
Jeff Kloster said his grandfather's decision to stick with sugar-based drinks was the key to his success.
His grandfather, W.B. (Bill) Kloster, who started working at the plant at age 14, eventually bought the plant, earning the nickname "Mr. Dr Pepper." Bill Kloster Jr., the father of Jeff Kloster and a plant co-owner, said his father thought corn sweetener left a bitter aftertaste.
"That's not the way the soft drink was created," he said. "It just doesn't taste the same."
Sticking with sugar
The Klosters plan to continue using pure cane sugar in the other drinks the company bottles, including Triple X root beer, Sun Crest, Nu Grape and Big Red, as well as its house brands, such as Tangerine Cream.
"There's a lot of independent business owners who want to go back to high-quality drinks with pure cane sugar," Jeff Kloster said. "There's a burgeoning market for private labels."
But it's hard to rebuild Dublin's lost reputation, said Crystal Johnson, a new accounts officer at Dublin State Bank. She said when she was getting ready to move from Idaho to Dublin, her friends in that state had heard of its special drink.
Johnson drinks a Dr Pepper slushy a couple of times a week, but will probably give up the habit now.
"It hurts to see people losing their jobs, especially with the economy hurting in small towns."
Clay Estes, co-owner of Clay's Processing and Smokehouse around the corner from the bottling plant, has been a die-hard drinker of Dublin Dr Pepper, and said the difference between it and regular Dr Pepper is "daylight and dark."
"We were talking this morning, and I said I think I'm through with Dr Pepper," he said. "I don't like the way the whole thing was handled. All it amounts to is the big dog kicked the little dog's ass."