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  • Writer's pictureBen Kitay

National Restaurant Association Show - Soft Drink Recap 2023

The National Restaurant Association show 2023 is in the books. For us at BevTrust it was a terrific opportunity to meet people as always. But it was a disappointing showing for the soft drink giants.

There was once a day when the restaurant show was a brilliant demonstration of the marketing prowess of the soft drink companies. Those days are gone. The cola wars are over. The energy has been sucked out of the booths like the carbonation out of a warm bottle of Diet Pepsi.

The good: Coke finally recognized the importance of flavored teas to restaurant operators, however high-priced they will be from the Coke folks.

The bad: A lot of bad. Mostly, no new news and very little excitement. The marketing departments of Coke, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper were on vacation for this show.

The Coca-Cola Company

A more low-energy affair has never been seen out of the big red machine from Atlanta. While the president of the foodservice division was congratulating herself on Linkedin for a great job on the booth, most of us were wondering why the wall touted “Amazing Innovation” (it actually said “Ahhhmazing Innovation”). We wondered where the amazing stuff was because there was no innovation to be found.

It seems to Coke that “Amazing Innovation” is a couple of frozen red/blue slushies and some overpriced coffee and tea.

The theme of the booth was “Coca-Cola Eats”, but we couldn’t quite figure out what Coca-Cola eats…other than restaurant operators’ money. The booth once again featured Coke’s Costa-branded coffee and the decade-old Freestyle experiment. Since Coke account managers have all but stopped pushing Freestyle, we were surprised to see Freestyle, an innovation from 2011, touted as “amazing”. Most of the industry has moved away from Freestyle because of the higher-priced, lower-yield product, monthly lease fees, and higher mechanical breakdown incidence. To see it once again front and center in the Coke booth convinced us that there is a serious lack of imagination coming out of Atlanta, despite their claims of being innovative.

As for the coffee, it is hard to imagine branding most restaurants’ coffee as Costa. Costa is a retail brand itself, like Starbucks, Dunkin, etc. Again, not exactly amazing innovation. The only ones benefitting from Costa are Coke. Restaurants have better quality, lower cost options and don’t need another brand in their locations.


If Coke was low energy, Pepsi was a burned-out light bulb.

Where are the celebrities? Where is the choice of a new generation? And, well...where are the beverages? The booth was full of food. Frito, Cheeto, Dorito, and …Quaker Oatmeal?

As for innovation, meet Starry. We can’t figure out at which cartoon-loving demographic this is aimed. Whomever it is meant for, it certainly is not innovative (nor is its grammar correct). Did we really need a cartoony lemon-lime soda? Is it possible that Pepsi will regret some decisions about this brand and the demise of Sierra Mist? At least Sierra Mist had some small bit of brand equity. And yes, it tastes like Sprite. Innovative.

It would be a stretch to call Stubborn an innovation. It’s been around a while, and we are surprised to see it continue. Coke already discontinued its craft soda line, the Blue Sky brand. At least Pepsi didn't claim "amazing Innovation" in 3-foot high letters.

Dr. Pepper

Dr. Pepper was no longer the star of the Dr. Pepper booth. And frankly, that’s somewhat puzzling as they have had a great couple of years growing that brand. To cede the limelight to Tractor makes no sense. Dr. Pepper has had tremendous success riding on both Pepsi and Coke fountains with no investment in any infrastructure. Why jump off that train?

It was another low-energy affair, unfortunately. Tractor stole most of the booth space. Dr. Pepper thinks Tractor is “exciting”. And maybe it is. But you would not know it by looking at the booth. They followed the lead of Coke and Pepsi by making some great brands boring.

One odd thing to note. The Vice-President of Dr. Pepper’s foodservice effort posted a message on Linkedin or Facebook the morning of the show and asked people to come see him in the booth. When we inquired about talking with him at the Dr. Pepper booth, we discovered he had abruptly left the company. No further details were given. Maybe it was he who decided to give the booth to Tractor.

A Match Made in Poor Judgment

Anyone who listens to their foodservice customers would know that Uber Eats is the most hated brand in the foodservice industry.

Their fees infuriate operators. Their policies further anger restaurant owners. Most restaurants are forced to either deal with them or lose sales from lost delivery opportunities. Operators don’t like Uber Eats, but they must deal with them because if they don’t, they will miss out on a lot of delivery business. Sound familiar? We know a couple of soft drink companies that fit that “must-deal-with” description.

To our surprise, we saw that two brands who fit the description decided to be hated together. Coke and Uber Eats: A match made in poor judgment. And a booth that was completely devoid of visitors. They called it the “Growth Garden”. It made us wonder if the people at Coke are even talking to their customers anymore. If they had been, they would not have done this. Sure, they want to get their products into the delivery stream, but this is an ill-advised co-branding effort at a show meant to help and inform restaurant owners.

Bottom Line

The soft drink suppliers can and should do better. There was little, if any, innovation. We were happy to see Coke finally realizing that the foodservice industry is going to start adopting flavored teas like crazy. But not at their prices. Tea should be the most profitable single item in the restaurant.

There was little excitement. There was no pizzazz. Where have all the marketers gone? Maybe Coca-Cola eats marketers.


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