Swallowed by Coke

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A recent piece in the New York Times outlined a "case study" of Honest Tea, a company that sold a 40 percent interest to Coke for $43 million so it could receive better and more constant distribution. At the time of the sale, early last year, the company—which had built its reputation on organic products bought (often but not always) at Fair Trade prices, lightly sweetened and thus lower in calories, and, most importantly with no high-fructose corn syrup ever—took a lot of flak for selling out. And not just selling out but selling out to the exemplar of evil, the very source of HFCS-induced obesity. No way could a company that tried to stand for healthful alternatives keep its integrity.

When I wrotea piece on the HFCS controversy and its links to obesity four years ago, I focused on Honest Tea, and quoted Seth Goldman, the company's co-founder, on the challenges any beverage maker faces: getting onto supermarket and convenience-store shelves and, even more important, getting restocked. The obstacles to having a national and reliable distribution partner, he made clear, are so much bigger than actually manufacturing the product that sourcing the best-tasting, most affordable ingredients, and developing new products—all of which take staff members, time, travel, and trial and error—was the fun part.

But the glitches customers feared—expected, really—have already started to appear, as the article notes. And those are just the ones Goldman is willing to talk about.

So I wasn't surprised when Goldman made his deal with Coke, which he'd implied even when we spoke would be a big help to the company. (I left him in a parking lot where he was about to board a plane from Bethesda, where he lives and the company is based, to fly to an organic-products trade show in Anaheim, the kind of sales trip he made constantly.) I also wasn't surprised because I knew that one of Goldman's role models was Gary Hirshberg, who sold Stonyfield Farm yogurt entirely to Danone, a food-industry giant, for the same reasons—global reach, more resources to expand product lines—but kept, and keeps, control of the company. Goldman is clearly looking to do the same with Coke, which he strongly implies in the Times article he hopes will exercise its option to buy all of Honest Tea next year.

But the glitches customers feared—expected, really—have already started to appear, as the article notes. And those are just the ones Goldman is willing to talk about, because he's managed to prevail. In this example, it's the claim that has been a bedrock of the company. As I wrote,

Honest Tea has many virtues, all of them implied by its punning name. But the primary ones are that it tastes like tea, isn't too sweet, and doesn't use high-fructose corn syrup.

Naturally, Coke wasn't crazy about the implication that products that do have HFCS are bad for you, and you're better off not buying them. Things are bad enough already! Coke sales are going way down, in this country at least, and the current demonization of HFCS and the soft-drink industry in general, led by Kelly Brownell among many others, and all food marketing to children, a primary plank of Marion Nestle's platform, are hardly helping. Now along comes more criticism, from within its own ranks—and from somebody who just got $43 million for being a partner. Coke, Goldman told Elizabeth Olson, the Times reporter, "made a strong request" that it change the wording on the labels.

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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