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P. A. Has Real Thing

by Dave Yanko

When out-of-province folks walk into Ben's Auto Glass in Prince Albert, they step into the past.
Ben Darchuk has always had bottled Coke at the shop.
Ben Darchuk has always had bottled Coke at the shop.

In the northeast corner of the office stands an old bottle-vending Coke machine. It's no antique; it's the real thing. A 300-ml (10 oz) bottle of Coke sells for only 75 cents.

"People from Manitoba are amazed when they come in here because they haven't seen a glass bottle for years," says Ben Darchuk's assistant manager Dave Koppelaar.

"Kids from schools come in here just to buy pop. We had one fella come in and buy a bottle of pop, and he came back with three junior high buddies a little later. They all wanted one to take home."

A vending machine selling bottled Coke is no big deal to Ben.

"I've always had it."

So did a lot of other businesses and stores in North America. But that was 10 to 20 years ago, before provincial and state governments authorized the use of non-refillable cans and plastic 'bottles'.

Coke still uses the famous 'contour-bottle' image on its advertising and promotional material because it's simply too precious an icon to lose. Yet, nowhere in Canada can you buy that classic 10-oz, contour bottle of Coke, except in Saskatchewan.

"Yes, I believe I'm the only one left," says Prince Albert Bottlers' Marc Hauser.

"We're small enough that it's still affordable, considering the number of cases we do and the amount of glass we've got."

Among Canadian provinces, only Prince Edward Island retains a returnable-bottle-only policy, says Hauser. But PEI uses a new 12-oz, screw-cap bottle. It's not really 'the real thing'.

"All the other places that used to do bottles are no longer in existence," says Hauser. "Their production is being done in large plants in places like Calgary and Winnipeg, who haven't done returnables for 15 years already."

Plastic is now the vast majority of Hauser's business, too. He keeps his hand in the 'refillable-returnable' business because it continues to turn a small profit in his market, which includes a good chunk of northern and eastern Saskatchewan in addition to the City of Prince Albert.

Most of Hauser's 'bottle' accounts are places like Ben Darchuk's shop, small businesses with vending machines intended primarily for use by staff. The volumes are small and the machines last a long time. There's no incentive for the business owner to switch to a more expensive can vender.

However, a few Prince Albert confectioneries do stock bottled Coke in their modern, glass-walled refrigerators. And they saw a dramatic increase in demand last year after the local TV station did a piece on Hauser's bottling line.

"It just went absolutely crazy. The storekeepers around the schools were just inundated. They couldn't keep enough product in the stores."

Not only were the kids fascinated with the bottles, says Hauser, they were enthralled by the bottle cap. He says parents told him stories of kids who'd never before seen a bottle opener.

"They were like 'what's with that, what's that all about?' And their parents were saying 'I hate to tell you this. But when I was your age, a little older, it was a necessary evil to have one of those things around'."

Hauser plans to continue running his glass-bottling line as long as the demand remains level. But it can't roll on forever.

His typical return rate for bottles was 97 per cent before Saskatchewan legislation changed to allow cans and plastic pop containers 10 or 11 years ago. The other three percent was breakage.

"We're now up to 20 or 25 per cent that aren't coming back," he says. "And that's not breakage, that's people not wanting to bring them back.

"We have empty shelves here that used to be full of bottles. Nobody's making them anymore."

Marc Hauser will keep the old bottling line active as long as demand and glass supply last.
Marc Hauser will keep the old bottling line active as long as demand and glass supply last.

A few small companies in the U.S. still handle bottled Coke. But Hauser says that even if a bottle 'float' came up for sale south of the border, it would be expensive to ship it to Prince Albert and the old bottles would have a limited life span.

'He chuckles when staff return from out-of-province holidays with reports of contour bottles fetching four or five dollars each at flea markets and garage sales. But he understands the mystique. And so does Coke, which spent 'an inordinate amount of money' in Canada creating and accommodating the production of plastic bottles, in the familiar contour shape.

The contour plastic bottles don't exist in the far more competitive American market, he says. There, the bottles are generic and labelled, and it's the price point that counts. In Canada, the plastic contour bottles still provide an edge in marketing, particularly among spontaneous buyers.

"Whether it's Coke, the 'P' word, or something else, the pricing is all the same here: It's a buck twenty-five plus deposit for the standard 600 ml bottle.

"When you walk into a convenience store and there's this glass wall full of Coke brands and that glass wall full of Pepsi brands. . . it does a great job."

Great marketing job or not, Dave Koppelaar of Ben's Auto Glass is one person who'll miss the real thing when it's gone.

"It just tastes better in a glass bottle."

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