The untold truth of RC Cola

RC Cola may not have been the first cola on the market, but it certainly has a long history of trials, tribulations — and innovations. Though it's now a part of the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, the company explains that RC Cola had humble beginnings in Columbus, Georgia, when a young pharmacist, Claud A. Hatcher, wanted to create and bottle drinks for his family's grocery store. He named his new line of drinks Royal Crown.

But the beginnings of the company were actually spurred by a disagreement concerning the reigning king of soft drinks (also based in Georgia), Coca-Cola. According to Encyclopedia.com, Hatcher was selling loads of that soft drink to his grocery store customers and believed he should get a side cut of the sales, or at least a cheaper purchase price on the bottles. When Hatcher — then only 27 years old — was denied by one of the soda company's bottlers, he decided to halt Coca-Cola purchases and instead create his own soda recipe in his store's basement.

Royal Crown introduces its first sodas

Though looking to rival Coca-Cola, Hatcher's first soda was actually Royal Crown Ginger Ale in 1905, with a cherry-flavored cola called Chero-Cola following in 1907 (via Royal Crown Cola International). The business took off so briskly that the Hatchers soon found themselves as soda manufacturers.

The family established Union Bottling Works, later renamed Chero-Cola Company, to sell its hit product, and by 1920 had grown to supply soda syrups to 700 franchised plants for bottling (via New Georgia Encyclopedia). During World War I, the company even started up its own sugar refinery to meet demand during rationing. Unfortunately, Coca-Cola was none too pleased with the "Cola" designation in its name and sued the company, claiming that it owned the term.

Mental Floss reports that Hatcher fought the lawsuit for years as he grew his own business, but in 1923, a judge sided with Coca-Cola, forcing a name change to just "Chero," which negatively impacted sales. The cola was discontinued as Hatcher instead developed a fruity soda called Nehi, which led to another company name change, to the Nehi Corporation, in 1928 (via New Georgia Encyclopedia). However, when the Great Depression hit, Nehi's sales also suffered, and Hatcher died in 1933.

Royal Crown makes a comeback

With the company's sales director, H.R. Mott, now at the helm, sales figures started to improve for the company. A "shrewd businessman," Mott nixed production of the worst soda sellers and in 1934 brought Chero-Cola back as a plain (not cherry-flavored) cola called Royal Crown, in honor of the line's origins. Over the next decade, sales would jump tenfold, and the Nehi Corporation was back in the game.

According to Dr Pepper Snapple Group, the new Royal Crown cola was perfected over six months by a chemist, but the work paid off as the soda became an "instant sensation." By the '40s, the soda had reached 47 of the contiguous United States, backed by enterprising advertisements featuring the era's biggest stars, like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.

Overall, the '40s were a very successful decade for Royal Crown. In 1940, the company innovated to hold "publicly performed blind taste tests" versus competitors — and won. Meanwhile, a judge ruled in 1944 that the word "cola" was again fair game for manufacturers, so the company was renamed once more as Royal Crown Cola Company.

Royal Crown's innovations create controversy

Now with some momentum, Royal Crown contributed plenty more innovations within the soda scene. According to New Georgia Encyclopedia, the company manufactured the first nationally-available canned sodas in 1954, then created bigger 16-ounce bottles in 1959. Royal Crown was also the first company to unleash diet soda on the masses, called Diet Rite, later following with a caffeine-free version called RC 100, and a cherry-flavored variety, Diet Cherry RC. The diet sodas were created for diabetics, but they proved to be a hit with weight-watchers, too (via Our Everyday Life).

Though Dr Pepper Snapple Group hails Diet Rite as "the first diet soft drink," released in 1958, there had been other diet sodas before — but none on a national scale, as Diet Rite achieved by 1962 (via Culinary Lore). Unfortunately, the diet soda generated controversy due to the inclusion of cyclamates as a sweetener, which was eventually banned in 1970 over health concerns.

Since Diet Rite had helped Royal Crown sail to the No. 1 diet-soda spot, the health scare caused the company's sales to plummet. In a strange twist, the company "diversified" by acquiring two fruit juice makers and seven home furnishings companies, followed by the fast-food chain Arby's. Unfortunately, the company's next owner, Victor Posner (who took over in 1984), later received a conviction for tax evasion and was also under suspicion for insider trading.

Royal Crown loses major market share

As Royal Crown suffered through rocky times, Coca-Cola and Pepsi were engaging in the "cola wars" of the 1970s and 1980s, as the top two cola manufacturers tried to one-up each other for years, notes History.com. (The scuffle kicked off, ironically, with the Pepsi Challenge taste test, the same method Royal Crown had employed to gain market share decades before.)

In 1993, Royal Crown was acquired by Triarc Companies — which, according to Funding Universe, had its own history with the troublesome billionaire, Posner. Triarc tried to resuscitate the flailing brand, pouring in an additional $25 million to the annual marketing budget, which somewhat picked up sales. In 1999, the new owners even hoped to turn around the company's previous Diet Rite controversy by partnering with Johnson & Johnson on a new sweetener and a "medical marketing" national ad campaign, as AdAge reported that the diet soda then had only a 0.3 percent share of U.S. beverages and didn't even make the top 10 of best-selling diet drinks.

In a mishmash of crisscrossing acquisitions, by 2000, the RC Cola brand was acquired by Cadbury Schweppes, then moved to its Dr Pepper Snapple Group, which itself is now called Keurig Dr Pepper. In 2001, the Cott Corporation acquired the rights to the international side of RC Cola sales (via Royal Crown Cola International).

RC Cola persists in the new millennium

Today, Cott Beverages boasts that its version of Royal Crown is "sweetened exclusively with cane sugar," with the diet-type alternative, Royal Crown Cola Slim, blending in some stevia for 50 percent fewer calories. Keurig Dr Pepper, meanwhile, oversees a slew of soft drinks in its portfolio — including 7UP, Canada Dry, Crush, and, yes, those dinosaurs called RC Cola, Nehi Cola, and Diet Rite Pure Zero.

Mental Floss explained in 2015 that no RC Cola product was "anywhere near the best-seller charts," despite its dedicated fans in the South, presence in Chicago pizzerias, and even an old-timey Southern song that pairs it up with Moon Pies (a combo long celebrated in a yearly festival in Tennessee). Or its multiyear sponsorship of race car driver Marco Andretti, inked in 2013. Or the 2017 dust-up that occurred when a "rogue" RC Cola Twitter account made waves among both die-hard fans and a disgruntled Dr Pepper Snapple Group (via Business Insider).

Still, RC Cola is sold in 67 countries around the world — and, says Mental Floss, remains a top seller in the Philippines. Even stateside, now 115 years after its humble basement beginnings, for many American soda fans, it remains a beloved Southern underdog that's worth sipping.