6-10-12: Dublin's getting better without its Dr

Posted Sunday, Jun. 10, 2012

By Bill Hanna

DUBLIN -- When the news came in January that Dublin Dr Pepper was no more, Lisa Leatherwood put the soft drink maker's products in front of her store downtown, Three Sisters, with a sign telling people to take them away.

To her surprise, many did, snapping them up in hours.

"I was like, 'What are you doing?'" said Leatherwood, who didn't give away the rest of her pure cane sugar Dublin Dr Pepper. "Don't you realize what Dr Pepper just did to this town?"

Her anger rose when she saw that all references to Dublin, about 80 miles southwest of Fort Worth, had been removed from the bottling plant's Dr Pepper signs as part of a legal settlement, wiping away part of the town's legacy.

"That was always what was so great about living here," Leatherwood said. "Whenever you went somewhere and said you were from Dublin, someone would always say 'Dublin Dr Pepper.' It put us on the map."

Five months later, Leatherwood's mood -- as well as the town's -- is more upbeat.

What was once Dublin Dr Pepper is now Dublin Bottling Works. And seven new sodas are made with pure cane sugar.

For Dublin Bottling Works' owners, Saturday's celebration of the plant's 121st birthday was a chance to reintroduce the company to its customers and remind them that it is still open for business.

"Yes, we are alive and well," said Jeff Kloster, vice president and general counsel.

"We're as happy as we can be to have this thing full of drinks. It couldn't come at a better time."

For Kloster and his father, Bill, who is president and CEO, the last five months were a mad dash to find a different product.

They had the rights to distribute Triple XXX Root Beer, but that didn't carry the all-important Dublin name on the bottles.

Many people seemed to think attractions like Old Doc's Soda Shop and the W.P. Kloster Museum had closed.

"The tone social media took was that everything was gone," Bill Kloster said. "There was this sense there that we were gone, the soda shop was gone and the museum was gone.

"Nothing could be further from the truth."

The Klosters laid off 14 employees after the settlement with the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, a move that caused hard feelings among some residents who thought the family should have continued the legal battle.

Yet some realized how easily Dublin Bottling Works could have disappeared.

"The Klosters could have walked away -- it was a great time to do it -- and we would have picked up the pieces and moved on," said Pat Leatherwood, vice president of First National Bank in Dublin and Lisa Leatherwood's husband.

"But they didn't evacuate. They didn't leave. They instantly tried to bring this celebration to life and got these new drinks going."

That included coming up with the new flavors and making sure Dublin was part of the name -- Dublin Vintage Cola, Dublin Retro Grape, Dublin Retro Creme Soda, Dublin Cherry Limeade, Dublin Vanilla Cream, Dublin Orange Cream and Dublin Tart-N-Sweet Lemonade.

Then they had to find someone to bottle them in time for the plant's 121st anniversary, since the plant's old bottling line handles only returnable bottles. They contracted with a bottling plant in Breese, Ill., and the cases of soft drinks started arriving about two weeks ago.

Hope for the future

If the drinks take off like the Klosters hope, they'll spend the money to replace the old bottling line with a new one and make the drinks there.

"The public wants nostalgia," said Bill Kloster, who lives in Cresson and retired several years ago from Lockheed Martin and bought into the family business, which he grew up around as a child.

"The public wants glass bottles with pure sugar cane sodas," he said. "We want this to instantly take you back in time to when you were a kid and going to your grandmother's house or to visit the relatives. We like to say these drinks here are like a time machine."

But obstacles remain.

The company has only nine full-time and about 15 part-time employees.

And many Dublin businesses noticed a sharp drop-off when Dublin Dr Pepper went away.

"When they do good, we do good," said Jose Sifuentes, owner of Bargain Furniture downtown, which also sells jewelry and other items.

For now, Dublin Bottling Works drinks are available in Dallas-Fort Worth only at Maple & Motor and Velvet Taco, both in Dallas, and at Bonnell's restaurant in Fort Worth, where you can buy a Triple XXX Root Beer float.

The Klosters have spent far more time making sure the drinks are available in Austin, where they are offered in about 25 locally owned establishments.

That is partly because Jeff Kloster lives there and also because more mom and pop businesses were ready to embrace the new drinks.

"They were clamoring for it," Jeff Kloster said.

No guarantees

Despite the positive buzz, nothing guarantees that businesses will stock the drinks when they already have Coke, Pepsi and, yes, Dr Pepper.

"I think this weekend is very important," Pat Leatherwood said.

"They've still got a rough road ahead. They have to overcome a lot of obstacles and must go out on a limb to win back some loyalties and regain some trust."

Yet the specter of Dr Pepper still looms large.

Besides the original Dr Pepper signage at the bottling plant, Dublin Bottling Works still has the soda shop and the museum, which shows off much of the Dr Pepper memorabilia the family has collected.

And all around town are Dr Pepper murals on sides of buildings, plus the occasional Dr Pepper machine in front of a business.

"That is part of our history," Pat Leatherwood said.

"I think it will always be here. I still have a Dr Pepper mural on the side of one of my buildings, and it will probably always be there."

Pat Leatherwood said that he recognizes the history but that he isn't drinking any more Dr Pepper, not even his stash of Dublin Dr Pepper, because it's too valuable.

But it is brought out for special occasions around town.

"There are people who have it at their weddings instead of champagne," he said.

"They'll have a toast with Dublin Dr Pepper."

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

Twitter: @fwhanna

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