Documentary details battle between Dublin Dr Pepper and its corporate overlords

Posted Wednesday, May. 01, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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The legal battle over Dublin Dr Pepper is over.

But if the Plano-based Dr Pepper Snapple Group thinks it had capped all the negative fallout from last year’s shuttering of the small, family-run bottler in Central Texas — the very first to put the soft drink in glass bottles — the corporate brand owner may have seriously miscalculated.

Bottled Up, a documentary film screened Sunday night at the USA Film Festival in Dallas, depicts the corporate vs. small town saga on the big screen.

While the film presents both sides of the story, its heart is clearly with Dublin Dr Pepper. The film focuses on Jeff Kloster, whose grandfather bucked the industry by sticking to pure cane sugar in 1977 when other bottlers, large and small, switched to cheaper high fructose corn syrup, giving Dublin Dr Pepper cult status around Texas and beyond.

Spittin’ Image Films of Dallas didn’t start out to make a full-length documentary about Dublin Dr Pepper, where Kloster was vice president and his father was president. It was trying to put together a TV series on small-town enterprises when the story materialized, said director/editor Drew Rist.

His crew was not only present to chronicle the last day of production. It scooped up numerous cases of the famous, and suddenly rare, Texas beverage, which were later bartered for expensive gear rentals, said producer Don Merritt.

That came in useful since the film was made on half a shoestring. Merritt won’t disclose how much the 99-minute documentary cost, but said it raised $3,010 on a crowd-sourcing website, Indiegogo (it’s goal was $46,000). Trunkloads of Dublin Dr Pepper go only so far in getting a project made, but some didn’t even take that: Rist said no crew member has taken a salary.

And they’re not finished, Merritt said. “We still need to find a way to get to the final cut.” And Spittin’ Image is trying to land an A-list Texas celebrity to redub the narration. “There is still lots of work to do and money to find before this really can get out there.”

Corporate doublespeak

Dr Pepper Snapple had trademark law arguments, and certainly deep corporate pockets, on its side.

But the film details company doublespeak — showing that the corporation had long extolled and exploited the iconic nature of Dublin Dr Pepper. Moreover, it disclosed that corporate executives had the sugar-sweetened version shipped to their homes in the Dallas area — far from the independent bottler’s franchise territory — which became a contentious issue in the federal lawsuit.

Why did Dr Pepper Snapple declare war on its oldest and smallest bottler?

It shipped beyond its six-county territory and used a trademark label that the company no longer approved.

In the documentary’s most bizarre vignette, Jeff Kloster gets a phone call from a well-placed person the day after the lawsuit was settled who says that the showdown was triggered by the discovery of an unauthorized “Dr Pepper” food product created by a Dublin schoolteacher. Kloster was clearly unconvinced, but who knows?

And there’s action.

Many Dubliners blame the Klosters for losing the Dr Pepper franchise, and the local Lion’s Club last summer accepted a $6,000 donation from Dr Pepper Snapple — and free cans of Dr Pepper — for the annual festival marking the first bottling of the soft drink. In a guerrilla marketing stunt, Jeff Kloster offered to swap bottles of his new, all-sugar Dublin Bottle Works sodas in exchange for every Dr Pepper can dropped in a bucket.

When the Bottled Up crew filmed two anti-Dr Pepper partisans grabbing cans for the exchange, an outraged Lion’s Club official named Ike Wade grabbed the camera, pushing it down and covering the lens. Luckily, a crew member used his smartphone to capture the street pique, which graphically reflected the community’s sharp divisions.

The film discloses that Dr Pepper Snapple offered to buy not only Dublin Dr Pepper’s franchise rights, which it ended up doing, but also its small museum and huge collection of brand artifacts, which had been the main tourist draw for the rural-flavored Erath County town. The Klosters have kept the museum and soda shop open, but attendance has fallen way off, and the film shows many empty storefronts in downtown Dublin, which it attributes to the lost Dr Pepper franchise.

The film goes on to show Jeff Kloster struggling to rebuild the Dublin Bottling Works, producing Triple XXX root beer and a line of its own proprietary flavors, all made with sugar. But sales are a fraction of what they had been — $10,000 a month, compared to $150,000, Kloster said in an interview before the screening.

A comic high point came via a 2009 clip of Larry Young, the Dr Pepper Snapple chief executive officer, praising Dublin Dr Pepper effusively during an interview with Dallas public TV station KERA. Cut to the PR consultant for Dublin Dr Pepper’s lawyer, who says that the company’s counsel argued during the case “that Mr. Young wasn't speaking as the CEO of the company ... while he was on the program, CEO.”

Asked about the alleged disavowal, Dr Pepper Snapple spokesman Chris Barnes declined to comment, explaining: “We’re not going to indulge in a he-said/she-said discussion about points brought forth in a lawsuit that was settled nearly a year-and-a-half ago.”

The corporation cooperated by having its general counsel, Jim Baldwin, appear on camera to dismiss any suggestion of residual bad blood, insisting that the settlement was a “win-win” for both sides.

In Jeff Kloster, Spittin Image Films of Dallas found a highly sympathetic personality, a man willing to start over and even repair drink dispensers himself but who had clearly been psychically bruised by the David vs. Goliath dust-up. Kloster, 51, suffered a stroke after the shooting, but made it to the screening and says he is on the road to recovery.

However one might feel about the disappearance of the Dublin Dr Pepper brand, the documentary makes clear that overall Dr Pepper Snapple sales have not been hurt in the least.

“This issue didn't even register as a blip on the radar with the vast majority of our consumers and has had no impact on the brand’s performance,” Barnes, the company spokesman, told the Star-Telegram on Tuesday. “Dr Pepper continues to outperform the soft drink category, having gained share for five consecutive years.”

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