Dr Pepper Sues Itself, Sort Of

In the long history of entities suing themselves -- Wells Fargo in 2009, the government of Thailand in 2006 -- none have been as disheartening to Texans as the latest news that Dr Pepper Snapple (DPS), the parent company that owns beverage brands such as Dr Pepper and Snapple, among others, is suing the tiny Dublin Dr Pepper plant in Dublin, Texas.

According to the AP, Dr Pepper Snapple is upset -- justifiably so, it seems -- that the Dublin plant has taken liberties both with its distribution and merchandising, selling its cane sugar-sweetened cola far beyond the 44-mile radius of Dublin as per the terms of its franchise agreement. The distribution area was settled on back in 1925, when transportation and shipping arrangements were far different than they are today.

In a press release distributed yesterday afternoon, the Dublin plant defended its practices, saying: "We are surprised to learn that our corporate partner has taken this action, but we are confident that this lawsuit will not succeed."

I'd be surprised too if my parent company sued me, especially considering the popularity that Dublin's version of the Dr Pepper cola brings to the overall brand.

To that end, the plant continued: "We have been a loyal partner to Dr Pepper Snapple longer than any other bottler, and we've worked successfully with several different ownership groups for our parent company to become one of the company's most successful franchisees."

And it's a well-known fact that Dublin's success at branding and marketing its Dr Pepper product -- sweetened with Imperial cane sugar since 1891, unlike any other version of Dr Pepper in America -- has led to the drink being found in markets far outside of its distribution area.

Robb Walsh's 2008 feature on Dr Pepper bootleggers told the tale of how the popular beverage is "smuggled" out of the 44-mile radius, not a difficult job when you consider that the Dublin plant doesn't keep tabs on where the syrup or bottles of soda go after they're sold.

The bottles can make it as far as Denver and San Francisco, but according to Walsh himself, they've even gone global: "A commenter on the Dallas Observer website reports finding Dublin Dr. Pepper in Umm al-Quwain--one of the United Arab Emirates," he wrote in the comments section of the bootlegging article.

That bootlegged soda can be found here in Houston at places as diverse as Crave Cupcakes, Houston's and the occasional Jason's Deli. Then there's The Burger Guys, which dispenses Dublin Dr Pepper from its soda fountain, dubbed the "Fountain of Love."

"I go and get it straight from the Dublin plant," says Jake Mazzu, owner of The Burger Guys and part-time bootlegger. "I bring it in, 12-hour trip, Smokey and the Bandit-style!"

Mazzu prefers the Dublin brand of Dr Pepper for many reasons, including what he perceives as a higher-quality product. "The major brand can produce any product with 'Asian cane sugar,' not Imperial sugar, at their leisure," he says.

"There is no question [about] the quality of the plant versus what the major Dr Pepper brand has put out."

In a statement to the AP, Jim Johnston, president of beverage concentrates for DPS, said that Dublin's actions are "taking business from fellow Dr Pepper bottlers who play by the rules and sell within their defined territories." He continued: "We owe it to our other bottlers to stop these unauthorized practices."

There's little argument that Dublin has taken great liberties with its distribution area, but is it enough to truly undermine such a large, established brand as Dr Pepper? Are enough people in Houston or Dallas opting for Dublin Dr Pepper over regular Dr Pepper that a lawsuit is necessary?

More importantly, how can DPS hope to enforce the strict distribution area when the Dublin plant has no control over what happens to its product once it leaves the facility? As long as the Dublin plant continues to cultivate loyal legions of fans like Mazzu, there's no telling what lengths they'll go to in order to get their hands on the beloved soda.

"It is unfortunate that Dr Pepper Snapple's attorneys are asking our overburdened court system to resolve what we believe is a business matter," the plant said in its press release, "but we look forward to telling our side of the story before a judge and jury, and we will continue to provide great products and great service to every one of our customers."

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Katharine Shilcutt