Coca-Cola real thing in Yakima since 1911

By Mai Hoang, Yakima Herald-Republic September 25, 2011 

YAKIMA -- It's the 100th birthday of the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Yakima. And it's hard to miss.

Coke cans and restaurant signs -- even a flag atop the Larson Building -- have carried the business' 100th anniversary logo this month.

Amid all the extra attention, Bill Dolsen, 62, second-generation owner of the independently owned Coca-Cola franchise, doesn't forget about the company's more humble days.

He remembers when the company was a distant No. 2 in the local beverage market to Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co., the locally owned bottling plant and distributor.

"We have a visible, strong, well-run competitor (in) the Noel family," Dolsen said, referring to the longtime owners. "I don't like (the) competition, but they made us better."

Mike Trammell, general manager of the local Pepsi-Cola franchise, agrees that competitionplays an important role in the market.

"I offer my congratulations," he said. "Competition is a good thing. It makes everyone better at what they do. Any business that's been around 100 years is very rare anymore."

Humble start

When the facility first opened at 113 S. Sixth Ave. in 1911, the bottling plant, like many others nationwide, was owned by the Coca-Cola parent company.

By the 1960s, the business was independently owned.

In 1975, the late Bob Dolsen purchased the business as a way to diversify the family business, which then -- and still -- consisted of a dairy, feedlot and an equipment leasing business.

When Dolsen Cos. acquired Coca Cola Bottling Co., it had 20 employees who manufactured and produced a handful of brands, including the flagship Coca-Cola brand, Tab, Sprite and Orange Crush.

The Dolsens also came into a tough market environment.

Though the Pepsi bottling operation came in more than 30 years after Coke's, Bill Dolsen estimates that Pepsi had a local market share of 80 percent, compared to 20 percent for Coke, at the time his family took over the business. He said the market today still favors Pepsi, but it's "about 55 to 45 now."

Dolsen remembers that it had a strong refrigerated beverage program where it would offer to build refrigerated coolers in return for control over what was stocked in it.

As a result, shelf space was hard to come by, Dolsen said.

And Dolsen wasn't the only one who knew it.

"This was Pepsi country," said Dick Parker, owner of 5th Avenue Deli, which spent its first decade -- it opened in 1980 -- stocking Pepsi products.

But things changed in 1992 when Bill Dolsen, who recently took over the business from his father, came in and asked him to reconsider.

Looking back, Parker said he liked Dolsen's personality.

"Bob -- and I say this affectionately -- was a very assertive guy. Matter-of-fact," he said. "Not that Bill is void of some of those attributes, but he (had) a much softer, kinder, friendlier approach."

For Bill Dolsen, there was competitive drive under that gentleness.

"I just knew if (I was) in that business, I was not going to lose," he said.

5th Avenue Deli ultimately was drawn by competitive prices. And nearly 20 years later, the deli at 415 W. Walnut St. still refills the fountain machines with Coke products.

When there was an issue, it was not unusual to have someone from Coca-Cola fix the problem within two hours, he said. And when Parker had a family reunion a few years ago, Coca-Cola Bottling Co. provided a portable beverage machine for the event.

Service is "the hallmark of the Coke distributorship," he said.

Focus on distribution

The Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Yakima name today is a bit of a misnomer, as the business, along with the Coke franchise that Dolsen Cos. owns in the Tri-Cities, hasn't manufactured drinks since the mid-1980s.

But its distribution is no small feat.

Coca-Cola Bottling Co. has more than 1,400 customers throughout its coverage area, which includes Kittitas and Yakima counties. The company went from distributing a handful of brands to dozens of carbonated soft drink, water and juice brands.

With 75 employees, the company is one of the top 10 distributors for Yakima County, said Dave McFadden, president of New Vision, the county's economic development arm.

Like other franchisees of a major beverage brand, Dolsen is fiercely loyal.

He never dines -- unless forced to -- at a restaurant that serves a rival's products. The sighting of a rival beverage in an employee's car would lead to a less-than pleasant conversation afterward.

At the same time, Dolsen said there are strong brands outside the ones owned by Coca-Cola.

Earlier this year, when he heard Richard Tait, creator of the popular Cranium board game, speak about Golazo, his new energy-hydration drink with a soccer-driven brand, during the New Vision annual meeting, he knew he wanted in.

By the summer, Golazo was found in stores throughout the Yakima Valley and Tri-Cities, thanks to a distribution deal Dolsen struck up with the Seattle-based company.

Standing tall

Reflecting on today's beverage landscape, Dolsen considers Coca-Cola Bottling Co. on more equal footing with its local Pepsi counterpart.

But there is still plenty of work to do, he said.

"What don't we have that we think we can sell?" he asked.

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