From Union Bottling Works to Nehi to Royal Crown: the history of the Royal Crown Cola Company
Happy Spring, everyone! In April, HCF's History Spotlights will cover the stories and legacies of five businesses that have been in our community for a long time. We are kicking it off with the history of Royal Crown Cola, along with the
gentlemen who created it and took it nationwide.
This history spotlight was taken from City of Progress by Margaret Laney Whitehead and Barbara Bogart, Columbus on the Chattahoochee by Etta Blanchard Worsley and the research by Dr. John S. Lupold to create the Soft Drink Heritage Trail.
The Royal Crown story begins with a quiet scholar from Terrell County. Claud Hatcher was 25 years old when he came to Columbus. He was a graduate pharmacist from the Louisville Medical School. For a time prior to coming to Columbus, he had operated two drug stores, one in Preston, Ga. and the other in his native Dawson. But in 1901 he sold his Dawson store and came to Columbus to join his father in a wholesale grocery company.
The Hatchers and two partners formed their own Cole-Hatcher-Hampton Grocery Company in 1901. In a couple of years Claud Hatcher and his father bought out the other partners and the organization became the Hatcher Grocery Company. Bottled soft drinks were up and coming in the early 1900s and no one was more aware of the increasing demand than the wholesale grocery companies. As a service to their customers, the Hatchers delivered bottled drinks to them at cost along with the regular grocery orders. Other bottled drinks of the day included cream soda, root beer, and ginger ale. Claud Hatcher watched the demand increase with special interest. He also had a recent disagreement with a local Coca-Cola bottler about the high price of the syrup. So, he set up a small laboratory in the basement of his grocery and began experimenting with carbonated beverages. Many wholesale grocers did bottle their own Coke, but with the high syrup prices, Hatcher decided to create his own syrup to sell his own drinks. Basically, Asa Candler created his own competition. The marker below is placed in front of the former site of the Hatcher Grocery Company on the north side of 10th Street between Front Avenue and Broadway.
So, from the basement of the Hatcher Grocery Company came Royal Crown Ginger Ale. Claud then created a line of fruit flavored carbonated drinks called Melo. The Hatcher Grocery Company was a built-in distribution system, and the Hatcher soft drink business was on its way. Claud Hatcher and his father organized the Union Bottling Works and in 1907, the grocery firm moved to its present location on Tenth Avenue (pictured below). Claud then decided that Union Bottling Works must produce a cola. So, he got busy. The result was a carbonated beverage called Chero-Cola. Chero-Cola caught on fast. In a short time, it was the top beverage of the Union Bottling Works. The company was renamed in 1912 and the Chero-Cola Company was organized.
Its first board of directors consisted of Claud A. Hatcher, Lucious A. Hatcher, William A. Anthony, C. G. Anthony, Claud A. Sears, Dewitt Pickett, John Shields, and Walter Davidson. Claud Hatcher was president, W. A. Anthony, treasurer and Claud A. Sears, secretary.
Chero-Cola helped the company grow so rapidly that by 1920 it had 700 franchise bottling plants. Then when the market for Chero-Cola dropped off, the company discontinued the beverage and pushed forward with a fruity soft drink called Nehi instead. The company officially became called the Nehi Corporation in 1928. Then came the industry’s major crisis. Sugar, the all-important ingredient in bottling soft drinks, suddenly rocketed from less than five cents a pound to more than 30 cents a pound. For a while it looked like doomsday for the soft drink industry as a whole.
Claud Hatcher, figuring it would be easier to get raw sugar than the refined product, went to New Orleans and bought expensive sugar refining equipment and brought it to Columbus. At the same time, he hired a highly qualified chemist to come to town and work on a way to change the raw sugar. Unfortunately, company morale would reach its lowest point on the last day of 1933 with the death of Claud Hatcher. By this time, the Great Depression had cleaned out the Nehi Corporation's reserves and debts piled up.
H.R. Mott was named president of the company after Hatcher’s death. He and treasurer K.S. Worthy led the uphill fight for survival. They streamlined operations, dropped the slow-moving beverages and concentrated on the best sellers.
Then one Sunday, Mott called Rufus Kamm, company chemist down to the office and asked him to produce a good cola drink. Six months later Kamm's new cola concentrate was sent to selected bottlers around the area. A Dothan Nehi bottler was one of the first to bottle the new Royal Crown Cola. He told Mott, "You've got something here." Reaction from the other bottlers was the same. But the name, Royal Crown, was too long, some of the bottlers claimed. So, somebody thought of RC. It stuck.
Wilbur Hatcher Glenn (pictured below) took the reins of the company in 1955. He was a nephew of Claud Hatcher and a native of Birmingham, AL. After attending the University of Alabama, he started with the Nehi Corporation in 1929. Glenn worked his way up from the ground floor. He worked as route salesman, special sales representative, bottling plant manager, and treasurer of the corporation before being named vice president and secretary. He became a member of the board of directors in 1945, and during the years he was president of the company (1955 - 1965) Glenn led Nehi through a period of tremendous growth and oversaw the amazing success of Diet Rite Cola. He also saw the corporation change its name for the third time, from Nehi to Royal Crown Cola Company in 1959.
The company continued to grow, and in 1954 it became the first beverage company to nationally distribute soft drinks in cans – beating Coca-Cola by one year. Shortly thereafter, in 1959, RC became one of the first to introduce the sixteen-ounce bottle. The company has also produced the first low-calorie diet cola (Diet Rite), the first caffeine-free diet cola (RC 100), and the first diet cherry cola (Diet Cherry RC).
In 1984, RC Cola accounted for approximately 4-5% of soft drink sales in the United States, behind only Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, and 7 Up. In October 2000, Royal Crown was acquired by Cadbury (then Cadbury Schweppes) through its acquisition of Snapple. Royal Crown operations were subsequently folded into Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (DPSG), which was spun-off from Cadbury in 2008. DPSG merged with Keurig Green Mountain in 2018 as Keurig Dr. Pepper, the current owners of the RC Cola brand. In 2001, all non-US RC-branded businesses were sold to Cott Beverages of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, and are operated as Royal Crown Cola International, which handles RC Cola products outside the United States.
Columbus is so fortunate to be the place where this soft drink company got its start. So much ingenuity and invention going on right here. Historic Columbus, in partnership with the Historic Chattahoochee Commission and the research of Dr. John S. Lupold, shares Columbus’ incredible soft drink history through a series of seven historic markers to document not only the history of Nehi and RC, but also Dr. John Pemberton and Coca-Cola. Please click on the link below for more information and map of the trail! Next week, we will highlight Tom’s Foods.