Charles David Head and Ron Fowler
Charles David Head and Ron Fowler

The True Story of the Coca-Cola Knockoff Koca-Nola

Charles David Head and Ron Fowler
Charles David Head and Ron Fowler

Thomas Austin was not a happy man. An entrepreneur who had made a fair share of money in the coal mining business, he had opened up a pharmacy in Atlanta, Georgia at the turn of the century. Business was good enough, but Austin was a little perturbed at his passive role as a dispenser of soda. Customers streamed in looking for bottles buried in ice or on tap, especially Coca-Cola, the most famous and most widely-distributed of them all. It was sugar water. What could be so hard about perfecting that?

In Atlanta, Austin was literally down the street from Coke’s headquarters. He wanted a bigger share of the profits, so he decided to start bottling his own. In 1904, he began to sell a beverage he called Koca-Nola.

The carbonated, glass-bottled pop was an overnight success for the reason Austin anticipated: It was easily confused for Coke, right down to the crown-topped bottle and distinctive embossed labeling. For customers in some territories who lacked the ability to read, it looked virtually identical. Austin was soon making deals with bottlers across the country—more than 40 states in all—to market his soda, which was said to be tasty and gave thirsty patrons quite an energy boost.

According to Koca-Nola historian Charles David Head, who authored the book A Head’s Up on Koca-Nola, Austin was more successful than most of the Coke impostors of the era (which numbered more than 150 in total) in part because he made advertising a priority. “He had the money to invest in ads,” Head tells mental_floss. “Everywhere you looked, there was Koca-Nola on matches, postcards, and thermometers.” Austin even produced promotional material using art from well-known illustrator Philip Boileau, lending Koca-Nola some legitimacy beyond its liberal use of Coke’s brand awareness.

In addition to a serious marketing push, Austin enticed bottlers with offers of free samples they could return for a refund if they failed to sell. Koca-Nola enlisted dozens of loyal franchisees this way, peddling the 5-cent, 8-ounce drinks in local markets and targeting some of their ads toward the flood of immigrants entering the country in the early 20th century. “Coke was a little upper crust,” Head says. “Koca-Nola, well, anyone was free to buy it.”

From 1906 to 1909, Koca-Nola was one of the best-selling sodas on the market. Unfortunately, its aggressive advertising would soon become a significant detriment to the company’s long-term prospects. Promising customers Koca-Nola was “dopeless”—many sodas of the era, including Coke, contained then-legal cocaine from coca leaves or from an extract solution—was misleading. When the U.S. government tested Koca-Nola in both New Orleans and Washington, D.C. in 1908, officials found it was positive for 1/200th of a grain of cocaine, or twice the normal amount typically found in “pick me up” drinks of the era. 

The issue was not the drug itself, but that Koca-Nola had “adulterated” its label by not disclosing the full contents. Austin denied the charges, insisting Koca-Nola was free of the stimulant. But a U.S. District Court in Atlanta was swayed by prosecutors and their expert witnesses, who all testified the soda had tested positive for enough cocaine to introduce a habit in customers who consumed five or more bottles a day.

Though the drug was found in many sodas on the market, Koca-Nola became the industry’s scapegoat. After a guilty verdict was rendered in 1909, enforcers for the recently-enacted Pure Food and Drugs Law went after other soda manufacturers for similar infractions before cocaine was banned outright in 1914. Carbonated beverages had to rely on caffeine for a boost; Coca-Cola’s unique bottle shape, patented in 1916, helped even illiterate customers distinguish the brand from its imitators. (In 2013, the company denied cocaine had ever been an ingredient.)

Koca-Nola hobbled along for several more years, living on in some local markets where it was still popular, before disappearing entirely in 1918. Of all Coke’s early copycats, it might have been the most stubborn, and the most successful. “People would crave more because it had twice as much cocaine in it,” Head says. “It had to have quite a kick back then.”

All images courtesy of Charles David Head and Ron Fowler.

The Top 10 Pizza Chains in America

Pizza is a $45.1 billion industry in the United States. Here are the top pizza chains across this great nation, based on gross sales in 2016.


Pizza Hut is truly enormous. Raking in more than $5.75 billion in 2016, the chain is best known for its red roof architecture. The style is so distinctive that the blog Used to Be a Pizza Hut collects photos of former Pizza Hut restaurants now turned into other businesses.


With more than $5.47 billion in revenue, Domino's is nipping at Pizza Hut's heels. For decades, Domino's offered a guarantee that your pizza would arrive in 30 minutes or less, or it would be free. The policy was terminated in 1993 in the U.S., and Domino's has since focused on expanding its menu with pasta, sandwiches, and other goodies.


Photo of the exterior of a Little Caesars restaurant

Founded in 1959 by Mike and Marian Ilitch, Little Caesars focuses on carry-out pizza at ultra-competitive prices. Using slogans like "Pizza! Pizza!," "Pan! Pan!," and "Deep Deep Dish," the chain offers hot cheese pizzas for just $5.


Headquartered in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, Papa John's was the first national pizza chain to offer online ordering in the U.S., way back in 2002.


Papa Murphy's offers exclusively "take and bake" pizza, where the ingredients are put together in front of you, then you bake the pizza at home. It's the only large chain to offer this kind of pizza, and it's a smart business model—stores don't need pizza ovens!


California Pizza Kitchen

The first California Pizza Kitchen launched in 1985 in Beverly Hills, California. The focus is on gourmet pizza, including a line of relatively fancy frozen pizzas. In many locations, CPK also offers gluten-free crust as an option, making it a favorite for gluten-intolerant pizza lovers.


Pasquale “Pat” Giammarco founded Marco's Pizza in 1978. The Toledo, Ohio-based chain is now the country's fastest-growing pizza chain, with more than 800 franchised locations across the U.S. as well as in Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and India. They specialize in what they've dubbed "Ah!thentic Italian."


In 1958, Bill Larson concluded four years of US Navy service and got a job at a pizza parlor in San Mateo, California. A year later, he founded his own: Round Table Pizza. Using a King Arthur theme, Round Table has often featured knights and shields in its logo. The knight theme originated when Larson saw drawings of King Arthur's court eating pizza.


The brainchild of two Georgia Tech students, Mellow Mushroom opened in Atlanta, Georgia as a one-off pizzeria. Today, it boasts more than 150 locations, and is regularly inching further westward.


Macaroni and cheese pizza from Cicis

Cicis is the world's largest pizza buffet chain. It features all sorts of wild stuff including a macaroni-and-cheese pizza.

Source: PMQ Pizza Magazine

Pop Culture
North Pole Blockbuster Video, One of Chain’s Few Remaining Stores, Is Closing

With streaming quickly becoming the new standard in movie-watching, the majority of today’s youngsters will never know the joy that came with a Friday night visit to the local Blockbuster Video store. Nor will they understand the inherent drama such an outing could bring: “Ooh, look Hocus Pocus is on VHS! Oh no, that kid got the last copy!” That already-tiny number is about to shrink even further with the announcement that Alaska’s North Pole Blockbuster, one of only an estimated eight stores left in the U.S., is closing its doors.

The announcement was made on Monday afternoon via the store’s Facebook page, which thanked its employees for their service:

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner spoke with Kevin Daymude, the store’s general manager, who pointed to declining sales as the reason for the shuttering. “Do we have a great clientele? Yes, without a doubt,” Daymude said. “It just declined.”

While Blockbuster Video filed for bankruptcy in 2010, the brand continued to license its iconic blue-and-yellow ticket stub logo to franchisees, the bulk of which are located in Alaska. Why Alaska? Lack of broadband and high Internet price tags in the state mean that streaming content isn’t as simple as just pointing and clicking.

“A lot of [the stores] are still quite busy,” Alan Payne, a Blockbuster licensee-owner who owns a handful of the few remaining stores in the U.S., told The Washington Post in 2017. “If you went in there on a Friday night you’d be shocked at the number of people.”

Earlier this year Payne was forced to close his Edinburg, Texas store, the last Blockbuster in Texas, which had been operating since the 1990s. But Alaska won’t be Blockbuster-free anytime soon. Even with the North Pole store’s closing, there are still four remaining locations in Alaska.

While the North Pole store ceased its rental operations on Sunday, it will remain open through April while it sells off its inventory of movies and fixtures. The only question is whether there’s a VHS copy of Jerry Maguire somewhere in there.


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