Rob Malone is about to learn the real secret of Coca-Cola.

It’s not what he thinks it is. Not even close to what he imagines.

“The Real Thing” is a corporate short story about safeguarding the company’s most precious assets.

About the true nature of the most famous beverage in the world.

2,000 words / 8 minutes of privileged reading pleasure

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‘The great corporation which employed you lied to you, and lied to the whole country - from top to bottom it was nothing but one gigantic lie.’ Upton Sinclair 



Copyright 2024 Stefano Boscutti
All Rights Reserved

It’s impossible to miss the Coca-Cola headquarters in the heart of Atlanta.

A twenty-nine-story geometric tower faced in grey granite and topped with the signature red logo. Surrounded by a cluster of nondescript buildings, it takes on the weight and presence of a fortress. A tall iron fence encircling the complex keeps the public away.

At the very top of the tower sits the expansive boardroom and executive offices. Seventy-nine thousand employees are scattered below and across the numerous buildings. Many work for various legal divisions. It’s not easy to enforce or protect all the copyrights, trademark rights, patent rights, bottling rights. All the litigations, class actions, motions to dismiss, documents discovery, expert reports, depositions.

Senior lawyer Jim Johnson, fifty-two, all American, sits at his broad desk in his office, bopping his head to a song pulsing through his ear pods while munching on a brittle chocolate bar. It’s “Love for Sale” by Talking Heads, a catchy rock song with a sidewinder guitar riff and a propulsive bass. David Byrnes yelps about the joys of losing yourself to commercialism and advertising in a life where the television is always on, where you forget your own name.

Rob Malone, thirty-two, knocks on the open door. Knocks again a little louder.

Jim looks up and smiles, dazzling white teeth. Rob looks anxious. Jim brushes chocolate crumbs off his tie. Takes out his ear pods.

‘Heard you the first time, champ.’

Rob nervously looks around. Hum of busy office workers in the background. Jim motions him in.

‘Come in, come in.’

Jim stands. Like all the offices at the Coca-Cola headquarters it’s bathed in the same warm white fluorescent light butchers use to make anything red look fresher and more appetising. 

Rob steps in, anxious. He leans forward as they shake hands. 

‘First time down here? It’s Rob, correct?’

‘Yes, sir. Rob Malone.’

Rob shakes Jim’s hand a little too tightly, a little too vigorously.

‘Hey, you play for the Braves with that grip or what?’

Rob releases Jim’s hand. Jim sits back down.

‘No, sir, I’ve never played professional baseball.’

‘Relax, Rob, I know you’ve never played professional sports. I’m just making small talk.’

Rob blushes. Jim motions him to sit down.

‘You must have made quite an impression upstairs to join us here as a Senior Counsel. You’re the second youngest we’ve had. The youngest was related to the chairman so he doesn’t really count.’

Rob sits, swallows.

‘Dean asked me to keep an eye on you on your first day with us.’

Jim looks him up and down.

‘How are you finding it? A little overwhelmed? Wondering what the hell you’re doing here? Worried that coming downstairs is a demotion. Worried what the other lawyers on this floor will think of you? Worried you’ll be out of your depth.’

‘Something like that, sir.’

‘Oh, you can stop that right now.’

Rob isn’t sure what he’s supposed to stop.

‘Calling me sir. There’s no need for that. We’re all white here. All white, all right.’

Rob is trying to take it all in.

‘We’re all equals. Do you know why?’

Rob shakes his head.

‘We’re the intellectual property division. We’re the most important division in the entire Coca-Cola Company. Without us, there’s nothing. Without you and me and all of us on this floor, there’s zip.’

Jim smiles.

‘Rob, what do you think Coca-Cola is?’

‘A delicious carbonated drink with a cola flavour manufactured by the Coca-Cola Company, and sold in over 200 countries worldwide?’

‘Come on, try a little harder.’

‘Sunshine? America? Freedom?’

‘Oh, it’s all that and more. It’s the real thing. It really refreshes. It adds life. It’s it! Magic! All that intellectual property? That’s what we protect. All that meaning and desire? That’s what we own. That’s what we are.’

Jim leans forward.

‘We not only teach the world to sing, we teach the world to dream. And all those dreams? They’re the property of the Coca-Cola Company. They’re ours. We own those dreams. We always have.’

Jim leans back.

‘American pharmacist and Confederate army veteran John Pemberton was fifty-five years old when he mixed his first Coca-Cola syrup in eighteen-eighty-six, right here in Atlanta. In eighteen-eighty-seven - just a year later - the Coca-Cola name is trademark registered in eighteen-ninety-three the Coca-Cola script is trademark registered. In nineteen-forty-five the Coca-Cola red is trademark registered. By nineteen-fifty-one - thanks to a war that brought the world to its knees while providing us an international network of bottlers - Coca-Cola becomes the single most recognised trademark on earth. And it still is.’

Jim smiles, pleased.

‘Do you know why, Rob?’

Rob shakes his head.

‘Because of the fine legal work we do here in the intellectual property division. World-class work you’ll soon be contributing to. Dean tells me you’re just the man for the job.’

‘I hope so.’

‘I’m sure you know the law can be disappointing at times, a matter of applying narrow rules and arcane procedures. A sort of glorified accounting that serves to regulate a litany of business processes.’

Rob blushes.

‘That might be the law they practice upstairs. In this division we push the law, take it a little further. Sometimes in areas it’s never been to so we can extend our intellectual property. It’s very exciting work. Thrilling at times.’

Rob begins to smile.

‘I’ll let you in on a little secret, Rob.

Rob leans forward. Jim grins.

‘We are the law.’

Jim thumbs the original Coca-Cola poster on the wall behind him.

‘Everyone at the company knows the Coca-Cola origin story. How John Pemberton invented and sold his syrup to the soda fountain at Jacob’s Pharmacy here in Atlanta. How its popularity grew by the day. How people came from far and wide for a glass.’

‘How Asa Candler bought the rights and bottled it, turned it into a global phenomenon.’

‘Correct, Rob. But what most people don’t know is why Pemberton invented Coca-Cola.’

Rob looks a little bewildered. Jim stands and heads towards the open door.

‘Pemberton served in the Confederate army for almost the entire span of the Civil War - a blood-soaked conflict over slavery that turned brother against brother, tore this nation part, slaughtered hundreds of thousands, maimed millions.’

Jim closes the door and heads back towards his desk.

‘During a sword fight on horseback with Union cavalry in the closing battle of the war, Pemberton was slashed across the chest by a sabre. A terrible wound that left him in near-constant pain. It wasn’t long before he became dependent on morphine to ease his suffering.’

Jim sits on the edge of his desk, looking down at Rob

‘But using morphine three or four times a day can take it out of you. In the morning, you’re a little flat, a bit despondent. What better way to kick off your day than an invigorating concoction of cocaine, caffeine and alcohol. With sugar and extracts of kola nut to mask the taste.’

Rob looks shocked.

‘Yes, the first versions of Coca-Cola certainly contained alcohol. It was only phased out after the temperance movement took hold. A crusade - I might add - that we underwrote.’

Jim returns to his seat on the other side of the desk.

‘Rob, what do you think is our most important asset?’

‘The Coca-Cola recipe?’

‘Partly correct. Coca-Cola is ninety-nine percent carbonated water. It’s the one percent that has all the magic. It’s the taste of victory. A delicious syrup, a joyous nectar, a proprietary blend of mainly high-fructose corn syrup for sweetness, dash of caffeine for slight bitterness and lift, sprinkle of phosphoric acid for tartness, touch of caramel colouring - capital-E-one-five-zero-lowercase-d, to be precise - for the characteristic hue.’

Jim snaps his fingers.

‘Now how could I forget our most important ingredient, our most important asset? A very specific - what’s the legal term we use - yes, natural flavouring. Do you know what it is?’

Rob doesn’t. So Jim answers his own question.

‘Coca leaf extract.’

‘Coca as in cocaine.’

‘That’s correct, Rob.’

‘As in cocaine extracted from coca leaves.’

Jims nods. Rob is startled.

‘Cocaine in Coca-Cola? Isn’t that just some urban myth?’

‘Originally it was about a tenth of a gram per serving. No wonder people flocked for a glass at Jacobs’ Pharmacy. Quite the kick, quite the punch, correct?’

Jim takes out a set of small keys from his pockets, flicks through them.

‘Blacks picking cotton out in the fields would walk miles into town for a glass at the soda fountain, for a pick-me-up before heading back to work. Locals used to call it nigger juice.’

Rob is horrified. Jim picks a key and unlocks the filing drawer by the side of the desk, drags the drawer open, rifles through some files and pulls out a legal-size manila folder. Places it on top of the desk and slides it over towards Rob.

‘Article Twenty-Seven of the United Nation’s Nineteen Sixty One Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs imposed strict controls on the cultivation of the coca bush save for one precise exemption.’

Jim recalls the exact language of the exemption.

‘The Parties may permit the use of coca leaves for the preparation of a flavouring agent and to the extent necessary for such use, may permit the production, import, export, trade in and possession of such leaves.’

Rob opens the folder and sees a pile of Federal Register notices. The top one is dated a month ago and titled “Department of Justice - Importer of Controlled Substances Application: Stepan Company, Natural Products Department, 100 W. Hunter Avenue, Maywood, New Jersey 07607.”

Rob reads how the company made application by renewal to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to be registered as an importer of Coca Leaves (Code 9040), a basic class of controlled substance listed in Schedule I. How the company plans to import the listed controlled substance to manufacture bulk controlled substance for distribution to its customer.

Reads how comments and requests for hearings on applications to import narcotic raw material are not appropriate. How the DEA has considered the factors in 21 U.S.C. 823(a) and 952(a) and determined that the registration of Stepan Company to import the basic class of controlled substance is consistent with the public interest and with United States obligations under international treaties, conventions, or protocols in effect.

How pursuant to 21 U.S.C. 952(a) and 958(a), and in accordance with 21 CFR 1301.34, the above named company is granted registration as an importer of the basic class of controlled substance listed.

It’s dated and signed by a DEA Assistant Administrator.

Rob lifts up the government notice and flicks through more underneath. A stack of approved notices for importing restricted coca leaves through the decades. He looks stunned. Jim looks nonchalant.   

‘The Maywood-based facility has been processing coca leaves for the Coca-Cola Company for more than a century. It’s the only government licence like it in the United States. You could say it’s our competitive advantage.’

Rob closes the folder, places it on the desk with two hands. Jim takes it and slips it back in the filing drawer. Locks it and pockets the keys. Rob’s mind is racing.

‘Where do the coca leaves come from?’

‘A little from Bolivia, mostly from Peru. Empresa Nacional de la Coca, ENACO, is a Peruvian state company that has a monopoly on the commercialisation and derivatives of the coca leaf. It was created in nineteen-forty-two. In nineteen-eighty-two it became a state company under private law.’

‘How much is exported to Maywood?’

‘Around one-hundred-and-fifty-thousand kilos annually. Sometimes more.’

Jim smiles then stands and again heads to the door, opens it, looks at Rob who immediately understands it’s time to leave.

‘It’s the most important asset we protect here. It’s what you’ll be vested with. It’s quite the honour, Rob.’

Jim stands by the open door. Rob steps into the open hallway. There are desks and lawyers as far as the eye can see.

Jim pats him on the back.

‘Welcome to the team.’

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Copyright 2024 Stefano Boscutti

All Rights Reserved

The moral rights of the author are asserted.

No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, digital, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying or copying and pasting, recording or any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing.

Stefano Boscutti acknowledges the trademark owners of various products referenced in this work. The publication or use of these trademarks is not authorised or sponsored by the trademark owner.

This is a work of fiction. While many of the characters portrayed here have counterparts in the life and times of The Coca-Cola Company and others, the characterisations and incidents presented are totally the products of the author’s slippery imagination. This work is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. It should not be resold or given away. Thank you for your support. (Couldn’t do it without you.)

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