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Tab lovers hope to convince Coca-Cola to revive the once popular diet soda

Tab lovers hope to convince Coca-Cola to revive the once popular diet soda

Rodney Ho | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (TNS)

Coca-Cola discontinued its once groundbreaking Tab diet soda three years ago and a hardy group of fans are actively trying to get the company to bring it back to retail shelves.

Last month, on a sunny fall Friday, a dozen of them from all over the country gathered at the World of Coca-Cola Museum and handed over a petition with 6,500 names and several handwritten pleas to a Coke executive, who came over from headquarters less than a mile away.

“We thought it would be fun to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Tab in Atlanta,” said Adam Burbach, a 41-year-old Lincoln, Nebraska resident who organized the trip.

The group went on a VIP tour of the museum, then spent more than 30 minutes in the dispensary room featuring hundreds of sodas from around the world. Why? There also happened to be six dispensers of Tab.

It’s one of the few places left in the world to actually taste Tab besides a Coca-Cola store in Las Vegas and Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Most of the Tab lovers had long run out of their own supply and imbibed the drink from tiny sample plastic cups with wistful satisfaction.

“Our tour guide guaranteed us there was Tab and we were like, ‘Woohoo!’,” said Jenny Boyter, a retired school administrator from Buckhead who dressed in a Tab can outfit and handed out fans saying “I’m a Tab fan!” She also held a party for the Tab acolytes at her home the night before featuring Tab cookies, buttons, candles and Christmas ornaments.

Tab, which is often stylistically dubbed TaB, was created by Coca-Cola in 1963 targeted squarely at women. It was one of the first diet carbonated drinks on the market. At first, Tab used cyclamate as a sweetener, which the FDA banned in 1969 after evidence it caused cancer in lab animals. The formula then switched to saccharin.

With its pink motif, “Great taste. One calorie. TAB” slogan and “Beautiful People” jingle, the drink built a solid niche following over the next couple of decades, peaking at a 5.6% market share in 1980 among all soda drinks in the United States, according to Beverage Digest.

In 1982, Coca-Cola introduced Diet Coke, which immediately stole Tab’s thunder with a taste that was palatable to a broader audience. Tab’s sales dropped steadily over the next 38 years. By 2019, Tab sold just 1.4 million cases, according to Beverage Digest, compared to 636 million cases of Diet Coke. Younger generations are only dimly aware of Tab, if at all.

Indeed, Burbach, the organizer of the Save Tab committee, was the youngest person who came to World of Coke that day. Most folks were in their 50s and 60s.

Burbach said when he heard the news in October 2020 that Tab was going to be discontinued, he felt devastated. But he felt some hope when he found multiple Facebook groups venting about the loss of Tab. “How could we organize a group to be more strategic?” he said.

He purchased the savetabsoda.com domain and reaching out to various members of the Facebook groups. Several began holding weekly Zoom meetings to figure out ways to drum up support.

So far, they have tried phone, letter writing and social media campaigns. In 2022, they raised money and placed two billboards near Coke headquarters pleading for Tab’s return. Nothing has worked. The latest gambit is the petition and special trip to Atlanta in which many of the Tab fans met in person for the first time.

Vita Leftwich of New Orleans, a Tab drinker since 1974, said she purchased 95 12-packs in December 2020. She is down to a single 12-pack. “It’s just very sad,” she said.

Christy Wood, who flew into Atlanta from Littleton, Colorado, still remembers exactly where she was when she drank her first Tab in 1981 as if it were yesterday: “Mr. Steak in Salt Lake City on tap. The taste was so great. It made me feel so good.”

Andrea Ybarbo points to her stash of Tab soda at her home in Mableton on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023. Since Coca Cola announced they were discontinuing the diet drink in 2020, Ybarbo went on a search to amass as many cans as possible before they dissipated from the shelves. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com) 

When Mableton’s Andrea Ybarbo, now 63, found out the drink was going away, she cried, then went on an aggressive Tab hunt, finding 12 packs in Smyrna, Woodstock, Rome and Savannah as well as Amazon. She amassed more than 12,000 cans of Tab. For a time, Tab cans were stacked to the ceiling in her living room.

Three years later, that supply has dwindled to about 1,000 cans and sits in her dining room. Ybarbo consumes an average of eight to 12 a day and rarely goes more than two waking hours without one. She also makes it a daily ritual to call the Coca-Cola 1-800 customer service line to plead her case.

“I drink it every day and it’s wonderful,” Ybarbo said at the World of Coke. “It’s already expired but still tastes great! I drank four before I even came here this morning. I’ll drink some more when I get home.”

Unless Coca-Cola brings Tab back soon, Ybarbo, who is diabetic, will be out of Tab in a matter of months. She said there are no substitutes.

“When my stash is gone,” she said, “it’s gonna be a hard day. The taste is so unique. It has a great tang to the flavor. It’s perfection. I may have to go to rehab!”

Burbach thinks Coca-Cola placed all its bets on Diet Coke starting in the 1980s and starved out Tab’s marketing budget.

“There were a lot of people who were drinking Tab, but it became harder and harder to find over the years,” Burbach said.

In recent years, Coca-Cola has been able to dual market two primary diet options: Diet Coke and Coke Zero Sugar. While Coke Zero has taken market share from Diet Coke, combined the two drinks have more than a 10% market share among carbonated soda drinks in retail and Diet Coke remains the fifth most popular soda brand overall.

Burbach still thinks there is enough demand and has been reaching out to Coca-Cola’s regional bottlers. “We’re trying to find a bottler,” Burbach said. “If we can find one that is interested, that would give us an opportunity to purchase it.”

He said they’d even be open to a bottler releasing Tab seasonally, which would provide hardcore fans the opportunity to stock up.

A recent Beverage Digest story indicated some interest from bottlers who think it could work as an e-commerce option. According to Duane Stanford, Atantla-based editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, Coca-Cola would have to authorize such a move.

“I don’t think there’s any serious movement in that direction based on conversations with Coke,” Stanford said.

Coca-Cola, when reached by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for comment, did not say if they plan to bring back the drink.

Instead, they offered this statement: “We appreciate the passion the SaveTaBSoda Committee has displayed in support of the TaB brand. We’re thrilled that TaB’s legacy will continue to live on inside the Beverage Lab at the World of Coca-Cola, where guests can learn more about the story behind the ‘Pink Pioneer’ and sample the iconic beverage.”

While the drink isn’t readily available at your local QT or Kroger, Coca-Cola still sells Tab T-shirts ($29.95), mugs ($19.95) and phone cases ($24.95) in its official merchandise store.

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