Diet cola debut happened Rite here

business lore

Experts scoffed, but Greenville residents just quaffed Diet Rite when the nation's first low-calorie soft drink was test-marketed here in September 1961.

Nick Nicholson, owner and president of the local Nehi-Royal Crown Bottling Co., said he and William Miller, a Royal Crown chemist, cajoled company officials into test-marketing the diet cola in Greenville.

"They only gave us a $10,000 budget to introduce it," recalls Nicholson, 83, a Greenville resident. "That included everything from buying bottles, to advertising and marketing."

Officials at Royal Crown's headquarters in Columbus, Ga., had studied the market and figured there was no demand for a diet cola, says Miller, 81, and current owner of the Beverage Research Center in Columbus.

"Even Coke warned us about this," Miller said. "They had piles of market studies that showed (diet soft drinks) would never be more than 1 percent of the market."

Miller invented the formula for Diet Rite in 1953 as a favor to a local bottler who had a diabetic teen-age daughter.

"Every week they came in and wanted more," Miller said. "I think she was giving it to her friends."

Eventually, Miller tired of making small batches of the drink and he told his friend to make a small bottling run at his plant. The friend did and sold some of the excess in Columbus grocery stores, without fanfare. When someone from Columbus, who had sampled the virtually unknown drink, told a high-ranking RC executive how much she enjoyed it, the executive had no idea what she was talking about.

Although company officials knew they had a formula for a diet drink, "no one seemed interested in it" until then, Miller said.

Again, behind company officials' backs, Miller commissioned a bottle design for Diet Rite. "With the bottle and word about the soda leaking out," Miller says, the company was tricked into producing it.

Greenville was selected as the initial test market, Miller said, because it was small enough to blanket the area with advertising, provide an adequate supply of the drink, and because marketing whiz Nicholson was one of the company's better bottlers.

The one-calorie soda, sold in 12-ounce bottles, was an immediate success. Stores could not keep up with demand. Several newspaper and magazines of that era said customers met RC trucks in parking lots to ensure they got their share of Diet Rite.

"That was almost true," Nicholson said.

After so much success in Greenville, Diet Rite next debuted in Chicago in December, "which is a terrible time to start a new soft drink," Miller said. By 1964, Diet Rite was the nation's fourth best-selling cola, behind Coke, Pepsi and RC.

"It got up to about 4 percent of the market," Miller said. "And diet soft drinks now have about 30 percent of the market. I guess Coke doesn't know everything."

Mike Foley