Chattanooga-based Double Cola celebrates 100 years with community events across 100 days this summer, fall

Soft drink retains appeal with unique flavors, sizes and approaches

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Double Cola CEO Alnoor Dhanani at Double Cola headquarters in Chattanooga on Wednesday, July 6, 2022.

Some of Chattanooga's biggest fortunes were made from the Coca-Cola soft drink originally developed as a fountain drink in Atlanta and first bottled and canned in Chattanooga in 1899.

But in the shadows of the first Coke bottling plant and only 120 miles from where the world's top-selling soft drink was developed, another soft drink has evolved in Chattanooga and survived for the past century. Competing against some of the most promoted rival brands around the world, Double Cola has evolved and survived to celebrate its 100th anniversary this year.

Although a host of drinks have fizzled out against the marketing and distribution power of Coke and Pepsi, Charles D. Little and Joe S. Foster created a product in Chattanooga that has stood the test of time.

Little and Foster, former Chero-Cola employees, launched their soft drink business in Chattanooga in 1922 as the Good Grape Company and its grape soda. The business name was later changed to the Seminole Flavor Company, as the Chattanooga operation was experimenting with a formula to compete with Coke. The first effort was Marvel Cola, and the formula was later changed and trademarked as Jumbo Cola.

Little and Foster tweaked that formula some more, and in 1933, they came out with Double Cola, a product that never achieved the name recognition of Coke, Pepsi or even RC, but one that has managed to claim some space on grocery store shelves.

A key to its early success - and its name - was its size. In an era when American soft drinks were sold in 6-ounce bottles, Double Cola stood out by doubling the conventional bottle to 12 ounces.

Weathering the pandemic

Double Cola fountain sales are tiny compared with Coke and Pepsi, but that helped the Chattanooga-based drink to fare relatively better than its bigger rivals during the pandemic when restaurant sales of soft drinks fizzled while grocery sales of packaged drinks sizzled.

"Our fountain business represents a much smaller share of our business so we didn't lose as much as others in the industry during the past couple of years," Double Cola CEO Alnoor Dhanani said during a recent interview at the company's headquarters in downtown Chattanooga.

Despite a drop in overall soft drink sales during the pandemic due to lower fountain revenues, Morgan Stanley said the U.S. soft drink sales exceed $100 billion a year. But Double Cola has less than 1% of that market.

Double Cola still isn't always easy to find, even around parts of Tennessee where the company began and was bottled until the 1960s. Double Cola's cartons even proclaim that the product is "hard to find, easy to love."

The drink has been aided in recent years by Cracker Barrel, which sells Double Cola as a kind of nostalgic specialty item in its stores, and Food City, the Abingdon, Virginia-based grocery store chain that has given shelf space to Double Cola in most of its 132 stores.

But Double Cola is looking for growth far beyond its Tennessee soft drink roots. Double Cola and it top-selling drinks, including Ski, Oranta Orange Soda and Brewski, are popular in many Midwest cities in the U.S., as well as in a range of countries around the globe.

"Ski especially has a big following," Gina Dhanani, the chief operating officer at Double Cola, told Trend magazine in an interview about the company's 100th anniversary. "We have people driving from Ohio and Illinois just to say hi. They're very fanatical and see [Double Cola] as an extension of themselves."

The original Double Cola recipe was developed and, according to company founder Charles Little, "perfected" in 1933, and hasn't changed since "because why mess with perfection?" the company says on its website. The Ski citrus brand was added in 1950s and has emerged as the top-selling drink for the company.

Company at a glance

Founded: 1922 by Charles D. Little and business partner Joe S. FosterHeadquarters: ChattanoogaProducts: Double-Cola, Ski, Ski InfraRED, Jumbo fruit flavors line, Chaser, Oranta, Double-Dry Ginger Ale, Quad Energy, Minōku Coconut Water and Zili TeaCEO: Alnoor DhananiParent company: K.J. International, Inc.Website: DoubleCola.com

Building its own brands

During World War II's sugar rationing, Seminole continued bottling Double-Cola in the larger bottles, which hurt production. PepsiCo was in the same position and struggled during World War II. Double Cola's Little had a chance to buy Pepsi during the war but refused and forced on the cola Seminole brand.

Pepsi escaped bankruptcy and moved ahead of Seminole. In 1953 Seminole changed its name to The Double Cola Company.

In 1956, the company developed Ski, a soda pop comparable to Sun Drop. Ski is a citrus soda made with real orange and real lemon juice. The drink received its name when the company asked employees to submit a name for their new product. Inspired by a weekend-long ski trip on Chickamauga Lake, then-employee Dot Myers submitted the names "Ski" and "Skee" into the contest.

In 1957, Double-Cola made history by becoming the first major soft drink to be marketed in a 16-ounce returnable bottle. In 1962, the year Diet Double Cola was launched, Little sold the company to Fairmont Foods and then to Pop Shops International.

The current owners

In 1980, K.J. International, Inc. acquired Double Cola from a consortium of private investors. It remains wholly privately held.

Dhanani has worked at Double Cola for the past four decades and succeeded Edward Shanks as CEO in 1997. Dhanani replaced Double Cola's main syrup and soft drink concentrate plant on South Broad Street with a more modern and globally accessible production site in New Jersey in 1999 and moved the sales and distribution office of Double Cola into the Market Court building in downtown Chattanooga.

"In our first year after we moved into the more modern factory (in New Jersey), our unit cost per unit produced came down 38%," Dhanani said. "It's worked out great for us."

Dhanani has brought an international flavor to the Chattanooga-based Double Cola and helped it expand around the globe.

Products

Double Cola: The Double Cola recipe was perfected in 1933, and hasn’t changed since then. Named after its size, Double Cola was originally sold in 12-ounce bottles, which was twice the size of other sodas sold at the time.SKI is a citrus soda that was introduced in 1956. Touted as liquid gold, SKI has been making waves in the soda market ever since its arrival.Jumbo Fruit Soda: The original drink that started the Double Cola Co., Jumbo Fruit Soda bills itself as “a jumbo flavor of fruit in every sip.”Oranta Orange Soda: Oranta is known as a bold and refreshing citrus soda that is bursting with that mouth-watering, all-natural orange flavorChaser: The company calls this “the perfect balance of crisp and sweet. A fresh recipe that is slightly sweeter than the average lemon-lime soda.Brewski: Ski-flavored beerBlood Orange Shanty: A blend of Kölsch style ale paired with the Ski soft drinkSource: Double Cola Co.

Expanding markets

The soft drink company also expanded into the alcohol market in 2019 when it introduced its Ski-flavored beer, known as Brewski. Earlier this year, Double Cola also introduced its Blood Orange Shanty.

Dhanani said developing new products is key to success in the more rapidly evolving beverage market where tastes and preferences change quicker than in the past.

"We need to continually develop new products," he said.

Double Cola is also seeking to grow its bottler and distributor network. Although most of the major bottlers are lined up in exclusive distribution agreements with Coke or Pepsi for their major cola brands, Double Cola is able to sell to some Dr. Pepper, Coke and other distributors with some of its Ski and other specialty drinks.

Finally, Dhanani said he is working to improve the company's technology to improve both efficiency and product delivery.

Dhanani, who grew up in Tanzania and Hong Kong before going to high school and college in London, has found Chattanooga to be an ideal town for the headquarters of his family's business.

"We love Chattanooga and whenever I am traveling around the world, I love to return here," he said. "As a business, we could really operate almost anywhere. But to me, Chattanooga is really an amazing town."

To mark the company's 100th anniversary, Dhanani said Double Cola is sponsoring a series of activities over 100 days this summer and fall, culminating with Double Cola's Will This Float pitch competition at Startup Week Chattanooga.

Dhanani recalls when he first started working with the company in 1981, "I was sure I would not like it," after living in London and Hong Kong.

"But I very quickly was welcomed here and fell in love with Chattanooga," he said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340. Follow on Twitter at @dflessner1.

Century of history

1922 - Charles D. Little along with partner Joe S. Foster established Good Grape Company to market their newly developed grape soda1924 - Company name changed to Seminole Flavor Company. They developed a new soda called Marvel Cola. The formula was changed and newly named and trademarked Jumbo Cola; the first soda to have an Applied Color Label1933 - The cola formula is perfected and marketed in 12 oz bottles (double the size of competitors) and named Double Cola.1934 - Double-Dry ginger ale and Tonic water are trademarked1953 - Seminole Flavor Company changes to The Double-Cola Company1956 - Ski is formulated and trademarked in 19581962 - Diet Way is introduced as the diet cola version of Double Cola. Fairmont Foods Company purchases Double-Cola from Charles D. Little.1964 - Diet Way is reintroduced as Diet Double-Cola1970s - Ownership of the company changes hands many times as the distribution and products continue to grow.1981 - K.J. International, Inc., a London-based company, purchases the company and it becomes The Double Cola Company-USA. JUMBO, the fruit-flavored soda line of Double Cola, received updates to packaging and reintroduced during this time as well.1986 - Diet SKI is introduced as the first of many line extensions of the original SKI. Cherry SKI is introduced as the second extension.1997 - Alnoor Dhanani is appointed president of Double Cola Company-USA and remains Chief Executive Officer to this day1999 - Corporate headquarters for The Double Cola Company moves to Market Street in downtown Chattanooga2012 - Quad Energy was released in five different flavors all with energy-boosting ingredients and Double Cola taps into the ever-growing coconut water market with Minōku Coconut.2019 - Ski-flavored beer, called Brewski, is introduced.2022 - Blood Orange Shanty is introducedSource: Double Cola Co.