ull disclosure. • If I could replace the blood in my body with streaming rivers of Diet Coke, I might. I covet it. The grip of the sweaty can, the burst of carbonated tongue sparkles, the invigorating caramel sweetness. I drink it all day. • That doesn't mean Coke is categorically better than Pepsi. That's like saying pirates are better than ninjas, Tupac is better than Biggie, Itchy is better than Scratchy. It's a matter of taste that just happens to inspire passionate rage in most Americans, this one included.
It presents a ceaseless dilemma.
You go to a restaurant. You sit down, consider the citrus salmon versus the chicken. You ask the waiter for a frosty Diet Coke.
"Is Pepsi okay?" he says. He gives you the apology eyes, because he's not dumb. He knows it's not okay.
The Cola Wars are strong after more than 20 years. In 2010, Diet Coke surpassed Pepsi as the No. 2 carbonated soft drink in the country. Pepsi fell to three while regular Coke stayed in the lead. This year, Pepsi snagged a sponsorship for the splashy new X Factor show, while Coke stuck with the competition at American Idol. Three out of four restaurants in the United States serve Coke products, according to Coke.
How do you decide which population to offend? It can't be easy.
At one of my favorite downtown St. Petersburg eateries, Lonni's Cafe, I watched with horror as Coke products disappeared from the case, replaced with those familiar blue cans. Coke's prices were getting high.
"People were devastated," said manager Angel Baker. "They would come in and eat but not want anything to drink."
Lonni's employees started buying both brands from Sam's Club. Now everyone is happy, and Baker gets it. When she gets a break, she cracks a Pepsi.
"For me, Coke is too carbonated," she said. "It tears up my throat."
Both Coke and Pepsi have elaborate pitches. Pepsi attracts restaurateurs with speed, exclusivity, demographic studies, price. And they offer snacks, like Frito-Lay chips. Coke also brings consumer insight, plus fancy fountain equipment and marketing advice. They tend to cost more.
"We never claim to be the low-cost provider," said Scott Young, a senior vice president at Coca-Cola who works with food service providers. "But the thing that we do say is we can make you more money than we can give you. Beverages are one of the most profitable items that a restaurant will have."
They don't discriminate. From McDonald's to Mom's Diner, they want your business.
"Believe me," Young said. "If you want to have a Coca-Cola, we want to make it available to you."
So why do we feed the fizzy Frankenstein? Has sipping so much sodium and potassium benzoate spiraled into something darker, more addictive?
I found a computer technician named Andy Reynolds in Indianapolis. He runs sirpepsi.com, a site devoted to Pepsi. He grew up across from a Coke plant but started swilling Pepsi early with his mother. He went years without drinking water until his doctor intervened. At 61, he's down to about four bottles of Pepsi a day.
At the height of his Pepsi fandom, he held Cokes with a Kleenex. He brought his own Pepsi to restaurants and left if the staff complained.
"I'm a Diet Coke fan," I told him sheepishly. "Don't hang up."
Andy never dreamed of becoming the Crazy Pepsi Guy. It quietly infiltrated his life and became his thing. He likes the way they do business. He likes the taste. The thought of quitting makes his head throb.
"At some point, it occurred to me," he said. "I really like Pepsi. I can afford it, so why bother with anything else? It's never that I've had anything against Coke, or any other brand for that matter. I have a preference."
Soda is the most patriotic of addictions, he said. We're allowed to drink it young, way before we can smoke or have alcohol. Both brands have had a strong wartime presence, plus sentimental places in American sports, music and pop culture.
"We're told from the very beginning that it's the all-American thing," he said. "And, you know, kids love it."
Andy felt like a soul brother, someone who understood the Pavlovian response. Ears perk up, glands start going.
"I prefer the can," I said. "I think it tastes different. When I hear someone crack one open, I have to get one."
"A can gets colder much quicker because of being aluminum, but it also has that kind of metal afterbite," he said. "I put the bottles in the freezer until they start to chunk a little."
"I think some people are just hard-wired to it," he said. "I'm amazed how many people tell me it makes no difference. I just don't understand their taste buds."
Back in Tampa at Bamboozle Cafe, owner Lynn Pham served both brands alongside her delicate spring rolls. It has appeased the Pepsi fans who went dry when she only carried Coke. She's around it every day, depositing dueling formulas into a fountain. Surely she had a preference.
"I personally like to drink tea and water," she said.