CHICAGO — Kathleen Berger died in May from coronavirus-related causes, leaving behind eight kids and a legacy encapsulated by a bright pink soda can.
Berger, who was 73, was a voracious consumer of Tab, the saccharin-infused cola known for its distinctive packaging, vaguely metallic taste and aerobic studio vibe. Introduced in 1963 by the Coca-Cola Co., it was once the nation’s dominant diet soda, producing a legion of fans so hard-core they called themselves Tabaholics.
But Tab lost its mojo over the decades, surpassed by Diet Coke and other carbonated descendants, and Coke finally dispatched the brand earlier this month with a eulogy of buzzwords (“We’re prioritizing bets that have scale potential across beverage categories, consumer need states and drinking occasions”).
The retirement led to hoarding that soon made Tab, which was already hard to find, as rare as a white truffle. As of Tuesday, the asking price on eBay for a single can went as high as $25.
Berger, whose Tabaholism was second to none, would have recoiled at such a markup. That left her children, who are spread from Seattle to Elmhurst, Ill., to suburban Boston, with a challenge: locate enough Tab in the wild so they could give a final, video chat-enabled salute to their mother.
“We were all like, ‘All right, let’s go out and try to find some, and then we’ll do this toast to Mom,’” said her son, Matt Berger. “And then none of us could find it anywhere.”
Tab was a product of the “Mad Men” era, concocted to compete with Royal Crown Cola’s Diet Rite. Coke’s marketers portrayed it as a weight-loss elixir and beauty enhancer, as an early commercial made clear.
“Have a shape he can’t forget,” a male voice purred as a lithesome tennis player tossed a ball on an empty court. “Tab can help.”
Within a decade, Tab took the lead in the diet soda wars, achieving a popularity it would keep well into the 1980s.
“I just always liked the taste of it,” said Mary Ellen Gourley, of Chicago, who started drinking it as a middle school student and kept going strong through her nursing career. “It had a little bit more of that citrus taste and I liked the saccharin. The carbonation kind of had more of a burn to it. It hooked me, and I just always drank it.”
Chicago restaurant executive Emlyn Thomas had a similar youthful initiation. In high school, after his girlfriend teased him about his weight, he went on a diet of unbuttered popcorn and Tab. He was quickly smitten, pink can and all.
“It had a very strange, tinny, almost bitter taste to it,” he said. “They tried to change it at one point and make it sweeter, and people rebelled.”
Berger, a writer who spent most of her time raising her children in Lake Forest, Connecticut and Massachusetts, started drinking it in the 1970s after going on the Scarsdale diet, a high-protein, low-carb weight-loss regimen.
“Tab was kind of her treat to get through it,” Matt Berger recalled. “She ended up losing a whole bunch of weight and never gave up the habit.”
She drank several cans a day and sometimes walked around the house singing the [jingle](
“You could tell she was super excited about it,” said her son, Jonah Berger. “It was like she reverted back to being her younger self when she would have a Tab. I think for her it brought back really good memories of when she was healthier.”
Berger spent her final months in a nursing home outside Boston, and when COVID-19 swept through in the spring, she became ill. Her family could only visit through a window before she died May 20.
When the nursing home returned her belongings, her children discovered two cans of Tab among the items. That planted a germ of an idea that flowered when Coca-Cola said earlier this month that Tab, which long ago was displaced by Diet Coke as the company’s calorie-conscious flagship, would be discontinued.
That didn’t sit well with Tabaholics, especially Derick Garr, of Kirksville, Missouri, whose love for the soda runs so deep that his personalized license plate says “TAB BOI.”
He started a Facebook group in 2012 called “Bring TaB! Soda back to ALL store shelves!” when the soda became so rare in his small town that he had to drive three hours to Kansas City to find it. The group has spent the last week and a half pleading with Coca-Cola to give Tab another chance, he said.
“We’ve gone to the top, as far as we can go,” he said. “Until it’s no longer around and hasn’t been around for a while, we’re not going to stop.”
A Coca-Cola spokeswoman told the Tribune there are no plans to revive the brand.
“We understand that this has caused disappointment for Tab fans, and we want to let them know that we do appreciate their passion for the original ‘pink pioneer,’” she said.
When the news of Tab’s demise broke, Berger’s kids joked in a group chat that the soda had gone under because their mom was no longer around to support it. But that led to a serious plan.
“We all said that we should try to find some to have one last Tab for Mom, because she’d be so upset by (the discontinuation),” Matt Berger said. “The perfect way to end Tab and to (honor) my mom’s time on the earth was to toast her with a Tab.”
So they set off to find some, only to discover that store shelves from Boston to Chicago to Seattle had been stripped clean. They posted pleas on social media and received commiseration and suggestions on where to look, but for days, none of the tips panned out.
Then Sarah Berger Kennie, who lives in Elmhurst, got a heads-up that the Schnucks grocery store in DeKalb might yet have a supply. She dutifully called, and the man who answered the phone checked the shelves. A single 12-pack remained.
Kennie asked him to hold it, put her 3-year-old son Carter in the car and made the hourlong drive west, half-believing the soda would be gone when she arrived. But sure enough, she walked in and found it waiting at the self-checkout line in all its pink splendor.
“It was an overwhelming feeling,” she said. “Kind of a happy/sad-type situation.”
By Tuesday night, the soda was in the hands of her siblings, who gathered around their webcams for the toast.
“Tab’s jingle said it was for beautiful people,” Matt Berger said from his home in Seattle. “Well, they were right. You truly were a beautiful person inside and out, and we love you and miss you very, very much.”
Kennie and her husband, J.R., raised their cans and took a sip as Carter bounced around the living room. In a few minutes it was done and everyone signed off, leaving Kennie with a fizzy afterglow no caffeine can achieve.
“I know my mom would have loved that I did that for her,” she said. “It’s definitely a good feeling.”
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