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U pops the age-old question: Coke or Pepsi?

By Jeff Shelman, Star Tribune
Issue: July 5, 2007

To fulfill two fundamental needs, University of Minnesota students need look no farther than the coolers of the Gopher Express shop.

There's Dasani water and Odwalla juice for hydration, and caffeine for morning classes or all-nighters is available in Full Throttle and Rockstar energy drinks and venerable Coca-Cola.

What you won't find at Gopher Express, or for sale anywhere on campus, is a Mountain Dew or a Pepsi.

Coca-Cola has enjoyed exclusive rights to sell its products on the university's campus, after winning the contract from Pepsi-Cola in the mid-1990s. But the contract ends in a little more than a year, and the soft drink giants are gearing up for a rematch.

By the end of this month, the local divisions of Coke and Pepsi are expected to submit proposals as part of the university's food and beverage contract, and a decision will be made in the months that follow. The 1996 contract with Coca-Cola was worth $28 million to the university, and the new contract, which will also include "pouring rights" to the new TCF Bank Stadium, could be even richer.

More than 135,000 cases of bottled drinks were sold on campus during the 2005-06 school year. And the exclusivity can help build brand loyalty among a demographic that is still establishing buying habits.

"I think college students are going to go for the sugar and the caffeine, regardless of who's putting it in the vending machine," said Christine Twait, a nutritionist at Boynton Health Services.

From arboretum to stadium

The University of Minnesota's 700-page food and beverage "request for proposal" covers everything from the supplier of dorm dining hall food to who will run the food services at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

"We obviously want to get high quality," University President Robert Bruininks said. "We want a lot of choice in this response, and we want good price.

"This is a really important contract for us."

The most visible part of the contract has to do with control of the 400-plus drink vending machines and numerous fountain units. This contract — which is scheduled to run for 10 years and could extend to 16 years — has the potential to be even more lucrative for the University of Minnesota than the previous deal.

Part of that is because the scope of this contract includes all five campuses. But it's also because the winner will also have a prominent place on scoreboards at TCF Bank Stadium when the on-campus football stadium opens in two years. The company will also receive one suite and eight club seats for the stadium along with the right to use the plaza for "public display or sampling," once a season.

Some just need caffeine

Questions about pop preference can elicit strong opinions on campus.

"I like Coke, Diet Coke is my favorite," said Amy Rust, a University of Minnesota sophomore from Brooklyn Park. "If I have a choice, I'll drink Coke. My dad likes Pepsi."

And if Pepsi wins this battle?

"I guess I'll have to try to find a new favorite."

Others aren't so positive.

"I have an issue that Coke is giving a lot of money for branding and a monopoly," Vladimir Makarov, an electrical engineering graduate student, said. "I think that's totally ridiculous.

"I don't like Coke, I think their products are unhealthy."

Coca-Cola's corporate practices around the world have come under criticism on a number of campuses. The University of Michigan quit selling the company's products for a while, and protests have occurred at other Big Ten schools, including the University of Illinois and Indiana University.

The University of Minnesota formed a "Coca-Cola working committee" to examine the company's labor practices abroad and, in a December report, found evidence of improper corporate practices "inconclusive."

On the Pepsi side, there have been concerns raised at the university about Dr. Deborah Powell, dean of the medical school, being on the board of directors of PepsiAmericas. Based in Minneapolis, PepsiAmericas handles bottling in part of the United States, Central Europe and the Caribbean.

A different bottling company, Pepsi Bottling Group, will be the unit bidding for the university's business.

If Brad Mateer's two Harvard Market stores in Stadium Village are any indication, Pepsi products — particularly the 20-ounce Mountain Dew — have their fans.

"Every day they'll come in and get their Mountain Dew," Mateer said.

Mengisto Shekur is a biochemistry student whose allegiance is up for grabs.

"Me, I like Coke, but I'm not that picky," Shekur said. "I just need caffeine, and they both have caffeine."

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