Old, caffeinated habits are hard to break, though. Diehard Tab drinkers have previously wrestled with false rumors of the drink’s demise. During the pandemic this year, they bugged store chains and Coke about bare shelves. Now that Tab’s fate is sealed, some are scouring stores and calling friends hoping to find the last cans.
"It’s not the end of the world,” said Leigh Ann Worden, a retired teacher from Marietta. Then she added, "It’s so 2020.”
Tab has been her caffeinated morning drink of choice since college. "It got me through 31 years of teaching school.”
But in recent years, she said, it wasn’t unusual for other grocery shoppers to see packs of Tab in her cart and remark, “They still make that?”
Carolyn Sloss, a marketing executive in Buckhead, called the news “heartbreaking” and credits the caffeinated beverage for fueling late study sessions in college.
She was drawn by Tab’s pink can, its absence of calories and the flavor. “I know for a lot of people it was an acquired taste.”
With its broad national launch nearly 60 years ago, saccharine-sweetened Tab was an early wave in what became a flood of beverages suggesting weight and health benefits.
“Tab came along when the culture was looking for something new," said Tom Pirko of Bevmark, a veteran food industry consultant. ”Tab is not a drink. It’s a concept. TaB is a cultural marker."
While it wasn’t the first diet soda, it had the marketing might of Coke behind it. Its stature grew in the 1970s and early 80s and it was a cultural prop in the 1985 movie “Back to the Future,” when Marty McFly tried to order the drink after time traveling to 1955.
But Tab never generated the broad appeal that eventually built around Diet Coke, which launched in 1982 and is still one of the top three-selling carbonated soft drinks in the United States, said Duane Stanford, the publisher and editor of Beverage Digest.
“Diet Coke was the real game changer,” said Stanford.
Tab’s U.S. sales volumes have been declining for years and fell 16% last year to 1.4 million cases, according to Beverage Digest. Diet Coke had about 636 million cases the same year.
Marion Nestle, a retired New York University professor of nutrition, isn’t lamenting the drink’s demise. “It’s good riddance to bad rubbish."
She blames Tab for helping to make artificial sweeteners mainstream, and doesn’t think they’re good for you, even if they haven’t been proven to be harmful.
Some consumers have cut back on artificially sweetened drinks in recent years, including Diet Coke, despite the draw of zero calories.
“Americans overall don’t like chemicals in their food,” Nestle said.
The pandemic, meanwhile, has sharpened pressure on Coke. It suffered through one of the worst quarters in its 134-year history this spring. In August it offered voluntary separation packages to 4,000 people in the U.S. and Canada — nearly 40% of its employees in those areas.
Several of the company’s more than 400 brands are being dropped, including Odwalla juice, ZICO coconut water, Coca-Cola Life and Diet Coke Feisty Cherry.
Will Gara, a traffic reporter on local radio, was among those in mourning for Tab on Friday. He remembers being the only guy in his circle of friends who drank it in high school. “It was considered a girl’s diet drink. I think my mom had it or my sister bought it, and I liked the taste of it.”
He remembered a commercial jingle for the drink and sang it for a reporter: “Tab, what a beautiful drink. Tab, for beautiful people.”
Worden, the retired teacher, is down to her last 12-pack. For a while now, a friend has been suggesting she make a habit of drinking water instead.
“Maybe now is the time,” Worden said.