Story by Eli Marchbanks | Jun 27, 2018
Photography by Keith Borgmeyer

Shortly after the end of the Civil War, John Pemberton created a formula that he predicted, to use his own words, “someday will be a national drink.” True to his prognostication, the image of an ice-cold, fizzing Coca-Cola has earned its place as a staple of American culture right alongside baseball and apple pie.

In 1895, about 30 years after Pemberton created the beverage that would forever change the drinking habits of the American populace, a brewer named Jacob F. Moerschel would purchase the C. & L. Wagner Brewery on Dunklin Street in Jefferson City. In time, Moerschel’s two sons would eventually take over the business and, in 1922, acquired a “Bottlers Franchise for Genuine Coca-Cola.” The company has gone through many changes since that initial purchase in 1895, but it has stayed in the family for almost a half dozen generations.

Today, Jefferson City Coca-Cola Bottling Company is led by fifth-generation owner Jake Vogel.

Vogel, a former Army Ranger who served four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, would certainly seem the ideal choice to lead a company whose franchisor has always been a strong supporter of the military. “Coca-Cola has had at least a 75-year partnership with the USO, and it’s our pleasure to commemorate all our men and women in uniform,” says Vogel. One of the company’s trucks, painted in camouflage, is Vogel’s way of providing a constant reminder for the employees and customers alike of those who make tremendous sacrifices in service to our country.

Bill Heberle, human resources and community relations manager, would say Vogel definitely honors the military ethos of “service to others before self” with how he leads the company. While one can visit the company’s website for a list of charitable organizations to which they donate, Heberle says: “We don’t turn anyone away. We don’t look down on anyone unless we’re helping them up.” Whether the company is donating product as refreshments for a local event or making larger monetary contributions, they’re constantly giving back.

Vogel will tell you how he tries to instill into the business the values associated with the Ranger motto, sua sponte (“on their own accord” in Latin). The phrase is about how one should always be trying to do the right thing without prompting from someone else. “We are always striving to excel more and more in this,” says Vogel. “It never ends.”

Despite the fact that the company name includes a national soda conglomerate, Jefferson City Coca-Cola Bottling Company is still very much a family-owned business with strong roots in the community. While the company is happy to donate to national philanthropies, they do make an effort to focus their efforts on the local arts, schools, and churches of the community they have called home for more than 130 years. One example came in a sign with changeable letters mounted on the side of a building where local citizens could find out about local community events for that particular week. After maintaining a sign high on the side of a building became something of a safety hazard, the company was more than willing to replace it with a digital billboard that continues to serve the same purpose. The billboard is used to promote nonprofit and charitable community events. “We’re very proud of our billboard,” says Vogel, “and thankful to Jefferson City, MoDOT, and other partners who helped us be one of the first in our area to install such a thing.”

“We want to keep our 14-county region well served,” says Heberle. Whether it’s building a ramp at a local VFW or helping the local United Way chapter, the company likes to shower their next-door neighbors with support. Vogel makes it a point to dedicate a portion of the cost per case to local causes.

While being charitable has been part of their company culture from the very beginning, Heberle would say it was of particular importance to the company’s previous president, Carl M. Vogel (Jake’s father). Carl would say, “It doesn’t take very long to be kind,” remembers Heberle. While Jake served in the military, Carl served in both the Missouri House of Representatives and the Missouri Senate for many years.

The company has gone through many changes, including the discontinuation of their bottling operations in 2001; they’re now strictly a distribution center. Their adaptability is also seen in how they have responded to the public’s current perception of sugary drinks. You won’t find only the famous red Coke can in their building anymore; you’ll find more than one kind of bottled water, Minute Maid juices, energy drinks, high-protein milkshakes, tea, cold coffee drinks, and ginger ale, just to name a few. Terry Armour, the general manager and chief operating officer, explains how they currently have “more than 500 brands . . . among these are 20 that generate more than a billion dollars in annual retail sales for the Coca-Cola system.” Heberle thinks the current trend of people being “calorie conscious” will continue, and so the company will continue to come up with options to meet the changing preferences of their customers.

Their efforts to stay attuned to their customers is one of the reasons why Jefferson City Coca-Cola Bottling Company was a top-five finisher in the Market Street Challenge in 2016. The Market Street Challenge is a nationwide competition among Coca-Cola bottlers that measures product availability, customer growth, and expanded retail space, just to name a few judging criteria. “By simplifying our company,” says Armour, “we’ve created an environment in which speed, precision, and empowered employees determine who wins in the marketplace.”

Vogel and Armour look forward to being a Market Street Challenge finalist again. “We look daily for ways to become more efficient, stronger, leaner, and better,” says Armour.

Despite their national prominence, Jefferson City Coca-Cola Bottling Company remains in spirit a small, family-owned heartland company. Though their building is full of some of the most popular drinks in the country, “Our most important resource is our people,” says Heberle. He talks about how appreciative all the employees are of each other’s efforts to make this business such a fun success. Heberle enjoys giving away cases of soda to his fellow employees so much that staff are always joking about getting their shipments out “before Bill gives all our product away.”

Both the strength and generosity that results from the entrepreneurial spirit can be seen in this company. The symbiotic relationship that exists between this business and the community is a fine example of how the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. With both Mid-Missouri and the Jefferson City Coca-Cola Bottling Company working for the betterment of each other, there is much reason to be optimistic about the future. So, enjoy an ice-cold Coke (or a Minute Maid juice, Gold Peak Tea, etc.) and celebrate.

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