Coca-Cola arrived in Poland 50 years ago this week and brought with it a taste of freedom
In the first two decades of communism in Poland, Coca-Cola was seen by the authorities as a symbol of ‘rotten capitalism’, ‘liquid imperialism or even the dreaded ‘Colorado potato beetle on a bottle’.
So, when the drink first rolled off the production line at a brewery in Warsaw 50 years ago this week, it marked a huge change for ordinary Poles, for whom Coca-Cola quenched their thirst for freedom, albeit symbolically.
For the communists, the drink ushered in socialism with a human face.
It was just one of a raft of consumer products previously frowned upon, including Marlboro cigarettes and later Pepsi, which first secretary Edward Gierek hoped would stifle resentment at home and signal Poland’s openness to the West abroad.
“No more belt-tightening; we are benefiting from 25 years of post-war reconstruction,” he proclaimed.
However, it was a quid pro quo. In return for westernizing everyday life, he wanted something in return: “Be good, work more efficiently. Then you'll get candy.”
The history of Coca-Cola in Poland dates back to 1957. With Stalinism fading into memory, visitors to the USA stand at the Poznań International Fair could try it for the first time.
However, the famous beverage was not available to all. In the 1960s, it could be bought only with foreign currency at Pewex and Baltona stores.
Prime minister Cyrankiewicz had tried the drink on official foreign trips and approved of it. Some communists believed that the caffeine content would sustain factory workers during shifts. Others thought that it could be a good alternative to vodka.
There were plans to start production, but finally party boss Władysław Gomułka refused to give the green light.
It wasn't until July 1972 that the breakthrough came. At Browary Warszawskie on Grzybowska street, now a hip multi-use project brimming with bars and restaurants, the first Coca-Cola bottling line in Poland was launched under license from the American company.
In truth, the drink was assembled in Poland rather than made from scratch. At the beginning, only the water was Polish. The concentrate was imported from Italy and Holland, and the first glass bottles came from Spain.
However, by November the same year, a factory in Wołomin plant began producing the distinctive bottles, and a plastics factory in Bieluń Stary made the 24-bottle crates for returns.
Unlike in the 1950s, the Coke produced in Warsaw could be bought for zlotys, but only in two stores in Warsaw: Supersam on Union of Lublin square and Sezam on Marszałkowska.
On the first day of sales, 240 cases of 24 bottles each were sold in an hour totaling 5,760 bottles. Three years later, Coke in litre bottles was introduced costing 19 zlotys, with a deposit of 8 zlotys for the bottle.
Sales soon expanded into other regions and in 1973 Pepsi-Cola also arrived in Poland. The drinks were not universally available though. Economic planners decided that Coke would be available in certain voivodeships and Pepsi in others.
Gushing newspaper ads started to appear. “Coca-Cola - the world's most popular refreshing drink! It's already in Warsaw! Try it and you will understand why it is drunk more than 150 million times a day around the world. Cold, delectable, incomparably refreshing. Ask for Coca Cola wherever you see the sign!”
Advertising slogans for the drink became well known throughout society. The timeless Coca-Cola. To Jest To! (Coca-Cola Is It!) was invented by poet and songwriter Agnieszka Osiecka in 1982. Ten years later, the slogan was changed to Coca-Cola. Co za radość (Coca-Cola. What a joy).
The drink also inspired artists. Lyrics referring to it were written by Halina Frąckowiak, Kasia Kowalska and Franek Kimono.
By the 1980s, the fizz had gone and Coca-Cola production in Poland came to a halt. The economic crisis meant that there was a shortage of foreign currency to purchase the concentrate. There was also a shortage of bottles, sugar and even gas to carbonate the drink. Instead of Coca-Cola, Poles were offered a domestic orangeade called Florida.
The situation changed in the early 1990s after the collapse of the communist regime when Coca-Cola opened six separate bottling plants. In 1991, it opened a new headquarters in the Palace of Culture and Science.
Since then, the famous brand has become ubiquitous. It was a partner of the Przystanek Woodstock music festival and was also the title sponsor of the summer music festival Coke Live Music Festival in Kraków.
In 2012, the brand cheered on the national football team as the official sponsor of UEFA Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine.
To mark the half-century anniversary of Coca-Cola's presence in Poland, consumers who buy three bottles can claim a free Big Mac meal.