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Regional Favorites In A Global World

While it may surprise those outside of Texas, a little over a year after moving to Austin, I’ve developed an insatiable craving for Mexican water and have no fear of Montezuma’s revenge!

Luckily, my thirst does not require me to cross the southern border. Instead, I discovered Topo Chico, one of the most popular beverages in Texas. At first, I paid little attention to the sparkling mineral water that turned up again and again in my new city; I’d never been one to drink Perrier or San Pellegrino. But Topo Chico was seemingly everywhere, and eventually I started to buy into the hype. It is refreshing and a healthy alternative to soda, beer or other alcoholic drinks – though Topo Chico is also quite popular as a cocktail ingredient. (And in case you were wondering, no, this blog post isn’t sponsored content.)

I try to keep at least reasonably aware of pop culture, including food trends, so I was surprised that Topo Chico could go from a product I’d never heard of to one that showed up everywhere I looked so quickly. I decided to do more research. It turns out Topo Chico is not new, and it’s not everywhere. Topo Chico has been available in the U.S. since 1895. And while it is distributed to more than 30 states, Texas is far and away the center of its American fan base. Topo Chico represents 74 percent of imported sparkling water sales at Texas convenience stores and 62 percent of such sales at Texas grocery stores. But it is still hard to find outside Texas, which explains why I had never heard of it.

Topo Chico’s distributors did not set out to create a local phenomenon. Interex Corp., which distributes Topo Chico in the United States, originally focused its marketing on nostalgic Mexicans who had moved north of the border and wanted a taste of home, or Mexican-Americans who remembered relatives’ fondness for the beverage. But a combination of factors, including a nationwide boom in sparkling water as an alternative to sugary sodas and the rise of social media, especially Instagram, gave the brand a boost.

Interex reportedly does not emphasize traditional advertising, instead relying largely on word-of-mouth. Topo Chico has inspired intense loyalty not only among everyday Texans, but in food-world celebrities like Gail Simmons and high-profile musicians like DJ Mel (Barack Obama’s DJ of choice). While Interex doesn’t sell its product online, the Topo Chico website helpfully alerts devotees that the fizzy drink can be ordered through Amazon if it is hard to find locally.

Texans’ love of Topo Chico reminds me of the love of Taylor Ham in my native New Jersey. Both products are remarkably popular in one region of the country, yet virtually unheard of elsewhere. Some explanations for this discrepancy could be differences in regional tastes or limited financing, marketing and distribution of the products. But I still find it astonishing that in today’s highly connected global world, such local favorites haven’t become broadly popular.

Is this a good or bad thing? The default assumption these days tends to be that every product could benefit from going global, but there is something to be said for regionalism.

Part of the appeal of a local favorite, after all, may be the local part. Americans from different parts of the country may argue over the “real” version of pizza, chili or barbecue, and many West Coast transplants bemoan the loss of In-N-Out Burger. (We do have those here in Texas.) If something is everywhere, it belongs to everyone equally. It may still be delicious, but it may also be harder to feel a deep emotional investment in a nationwide success story.

Sure, Austin has its share of Targets, Chili’s and Home Depots, like any other major American city. But Austin truly embraces its slogan: “Keep Austin Weird.” The city’s uniqueness is what draws many people to move here in the first place. So while I want everyone to experience the joys of Topo Chico – and Taylor Ham – I also find it refreshing to encounter new potential favorites when I travel. And if you end up attached to a product, the internet is usually there to deliver what you crave.

Do you have a regional favorite? Would you like it to go global, or is keeping it local part of its appeal?

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