It’s not unusual for Coca-Cola employees to take  stretch assignments that pull them outside their comfort zones and into unfamiliar territory. 

We caught up with a colleague this week who recently returned from a rather unusual assignment, and one that we found somewhat fitting as we head into early-autumn, a time of backyard barbecues and fellowship. He was asked to infiltrate a famous, out-of-the-way BBQ restaurant and turn it into a Coca-Cola customer.

Given the sensitive nature of the assignment, we’ve protected his identity. We'll call him "Agent Red." We will say, however, that this employee has absolutely no sales or retail experience and went into this completely blind, naïve and perhaps even a little confused. But what "Agent Red" lacks in expertise, he makes up for in enthusiasm.   

Tell us how you got into this craziness.

I got a call from my boss’s boss asking if I would take on a special assignment of sorts. He knew I loved BBQ – eating it as well as preparing it – and said he had a "dream assignment" for me. He knew I was headed up to the New York City area and wanted me to budget a half day to go upstate to a BBQ joint he discovered and claimed was the "best in the world." This, of course, grabbed my attention, as he is a Southern boy and doesn’t speak in hyperbole, especially when it comes to BBQ. He presented a clear and present challenge to me: the place wasn’t a Coca-Cola customer. That was unacceptable. My job, should I accept it, was to convert it exclusively to Coca-Cola brands. I thought about it for a second and said, "Sure, why not. I can do this... I think."



Warren

So tell us about this place.

It’s called Big W’s Bar-B-Q, and it’s up in the Hudson Valley, along Route 22 outside the tiny village of Wingdale, New York. It’s about 75 miles north of Manhattan and 75 years removed, in a good way. Cows outnumber people by a factor of 10. The Appalachian Trail runs just two miles south of the place. It’s in a quiet and beautiful corner of the world, right up against the lush and hilly Connecticut border and not far from Massachusetts. The proprietor is a guy named Warren Norstein (pictured above), a former Manhattan chef and restaurateur who fortunately – for our sake – had a midlife crisis and decided he wanted to move to the country, spend more time with his family, and open a place that sold delicious, affordable roadside BBQ like he heard about Down South.

You don’t think of Manhattan chefs as BBQ experts.

You absolutely don’t, with the exception of maybe Bobby Flay, who makes a pretty good Texas brisket. Truth is, Warren – a.k.a. Big W – had no clue what he was doing when he started out 16 years ago. But man, he learned fast. His beef brisket is as good as anything I’ve had in the Hill Country of Texas. His pulled pork is as mouthwatering as anything you will find in the Carolinas or South Georgia. His pork ribs rival the best I’ve had in coastal Alabama and Mississippi. His smoked chicken is on par with the finest chicken shacks of Arkansas. And the sides, well, they are simply the best I’ve ever had. The "dirty" mashed potatoes, for instance, contain bits of fried pork cracklin’ that will send you on a spiritual journey. It’s just simply amazing BBQ that would easily be among the best in the South if it were located below the Mason-Dixon.



AT tractor

So how did you approach Warren about the conversion?

I just showed up out of the blue. No appointment. A total cold call, I guess you could call it. I got there about an hour before he opened and started taking pictures of his giant two-ton smokers which are located outside in a metal shed next to his restaurant. The smokers were pumping out some seriously intoxicating hickory-pork plumes and I knew this was going to be good. 

Warren saw me creeping around his place and came out with a friendly smile and a handshake. We hit it off. I told him I was from The Coca-Cola Company and had come all the way from Atlanta to eat his sacred ‘cue. I presented him with a pair of "Share A Coke with Warren" cans and the bromance was under way (at least as far as I was concerned). He took me inside and showed me around and told me his dilemma about cooler space and the challenges of rural delivery, and such. He said he was open to suggestions from us. I took that to heart and told him I'd be back in a couple of hours to eat lunch and discuss next steps.



AT path

So you called Atlanta immediately?

No, I hit the Appalachian Trail. Nothing clears out the head like the trail for me and since it was only two miles away, I decided I would gather my thoughts hiking while working up a big appetite along the way. 

How was the trail, and how did it help with your sales pitch?

Agent Red: Besides BBQ, there’s nothing more magical in the world to me than the Appalachian Trail. It begins about 90 miles north of Atlanta and runs all the way to northern Maine. This New York state section of the trail is really pretty, running through cornfields, cow pastures and gentle hills. The first person I came across on the trail was, by serendipity, Warren’s next- door neighbor. He, too, was hiking alone and I told him about my conversation with Warren earlier in the morning. He gave me an invaluable tip: Warren is famous for his thriftiness so appeal to that nature. 

The next hikers I ran into were a mom-and-daughter pair who had been on the trail for the better part of the last 17 months. Yes, that’s right, 17 months! I could spend hours talking about these fascinating ladies, but I’ll just direct you to their trail blog. I also told them my story and they said to tell Warren that AT thru-hikers (folks who hike from Georgia to Maine) love Coke with their BBQ, especially when Trail Angels (anonymous do-gooders) leave it in icy coolers by the trail. That was all the ammunition I needed.



Trail marker

So you went back to Big W’s and made your pitch?

Actually, I went to a local grocery store and purchased 16 cases of Coke and Diet Coke. I then took 15 of those cases and presented them as a gift to Warren. He accepted with a big smile and thank you and told me to sit down for some lunch. We talked about the peculiar nature of hikers and BBQ and all sorts of stuff. I learned that all kinds of celebrities and influential executives eat at his restaurant, including no less than four billionaires whom he said would remain anonymous.

We kicked around the idea of partnering next year on some sort of July 4th festival at his place honoring folks who are hiking the AT. I told him we might even try to get our hero Jennifer Pharr Davis, who set a trail record a few years ago by hiking 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine in 46 days, to come up for the festival. He told me to go back to Atlanta and put my thoughts down on paper and get back to him with a proposal. Before I did that though I bought another few pounds of pork and chicken and beef and sides and brought them down to the trail to give out to the next pack of thru-hikers along with some ice-cold Cokes. I wanted to end a near-perfect day by being a Trail Angel myself. Let’s just say I was the most popular guy in Wingdale, N.Y., that day.

So, what about the conversion? Did you win the account? 

TBD, but I think we have a good shot at making some strong inroads. Warren, if you’re out there reading this buddy, I love you, man! Let’s do this!