“It’s 95 right now, but feels like 105,” Toni Donaghey says on a sticky-hot August afternoon, in a New Orleans accent as thick and complex as one of her hometown’s signature dishes, gumbo.
As special events supervisor with Coca‑Cola Bottling Company United, Donaghey’s job is to beat the Bayou heat by refreshing thirsty Louisianans with ice-cold Coke products at gatherings large and small. During her 45 years with Coca‑Cola, she has worked five Super Bowls, a Final Four and dozens of New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festivals. She’s also been the face of Coca‑Cola at more school fairs, community parades, tradeshows and nonprofit events than she can count.
“New Orleans hosts 450 events a year, and we’re fortunate to get to be right in the heart of it all,” Donaghey said. “Every day is different.”
Her role, she explains, “is to make sure Coca‑Cola makes it to the concession area, to make sure it’s cold, and to make sure they have enough of it.” No small task, considering events like JazzFest draw up to 800,000 music fans over two weekends in the spring. “It’s our largest event,” she said. “And our second-largest event, the Zurich Classic (PGA golf tournament), takes place at the same time.”
And there’s no such thing as a slowdown in New Orleans, which keeps Donaghey and her team on the go. “It flows from January through December,” she says. “I have a barbecue festival and of course Mardi Gras at the start of the year, at the end of the year we have the Saints season and Sugar Bowl at the Superdome.”
Coca‑Cola is Donaghey’s first and only employer. “In meetings sometimes I’ll get asked what college I went to, and I always say the ‘University of Coca‑Cola’. I came to work here right out of high school and have been here ever since. Everyone teases me saying they’ll have to take me out of here on a forklift. I bleed Coke.”
Her bond with her coworkers keeps her happy and motivated. “This isn’t a business,” she said. “It’s a family. It just feels good to come to work every day. Everybody knows everything about each other.”
She’s equally close to her customers and community partners. “I’ve been to funerals and gotten to known spouses and children. A long time ago, I had a boss tell me to ‘become friends with your customers and make them feel totally indebted to you’. And that’s how we do business here. I get told all the time, ‘I’ll never leave Coke because of you’.”
Donaghey is proud of Coca‑Cola United’s deep ties to New Orleans, and to the support it provides to local charities in both good times and bad. When Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, United loaned a 15-acre parcel of land to the city for free for 18 months.
“It was the largest FEMA trailer park in South Louisiana,” recalled Donaghey, who waded through eight feet of water in her family’s house in the storm’s aftermath. “We helped build roads and put up 120 mobile homes. Katrina was a defining event in our city’s history, and being part of New Orleans for 115 years, it was the right thing for Coca‑Cola to do both from a humanitarian perspective and a business perspective. This is our home.”
She proudly recalls how hard she and colleagues worked to get retail and restaurant customers back in business, and to support law enforcement and first-responders any way they could.
“I remember checking in with the police commander of French Quarter to see how was doing, because they were working 24/7,” she recalled. “And he said, ‘If I could just get a Coke, Toni’. So we brought a truck down by Harrah’s (casino) to police headquarters.
“I’ve worked for Coke my whole life, so you get accustomed to it,” she concluded. “But when you see how much this brand and company mean to people, you realize you’re part of something truly special.”