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Alex Cochran

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Perspective: Utah’s ‘dirty soda’ war may give way to a revolution

The nation seems to be waking up and smelling the aspartame. I just don’t know why it took so long

We don’t do everything right in Utah, but we do make a mean dirty soda.

On Dec. 20, Olivia Rodrigo — the patron saint of America’s breakupees — posted a photo of her holding a Swig 32-ouncer.

Screenshot, Instagram

The iconic photo hit the zeitgeist on the heels of a New York Times writeup all about Utah’s dirty soda shop phenomenon.

These are heady times for those of us who regularly frequent Swig or Sodalicious or Thirst or Fiiz or honestly whichever establishment is closest because they all serve the same soda with the same Torani syrup and the same cold, pink sugar cookies.

Suddenly the nation seems to be waking up and smelling the aspartame, and, as the Times reports, dirty soda shops are spreading across the West.

I’m just not sure why it took so long.

I guess we were always poised to be innovators in the soda space, given that many of us adhere to a religious code for food and drink that prohibits coffee. Instead, we imbibe our caffeine cold, on the rocks and in 44-ounce styrofoam cups. That has always been the way of our people. What’s relatively new, however, is the addition of fruit, Italian syrup and dairy to the equation.

The dirty Diet Coke — the mother of all dirty sodas — arrived on the scene in the early 2010s. Diet Coke mixed with coconut syrup, fresh lime and a splash of half-and-half became the official drink of tired Utah moms. And it became the anchor beverage for Swig, followed soon thereafter by Sodalicious.

Much has been written of the war between the two shops in their relative infancies. I have to assume some sort of settlement was reached since both shops are opening franchises all over the valley. Plus the aforementioned offshoots, all serving the same drinks, with the same syrups, and the same cold, pink cookies. And they all seem to be thriving.

Soda shop Swig sign is shown Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016, in Bountiful, Utah.
Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

It could be because they cater to busy moms in a world that often fails to cater to busy moms. Drive-thrus are key to parents rushing between school pickup and various lesson drop-offs, or those with giant carseats and toddlers in tow. The thought of having to unload my kids from the car and load them back in is often enough to keep me from going somewhere. The soda shops get me.

Or it could be that we love our specifically Utahn inventions.

Just as vegans will tell you they’re vegan within seconds upon meeting them, a Utahn will tell you about fry sauce. “Oh, you mean thousand island dressing?” you might respond, to which they will tell you, “No, it’s different” (even if it’s not).

Or it could be because dirty sodas are delicious. But of course they are. Something delicious layered on something delicious is delicious. Ice cream is better with toppings. Pizza is better with pepperoni. A Diet Coke is better with lime and a splash of coconut syrup.

It could also be that these shops offer patrons a small reprieve from the mundane and rigor of everyday life. A sip of happiness, perhaps a bite of something baked and frosted, is just enough to add a brief escape from those very long afternoons, which is likely why a full street in Draper is blocked with cars waiting to go through the Swig drive-thru every day at 2:30 p.m.

Last year when we were elbows-deep in COVID-19 lockdown, I started a habit of visiting Swig every afternoon. It was sometimes the only place I went all day. Just for a couple of dollars, it never failed to deliver.

I don’t know if these shops will experience the same success nationwide as they have here. I once visited a Cafe Rio in Colorado and was astonished to find no other customers. Not everything can survive crossing state lines. And if I’m being completely honest, I’m not sure I want them to, as exciting as it may be to see a celebrity hold a Swig cup. I think there’s a certain charm to having these shops be as ubiquitous as Latter-day Saint chapels along the Wasatch Front. It’s specific to us and our way of life, and there might be a real sense of loss if they expand everywhere.

But if they do take off nationally, or even globally, I won’t complain about being within minutes of a 44-ounce Diet Coke on pebble ice with lime.

Meg Walter is the editor-in-chief of The Beehive and a Deseret News contributor.

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