CHICAGO — Kathleen Berger died in May from coronavirus-related causes, leaving behind eight kids and a legacy encapsulated by a bright pink soda can.
Berger, who was 73, was a voracious consumer of Tab, the saccharin-infused cola known for its distinctive packaging, vaguely metallic taste and aerobic studio vibe. Introduced in 1963 by the Coca-Cola Co., it was once the nation's dominant diet soda, producing a legion of fans so hard-core they called themselves Tabaholics.
But Tab lost its mojo over the decades, surpassed by Diet Coke and other carbonated descendants, and Coke finally dispatched the brand earlier this month with a eulogy of buzzwords ("We're prioritizing bets that have scale potential across beverage categories, consumer need states and drinking occasions").
The retirement led to hoarding that soon made Tab, which was already hard to find, as rare as a white truffle. As of Tuesday, the asking price on eBay for a single can went as high as $25.
Berger, whose Tabaholism was second to none, would have recoiled at such a markup. That left her children, who are spread from Seattle to Elmhurst, Ill., to suburban Boston, with a challenge: locate enough Tab in the wild so they could give a final, video chat-enabled salute to their mother.
"We were all like, 'All right, let's go out and try to find some, and then we'll do this toast to Mom,'" said her son, Matt Berger. "And then none of us could find it anywhere."
Tab was a product of the "Mad Men" era, concocted to compete with Royal Crown Cola's Diet Rite. Coke's marketers portrayed it as a weight-loss elixir and beauty enhancer, as an early commercial made clear.
"Have a shape he can't forget," a male voice purred as a lithesome tennis player tossed a ball on an empty court. "Tab can help."
Within a decade, Tab took the lead in the diet soda wars, achieving a popularity it would keep well into the 1980s.
"I just always liked the taste of it," said Mary Ellen Gourley, of Chicago, who started drinking it as a middle school student and kept going strong through her nursing career. "It had a little bit more of that citrus taste and I liked the saccharin. The carbonation kind of had more of a burn to it. It hooked me, and I just always drank it."