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Does McDonald's have the South down to a tea?

By MICHAEL KRUSE
Published March 29, 2007


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McDonald's has been selling its so-labeled and specifically pitched product called Mickey D's Sweet Tea for a while now in select markets on the East Coast and particularly in the South. Here's what's interesting about this: Hernando County has not been one of those markets.

Mickey D's Sweet Tea is sold in Ocala. It's sold in Orlando. It's sold in Perry and in the Panhandle and even in Naples and New Port Richey.

But not here.

Here, then, in the form of a drink offered, or not offered, at McDonald's, is another, potentially meaningful way to get at something of an answer to what has been a longtime question: What is the South and what is the North here in Florida? And here in Hernando?

What can Mickey D's Sweet Tea teach us about where we live?

This might seem ridiculous. It's not.

Sweet tea, after all, isn't just a drink in the South.

"It's as old as the hills," said Andy Huse, who works in the library at the University of South Florida in Tampa and in the fall will be teaching a class on Florida food at USF's St. Petersburg campus.

It's Mason jars on porches. It's still air and slow days and the breathless thickness of pre-AC heat in the middle of July. The "house wine" of the region, some say.

But regional differences are losing out all over to strip malls and Subways and a nationwide case of interstate off-ramp deja vu. A T.G.I. Friday's in Tampa is a T.G.I. Friday's in Oklahoma City is a T.G.I. Friday's in San Diego.

"The South," said Dick Pillsbury, Georgia State University professor emeritus of culture and geography, "is not as Southern as it once was."

Florida, of course, has always been confused. The people from New York, Michigan, Nova Scotia, Cuba - all of them contribute to a jumbled, across-the-board hodgepodge, where regional divides are much more subtle. In Florida, even up is down: The more North you go, the more South you get.

And Hernando County might be one of the most schizophrenic places in the whole darn schizophrenic state. Three in five people who live in Florida weren't born here, according to David Miles, local demographics whiz, and that number jumps to three in four here in Hernando. Spring Hill's full of Yankees, Brooksville's full of crackers, and the Suncoast Parkway has become sort of a vertical local Mason-Dixon Line.

Where's the state's North-South line?

"North of Tampa and south of Gainesville," said Pillsbury, the Georgia State professor, "it's always been a little waffley there."

"It's much more complicated than simply drawing an imaginary line across the state," said Gary Mormino, the history professor at USF St. Pete who wrote Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida. "You've got these pockets."

Like this: Hernando County has a statue of a Confederate soldier in front of the courthouse in Brooksville, fried green tomatoes are sold at dark-wood-walled Deep South Family Bar-B-Que on State Road 50, and not all that long ago lots of folks nipped on the stuff that came from the stills hidden in the hammock outside of town.

That's the South.

"Those of us who have ancestors around here perceive it that way," said Brooksville's Derrill L. McAteer, a fifth-generation Floridian.

"I think it's definitely a sweet tea area," Brooksville attorney Jimmy Brown said.

And yet.

No Mickey D's Sweet Tea.

"I can't give too many details because of competitive reasons," McDonald's spokeswoman Danya Proud said on the phone. "It would be safe to say it goes from Boston all the way down to Florida.

"It's not a national product," she added. "It would be considered regional."

McDonald's is big on regional products. It sells porridge in the United Kingdom, coconut water in Brazil and something called the Kiwi Burger in New Zealand.

Mickey D's Sweet Tea was introduced in Tennessee in 2003.

It still hasn't made it to any of the McDonald's in Spring Hill, which makes some sense, seeing as how Spring Hill is home to places like Boston Cooker, Chicago Eats and New York Gourmet Bagels.

More curious, though, is that it hasn't made it to the McDonald's on U.S. 41 on the Brooksville business strip, or to the one out in rural Ridge Manor West.

Some of Hernando's McDonald's do offer iced tea - sweet and unsweet - out of tall silver canisters set on the counter by the soda spigots. But that's not Mickey D's Sweet Tea, the corporate stuff, officially labeled, officially pitched.

But Mickey D's Sweet Tea recently showed up in Hudson.

And Palm Harbor.

And New Port Richey.

"New Port Richey?" said Huse, the teacher of the upcoming Florida food class. "In New Port Richey, everyone's looking for hot dogs, bagels and decent pizza.

"It makes me wonder about their research."

But McDonald's is out to make money.

It does nothing by accident.

And something, at least to this point, some set of data, some traffic or demographics stats, made some shot-callers at the McDonald's Chicago-area headquarters decide that Naples - Naples! - was more of a sweet tea sort of place than a county that has Brooksville - Brooksville! - as its county seat.

"Sweet tea, Spanish moss, magnolias and big spreading oaks and Southern belles sitting in the shade gossiping," Brooksville native Joe Mason said.

"Is that Hernando County? I don't know."

"I think it probably used to be, but I don't know if it is now," said Brooksville attorney Kirk Campbell, who sometimes in the summers in court wears a seersucker straight out of To Kill a Mockingbird.

"I think everything's changed," Brooksville longtimer and banker Bob Barnett said. "There are just so many people from everywhere else. I think Brooksville is still pretty much Southern, but when I look up at my church, First Baptist on Howell Avenue, there are a lot of people there who are not from the South."

It's all part of what Huse calls "the crazy quilt" of Florida.

"And the patches are always changing."

The McDonald's in Ridge Manor West, for instance, had a new product just the other day. Iced coffee. Comes in vanilla and hazelnut. So very Yankee.

Times staff writer Thomas Lake contributed to this report, which also includes information from the Knoxville Tenn. News Sentinel, the Charlotte Observer and ChicagoBusiness.com. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

[Last modified March 28, 2007, 20:31:37]


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