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Another rum-and-Coke order at the Mercury Cafe. Bartender, brace yourself: Chances are good the customer will take a sip, look confused and say, "This tastes really funny."
"It's not even close to perfect yet," admits Marilyn Megenity, owner of the restaurant/dance hall at 22nd and California streets. "It's the soda. It needs work."
Okay, then. On Mondays, when the Mercury is closed, Megenity and her two right-hand chefs, Steve Flank and Erin Bowman, experiment in the vegetable-preparation sinks. What they've done so far is stir up various mixtures of molasses, honey, lime juice, oil of cassis and oil of nutmeg in an attempt to make their own, all-natural cola. "The problem is, it all settles to the bottom," Megenity says. "If we'd use white sugar, it wouldn't."
But Megenity, who over the course of twenty years in the restaurant business has been known to hire based on her future employees' astrological signs, is not about to use white sugar. "It's a hard drug," she says. "God gave us a lovely thing in the form of sugar cane, packed full of trace minerals and B vitamins. When you refine it, you ruin it. White sugar and caffeine are highly addictive, and the other thing Coca-Cola has is parts of the coca plant--which is used in a whole spectrum of psychotropic drugs."
Which is why Megenity never touches the stuff herself and doesn't serve it to anyone else, either. In fact, Coke is just one of a long line of products that Megenity has deemed beneath her customers. "I'd go out of business before I'd sell Coors," she says. Her distaste for the Golden brewery family's politics, combined with her longstanding urge for self-sufficiency, led her to begin brewing her own beer last December. She now produces eighty gallons a week--enough to create such a storage problem that the two-story building that houses the current incarnation of the Mercury is dotted with refrigerators in unlikely places.
"We're getting away from bottle pollution," Megenity exults. "It makes no sense to serve individual portions of soda and beer in an environment like this. We should all be taking buckets down to the corner brewery and having them filled and refilled."
Having greatly lessened the number of beer bottles that wound up smashed in the alley outside the Mercury, in March Megenity decided to address the soda issue. She'd already tried various all-natural yuppie colas that tasted great, she says, but cost as much per bottle as Heineken beer. Then she stumbled upon a shadowy figurehead of the soda underground--a man whose demands for anonymity evoke British spy films and feats of derring-do.
"He made his own soda for places like gay bars that, for one reason or another, didn't want to do business with Coca-Cola," Megenity recalls. "He figured I didn't want to, either, and he brought in all these fixtures and his own syrup, which was pretty good." For a white-sugar-based soft drink, anyway. And it wasn't cheap. Still, when Megenity decided to make her own soda, the distributor let her keep his fountain fixtures.
"Marilyn has her own ax to grind, and I admire that," says the ersatz-soda magnate, while asking that his name not be used. "I mean, Coca-Cola--to come out of the closet and go up against them, well, they're terrible. They're nobody I want to fight with."
"We don't feel particularly threatened by this sort of thing," comments Fred Kraut, marketing director for Coca-Cola's Denver Fountain Service division. "Technically, a restaurant that does this has to inform the customer. Legally, they have to say that rum-and-Coke is actually rum-and-our-own-private-label soda."
Will Kraut and his minions hunt down waiters who forget to offer the disclaimer? "It's not a huge problem," he laughs. "So, no."
Not until the competition begins to taste palatable, anyway. "I know it's not sweet enough," Megenity says of her own soda. "I have to figure out a way to get the honey out of the bottom of the glass." She plans to keep experimenting. In the meantime, customers who can't stomach the Mercury's all-natural cola will be served discreetly from plastic bottles of King Soopers' Big K Cola. They had better get used to change, though, because it's happening all over the Mercury.
"It's a good way to live," Megenity says. "My father made his own whiskey all my childhood. There was always whiskey fermenting, and it was our job to watch it so it wouldn't explode." Private label Mercury whiskey is a definite possibility, with pseudo-Sprite and ginger ale to follow. Bread and mayonnaise are already made on the premises daily. Butter is just a matter of time.
"The other day Steve made crackers," Megenity says, happily looking forward to a Nabisco-less future. "I might even make ketchup. Even if there isn't a ketchup monopoly going on.