This article originally appeared on VICE Quebec.
Every week, Louis G.* goes to the post office with his car filled with crates of Crush cream soda bottles. The Canada Post officer looks at him incredulously, trying to understand why the young man is sending all these drinks to the United States, at great expense. But what she does not know is that he gets close to $200 [$152 USD] for each of these cases. In Quebec, a case goes for about $15 [$11 USD].
In September 2018, Louis created the Instagram page Rare Drank. He published some photos of soft drinks exclusive to Quebec, such as the Sprite peach and Kiri Cola. Quickly, he received requests from users ready to pay a big price for Crush cream soda. "The first day, I already had orders for five crates, with only a hundred subscribers," he says.
Louis was inspired by the success of the American company Exotic Pop, a website on which you can find dozens of soft drinks from around the world. A simple bottle of Fanta can be as much as $50. The company also installs vending machines in the United States.
The craze for these luxury drinks is inflated by rappers like Lil Pump, Travis Scott, Migos, or Drake, who show them on social media and talk about them in their songs. This craze is also closely linked to the consumption of lean (also called purple drank or syzzurp): codeine syrup mixed with soft drinks. Since the 1990s, this opioid has been associated with the hip-hop community in the southern United States.
"The majority of my clients are either lean dealers, rappers, music labels or studios," says Louis. "Before, these people went to the convenience store to buy 35 Sprites so that everyone had something to drink. Now they order a box from me and sell it for $15 to $20 a bottle."
A bottle of 500 milliliters of lean can go for more than $1,200 on the black market. "The kind of consumer who wears chains at $30,000 doesn't care to pay [for] a $20 bottle to put 60 ml of syrup in it. It's more baller on social networks. For him, it's better than Dom Pérignon."
Louis has made Crush cream soda his favorite brand. The translucent product is a Quebec exclusivity. He sells 15 to 40 cases a week. Even Lil Pump drinks it. "The dye-free beverages are flying off much faster as lean lovers can see their syrup fall into the bottom of the bottle and put the image on social networks. It's really more a story of image than of taste."
However, exporting dozens of crates of soft drinks to the United States has proved much more complicated than expected for the young entrepreneur, who previously worked as a social media manager for influencers. In September, his first shipment was a complete failure.
"I knew absolutely nothing about customs," he says. "The Food and Drugs Administration had intercepted my stock. I received a call from the Department of Homeland Security. I did not have an importer number and everything was seized."
According to the Canada Border Services Agency, it is legal to export soft drinks by mail. "It is the responsibility of the exporter to verify the eligibility of these products in the country where the product will be exported," says communications advisor Jacqueline Roy. "Exports of unrestricted commercial goods such as soft drinks that are valued at less than $2,000 [$1,520 USD] do not need to be declared for export."
However, under US law, Rare Drank is completely illegal. To cross the border, shipments of beverages must be registered with the FDA and the United States Customs and Border Protection. Louis did not have any of these authorizations and has not applied for them.
Smelling easy money, he had no intention of letting his profit fly away so quickly. He had just left his old job to devote himself entirely to Rare Drank. He filled his car with cream soda bottles to cross the border in person. He makes the customs officer believe that he is a representative in the food field. Once in Plattsburgh, he goes to the post office to send the precious liquid to all his customers.
The ploy did not last long. "In January, a customs officer gave me a letter from the US Department of the Interior that required me to obtain an import permit. I exposed myself to a fine of $5,000. "
Louis now turns to Canada Post to deliver his cargo. Every week he sends hundreds of bottles through the regular mail system. And he crosses his fingers so that they are not intercepted once they arrive in the United States. "Today, it costs me about $100 [$76 USD] shipping per crate. It's heavy, liquid. When I sent it directly from the United States, I paid $40 [$30 USD]."
The "soft drink dealer" also tried to reach Pepsi's Canadian offices and Coca-Cola to offer them a partnership. "In the United States, there is a Crush drink with the image of Travis Scott and Exotic Pop. There is a market for that and the industry does not understand it. VICE Quebec also contacted the representatives of the two multinationals, without success.
Even if its "artisanal" delivery logistics are more and more complex, Louis is still trying to diversify his offer of exclusive products to Quebec territory, through its new website. There is now a batch of seven boxes of Paw Patrol cereal for $110 [$83 USD], eight bags of ketchup chips for $100 [$75 USD] and even bottles of Red Champagne, the official carbonated drink from Lac-Saint-Jean.
"The business is getting way too big for me to let go," he said, taking a sip of an apple-flavored beverage. "The sky is the limit!"
Simon Coutu is on Twitter.
* Louis G. asked us to preserve his anonymity given the illegality of his activities.