In 1960, brothers Manuel and Cristóbal Sánchez Fernández helped to build a factory in Malaga to produce an American drink which had never been tried here before. At that time the area around the airport was all countryside, and the site was sold to the multinational company for very little money by their uncle's father. It would be four years before Cervezas San Miguel arrived on the scene to keep Coca-Cola company.
Once the brand new bottling plant was finished, the two young men became part of the staff. They went from laying bricks to bottling 'The Real Thing', as the slogan went. Other members of the family also joined them at the firm, including their mother, who despite being over 50 had to go to work because she had been widowed and found herself struggling to pay debts.
Her name was Inés and she almost literally worked her fingers to the bone, hand-washing the uniforms of the workers who sold Coca-Cola at the football ground and the bullring.
"They were very hardwearing white overalls. Mum's hands were always raw and her back was terrible," remembers another of her sons, Francisco, today. He is also a former worker at the plant, and as a boy he would walk with his mother from the Zapata district of Alhaurín de la Torre to the factory. It took an hour and a half, and then the hard working day would begin.
"While she was working I used to stay at an aunt's house in La Loma de San Julián," he says, showing me a photo his brother had sent by WhatsApp - their mother at the sink, dressed in widow's black, her hands in the water with those white overalls. The hardworking Inés became an institution at the factory; her children have proudly kept the plaque she was presented with when she retired.
Ten from the same family
Ten members of the Sánchez Fernández family, from three generations, have worked for the successive companies that have run the Coca-Cola plant for 60 years: Surbega, Rendelsu, Coca-Cola Iberian Partners and Coca-Cola European Partners.
"That was quite normal; entire families used to work there," says Francisco, known by his colleagues as 'Uncle Paco'. He worked in the warehouse for 37 years and took early retirement in 2013 due to back problems.
"It was very hard work, especially at first, when there were no trolleys and the crates had to be carried and loaded onto the lorries by hand," says Francisco, who is now 67 years old.
Paco hadn't tasted Coca-Cola either, until he started at the factory. He says the earlier versions tasted better. "Our favourite was the 'double one', which is what we used to call a half-litre bottle made with an old machine that was really slow...I think that's what made it taste so good," he says. Can he give us a clue about the famous formula for Coca-Cola? "I have no idea. Containers used to arrive with it ready-prepared and here we added the water, sugar and the chemicals (preservatives and antioxidants). A ten-litre container was for 10,000 litres of water. The gas was introduced at the time of bottling. When you opened a container, what was inside was like tar. It was horrible!" admits Paco, who also remembers when someone made a mistake mixing the Coca-Cola Zero "and we had to empty an entire 10,000 litre tank".
In the 1960s and 1970s, and well into the 80s, the atmosphere at the factory was "like one big family. They knew all our names. Then later they gave us all a number and that's what we became, a number," says Paco. He recalls with affection the first manager at the plant, Ramón Jover y Tripaldi, "a very good person, he treated my family very well," he says.
At that time, Coca-Cola even had its own float in the Three Kings Parade in Malaga. The employees' children received Christmas gifts from the firm, it had its own football team and every time a new product was launched, it threw a party. The company even built apartments for its workers, at a very low rent. "We worked hard but we were well paid and the atmosphere was very good," Paco says. Even so, in the 1980s and 1990s vacancies often arose because a lot of staff went to work for construction companies, where they could earn more. "Those of us who stayed did better in the long term because we receive a good pension," says Paco.
Obviously, things changed with the turn of the century. Technology was introduced into the factory, with mechanised processes which reduced the need for workers. There were changes in shareholders, the older employees began to retire and the atmosphere was no longer that of a family business. The last member of the Sánchez Fernández family to leave the factory was Borja, one of Paco's sons, who would work in the summers as a supply forklift operator. "The plant had less work and they just stopped contacting him," says his father.
The closure was expected
Neither Paco nor his colleagues were surprised by the announcement that the Coca-Cola plant in Malaga was to close. "We smelled this happening a while ago. The company was sending more and more work to Seville. We used to bottle all the products here... Fanta orange and lemon, Sprite... but that all gradually went," says Paco, unable to hide his sadness.
"It was more than just a job: they were my family," he says. His nostalgia is mixed with anger towards the politicians who, he says, didn't do enough to defend the industrial sector in Malaga.
"We have ended up with nothing: Amoniaco, Intelhorce, Colema, Bacardi, Donuts... ," he says listing previous industries that have closed down in the area. "One day they will lose San Miguel as well," he warns.