If you’re heading to New Orleans for Mardi Gras this week (or if you’re already there), you might wonder how it’s so easy to snag a cold Coca-Cola along every parade route. You can thank a hometown woman named Toni Donaghey for that. Across four decades, she has become the face of Coca-Cola at every community gathering in a city where gathering is a way of life.
Story by Tad Bartlett | Photos by L. Kasimu Harris
Toni Donaghey’s life is an endless festival. Street festival, school festival, music festival. Po’ boy festival, cochon de lait festival, hot air balloon festival, orange festival, strawberry festival, barbecue festival. And on up to the granddaddies of all the festivals — the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (so long established it gets its own universally recognized short form, “Jazzfest”), and of course, the biggest and baddest of them all, Mardi Gras.
More than 450 festivals and special events in all, every year. And one person is integral to every one: Toni Donaghey, a diminutive dynamo of a woman who has been taking care of Coca-Cola business in this city for the last 46 years. For almost every festival and many sporting events in and around New Orleans, Toni and her crew are on the scene before and after for set-up and take-down of the beverage stations supplied by the Crescent City Coca-Cola Bottling Co., the New Orleans division of family-owned regional bottler Coca-Cola United Co.
New Orleans is a city of community comings-together. Whether it’s a Saints football game, one of the dozens of parading occasions throughout the year, high school sports, a funeral and second-line, or a neighborhood festival, few cities have as many excuses for shared cultural experience as New Orleans.
Toni and her team have built a deep connection to that community as they help refresh the masses. The tight-knit team of Toni and “her guys” — Spencer Constant, Keith Matherne, and Dave Druilhet — collectively have more than 130 years of experience working with Crescent City Coca-Cola. And they are often joined by a fifth “volunteer,” Toni’s husband, Phillip.
“Watching Toni pull it together is like a ballet,” says Phillip. “It’s so well choreographed, how she makes it come together.”
Mardi Gras is, without a doubt, the largest street festival on Toni’s calendar as the special events supervisor for Crescent City Coca-Cola. But the rhythm for Toni is laid by the drumbeat of hundreds of smaller events.
Toni says these small events are “a lot of work, a lot of maintenance, because the people don’t do it on a regular basis,” but that when she retires, “I want to be a grandmother that volunteers for these things. There’s so many of them, and they’re all different; they really are.”
Of course, for all that talk, Kel Villarrubia, a vice president at Coca-Cola United who has known Toni since she became the supervisor for special events, says, “You don’t see her wanting to retire.”
On a cold Sunday in November, before sunrise, Toni is standing at the intersection of Carrollton Avenue and Oak Street in uptown New Orleans, ready to lead the set-up for the Oak Street Po’ Boy Festival. In seven compact city blocks today, 30 food vendors will vie for the prize of top po’ boy of the year, feeding the stuffed, savory sandwiches to tens of thousands of people. And tens of thousands of po’ boy eaters do get thirsty.
Toni was a dancer when she was younger, and you could see it on that November morning on Oak Street. Her hair was cropped in a jaunty and stylish pixie cut. Her outfit was perfect, from her Coca-Cola-branded pullover down to her bright red shrimp boots (north of New Orleans they’re called “galoshes,” south of New Orleans they’re “bayou Reeboks”). Topping it all was the dancer’s mask: No matter the stress or difficulty of the work, the constant movement, the counting of cases and interactions with vendors, Toni beams an incessant smile warm enough to melt snow or boil crawfish. Her moves are quick and purposeful, yet executed with a grace that appears effortless.
What might appear, though, to be just another stroll down the street resulted in accomplishing the delivery of hundreds of cases of the various products bottled by Crescent City Coca-Cola. At each beverage station, Keith and Spencer unload cases of drinks from their bright-red delivery truck onto dollies while Toni checks against her clipboard and talks to the vendors, before directing her team to the next station.
“Hey, Miss Toni!” calls out a passing beer-delivery driver. A food vendor yells, “Morning, Toni.” These greetings are repeated up and down the street, and she returns them all with a genuinely interested inquiry of “How are y’all doing?” Through it all, she is checking the clipboard and dealing with vendors and her guys, as cases are unloaded and delivered.
The sun finally cracks into the sky, pouring morning down on the preparing festival. Two huge Rottweilers jump off the front porch of a house as Toni walks by and come right up to the chain-link fence, which they could have easily jumped, but they stay quiet, their noses twitching as they smell the passers-by.
“Spencer, remember when those were just puppies?” Toni asks.
“Yeah. I’d hate to meet them without that fence between us now,” Spencer replies, laughing as he wheels a dolly loaded with drinks to the next beverage station.
“Aw, they’re good boys, though,” Toni says.
Toni, Spencer, and Keith (and Phillip, joining his wife and her team for these brisk morning rounds) know those dogs, like they know the rest of the residents in the neighborhood and the vendors for the festival. This walk is repeated yearly, these greetings, the dogs, the morning sun. After their deliveries are complete and the team is walking back to where they would stage the delivery truck for any necessary mid-festival restocking, Toni notices an older Coca-Cola crate behind a small neighborhood grocery.
“Look at that, Spencer. How old do you figure that crate to be?”
“Miss Toni, you must’ve still been in merchandising when that crate was delivered to that store,” Spencer says with a short laugh.
Toni Donaghey started working at Crescent City Coca-Cola in 1972, when she was 18 years old, as a customer service representative.
At that point, Crescent City Coca-Cola was a 70-year-old independent bottling company, founded in 1902 by Crawford Johnson and acquired by New Orleans’ Freeman family in 1906. Johnson continued building the independent bottling group Coca-Cola United, based in Birmingham, which is still owned by the family of his descendants and which acquired Crescent City Coca-Cola in 2016 — bringing it back into family ownership a couple decades after Coca-Cola’s corporate entity in Atlanta had bought it from the Freemans. Toni moved steadily up through the Crescent City Coca-Cola organization, moving on to the cooler service department, then outside sales, before being put in charge of special events in 1988.
Toni and her guys’ early morning of the set-up at the Po’ Boy Festival is repeated throughout the year. Some weekends in the good-weather seasons of spring through early fall, five or 10 festivals can stack up on each other, and her team will split into two squads, setting up some festivals a day or two ahead of time, getting everything in place so that when the community comes together all over the city, drinks are ready. The machinery that puts the cold drinks in your hand is invisible.
At Mardi Gras time, during the Carnival season, this machinery is the same, but all is magnified. The early mornings are earlier, the coordination more intricate, but in many respects, it's just another festival on Toni’s ceaseless calendar.
Of course, this festival starts rolling much earlier than Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras Day, which this year falls on February 13 — next Tuesday. But the partying began in earnest on the weekend of January 27, and the action will be almost nonstop from today — when the Krewes of Druids and Nyx march, through the long trains of parades and krewes on Mardi Gras Day itself. The primary parades stretch across two parishes, with full-scale parade schedules in both New Orleans and Metairie in neighboring Jefferson Parish.
“If you picture Veterans’ Highway,” the main parade route in Metairie, “St. Charles Avenue, and of course the French Quarter — we deliver to all those stops,” Toni says. “And we’re a big sponsor of Family Gras” — a multi-day festival-within-a-festival on the Metairie parade route that features major bands on a stage and multiple food and drink vendors — “and the French Quarter is a whole different animal, too. We’re there every single day.”
While most people might associate Mardi Gras with debauchery or the antics of tourists on Bourbon Street, the long parade routes under the oaks of St. Charles Avenue or along the broad boulevards of Canal Street and Orleans Avenue in New Orleans or Veterans’ Memorial Boulevard in Metairie are in actuality miles and miles of linear community picnics. Gathered are families and groups of old friends, reunions, new acquaintances, toting not just chairs for waiting and ladders for viewing, but also grills for cooking and vats and casseroles filled with jambalaya and etouffee and fried chicken, chopped fruit, finger sandwiches, butcher-paper-wrapped muffalettas, brownies, and pies. All this gets shared from one group to the next, up and down the street, punctuated by marching bands and dance teams and floats, under sunny skies or rain clouds, and at night lit by the flambeaux, the carriers of the fire.
To accommodate these crowds, this community, these families, Toni and her guys do their set-ups even earlier, their pick-ups even later. Hours before the parades, not only are the crowds beginning to gather and stake out viewing spots along the routes, but high school marching bands and mounted groups and dance teams are being transported by buses and trailers to the staging areas that stretch for many blocks before the beginnings of the routes. The Coca-Cola trucks have to get in and get out before all this begins, with the mirror-image happening when the parades end. They deliver product for the Zulu parade, which runs on Mardi Gras morning, on the Wednesday before. They deliver for Bacchus, a Sunday evening super-krewe, at 3 a.m. on Saturday. Monday morning at 3 a.m., they’re taking out the Bacchus set-up and delivering for Orpheus, the Monday night parade. The parades roll, the community feasts and cheers, and the drinks are there, like clockwork.
“Mardi Gras is big,” concedes Toni, “but we have it down, our schedule and our system, so it never seems so bad.”
The biggest annual event for Toni’s team — in terms of the amount of product they have to move — is Jazzfest, the gigantic music festival that takes place at the New Orleans Fairgrounds, the city’s historic horse track, each year over the two weekends spanning the end of April and beginning of May.
Jazzfest means distributing Coca-Cola products to the numerous booths run by volunteer organizations, as well the VIP and hospitality tents in the Fairgrounds. Toni and her guys start each day of the Fest at 4:30 in the morning, delivering to each booth and tent, Toni with her clipboard as always, running a count on deliveries and product sold that must agree between Coca-Cola, the booth sponsor, and Jazzfest personnel. After stocking all the drink set-ups before the gates open in late morning, Toni’s team is on standby throughout the day until gates close at 7 each night, when they spring back into action, going around to each booth and tent to reconcile the day’s sales and calculate the next day’s deliveries. They get done around 10:30 each night, 18 hours after they began.
Of the 100,000 cases of beverages that Crescent City Coca-Cola’s special events team delivers each year, about 13,000 of those are moved at Jazzfest alone — which occurs simultaneously with New Orleans’ PGA golf tournament, the special events team’s second biggest event.
While working Jazzfest, Toni gets to experience the highs and lows of the biggest of New Orleans’ music festivals along with the rest of the community. In 2006, Jazzfest was the first big community event to come back full-scale after Hurricane Katrina. Mardi Gras had been much smaller that year in the wake of the storm. As Jazzfest approached, nay-sayers were still voicing the opinion that New Orleans should forgo the events it's known for to focus on the serious business of rebuilding. But what the nay-sayers never understood was that the fun parts are existential in a place like New Orleans. Without the music, the food, the parading, the incessantly repeated coming together — the rituals of being New Orleanians — the city would lose its identity.
“Everything was a Moment,” Toni says, recalling that first post-Katrina Jazzfest. “I remember, before the gates opened on the first day, just me and the guys and the other Jazzfest workers, and we heard singing over the Fairgrounds. It was Paul Simon, singing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ joined by Irma Thomas. We were just sobbing. Everything that year was a Moment. The next weekend, when Bruce Springsteen was there, singing as the sun was coming down, it was just so, so special — just to be able to say, hey, we did this.”
Immediately after Katrina, Toni and her team had organized deliveries of water and other beverage set-ups to the New Orleans Police Department staging area at the downtown Harrah’s casino building, as well as to the National Guard and other military staging areas. As the recovery efforts began, Crescent City Coca-Cola allowed New Orleans and Jefferson parishes to use the empty lot next to their warehouse and bottling facilities in Harahan for trailers for the first responders; the company also set up trailers for employees who had lost their houses. Because of Toni’s organizational prowess, Crescent City Coca-Cola also asked her to head up setting up a warehouse for donated items. Coca-Cola employees across the country had been donating and shipping down boxes of clothes and household items, and Toni organized warehouse space into racks of items for the local Coca-Cola employees to rely on as they were getting their lives back together.
“I can’t say enough,” Toni says. “They were all wonderful.”
Over breakfast after the set-up at the Po’ Boy Festival in November, Toni and Phillip reminisced about the tightness of her team, through the trying times after Katrina and through all the early mornings and late nights of festival work. “We all have our family lives,” Phillip began, before Toni finished his sentence, “… but this is our family, too.”
Coca-Cola United’s Villarrubia says, “She’s really everything a Coca-Cola associate should represent — her knowledge, compassion, commitment to customers, and service. For us, it’s a lifestyle, and Toni is the poster-child for it. Look at the way she handles everything, perfect to a T, with attention to detail.”
Toni comes by her commitment to this city honestly. She’s New Orleans through and through. Before starting at Crescent City Coca-Cola right out of high school, she grew up just off the 3000 block of Magazine Street, in the old Irish Channel neighborhood of uptown New Orleans, with neighborhood parades and the rhythms of New Orleans streets in the very air she breathed. Her husband, Phillip, went to Warren Easton High School, a public school in the Mid-City neighborhood, and the two of them still attend as many Warren Easton football games as they can. After they noticed at a recent game that one of the defensive linemen on the team was bursting out of his uniform jersey, Toni insisted they call the board of directors at the school and buy a new, larger uniform for him.
“Do you know how much those things cost?” Phillip asked.
“I don’t care,” Toni told him. “That poor kid doesn’t need to be playing in the Superdome when they make the playoffs in a jersey that doesn’t fit him!”
For the past two years, Toni and Phillip have had the opportunity to experience Mardi Gras in a way befitting Toni’s integral role in the community, when she was invited to ride in the Zulu parade on Mardi Gras morning. While Zulu has always been an African-American-run parading organization and social aid society, it was also the first of New Orleans’ parading groups to integrate, long before the city tried to mandate such integration by a 1992 ordinance, and a portion of Zulu’s contingent each year consists of white riders. At her first organizational meeting for the Zulu parade a couple years ago, Toni walked up to the president of the Zulu organization, Naaman Stewart.
“I didn’t know if he’d remember me,” Toni says, “but when I walked up to him, I smiled, and he said, ‘Oh, of course I remember you. I remember that smile. You’re the Coke lady!”
Toni had first known Naaman’s mother, Lena Stewart, because “Miss Lena,” as Toni calls her, runs one of the booths at Jazzfest. The communities at New Orleans events are interrelated and tied together. On the day before Toni’s first ride in Zulu, everyone was milling around the floats, loading their beads and coconuts and other throws.
“I was walking through the floats and I was probably hollering at Spencer,” Toni says, “and Miss Lena shouted out, ‘Toni! I recognized that voice.’ And that’s how people know me, my mouth.”
Then, the next day, Toni was riding on the top level of a double-decker float. What started off as fun, trading drinks with the riders on the lower level, everyone cracking jokes and having fun, turned quickly into a more meaningful moment.
“When you turn onto Jackson Avenue,” she says of the entry into the beginning of the Zulu route, “it’s just absolutely breathtaking. When you see the crowds and crowds of people, it really is a special experience.”