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Hot Product, Cold World

Profile of a beverage start-up and the emotional pain of bankruptcy and failure.
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Many company founders talk about their first failures with a touch of nostalgia. At the time, though, they probably sounded like Rick Duhé does today. 'With Cajun Cola, I thought I had the world beat,' he says. 'What I had was a product from hell.'

During the summer of 1988, Michael Dukakis clinched the Democratic nomination for President, Dan Quayle and Roger Rabbit came into their own, and I tried my very first Cajun Cola.

It arrived in the mail one morning in early July -- looking, for all I knew, like one more public-relations ruse. Lifting the six-pack of bright red cans out of the box, I expected to see beneath them a sheaf of press releases and a stack of tasteful product photos.

Instead, I found a small greeting card with a hand-scrawled message inside. The author explained that an article I wrote nearly a year earlier had inspired him to make and market his own soft drink. "You have provided a story that has changed my life!" he wrote. "Currently, opportunities for my company grow every month. Whenever I'm asked 'How did you think of a spicy soft drink?' it begins with mentioning Inc. magazine's March 1987 story. Thanks again!" It was signed, with a flourish, by R. Duhé.

Already I loved the stuff.

Just to be sure, I popped a few tops and assembled a few colleagues. It tasted like every other cola in the world -- at first, anyway. But as it reached the back of the throat, the spices asserted themselves mightily, a sensation one taster dubbed a "delightful dropkick." We all agreed: the Bayou boy was definitely onto something.

We were in good company, as it turned out. While Cajun Cola was available only in Shreveport, La., Richard Duhé's hometown, USA Today deemed it worthy of two mentions. The Wall Street Journal gave it a sentence on page one. The host of "Good Morning, America" held it high. True to his word, wherever Duhé appeared -- and he eventually appeared in many newspapers, from the San Jose Mercury News to The Anchorage Times -- he always gave credit to Inc. magazine.

And during our periodic talks, he always had plenty to tell me. He informed me that Alan Canfield, senior vice-president of A. J. Canfield Co., the respected Chicago bottler and main subject of the Inc. article, had agreed to teach him the business and to produce Cajun Cola; that Bozell, Jacobs, Kenyon & Eckhardt Inc., the giant public-relations and advertising machine, believed in him so strongly that it was working with him largely on spec; that two fast-food chains wanted to serve it. He even hatched a successful scheme to slip a can into Barbara Bush's hands. "If a guy can get rich off a pet rock," Duhé asked giddily, "why not a Cajun Cola?"

Certainly, lack of money wouldn't stand in his way. One contact in the venture capital community had talked about raising as much as $1 million; on Duhé's first trip to the Big Apple, an investment banking firm presented a list of 12 potential investors for his perusal. It was all pretty heady stuff for the 32-year-old Duhé, who, having decided that "I had something worth going after," quit his job with a medical cost-containment service. "Rick Duhé walked in here, and he was the American dream," recalls Arthur Eisenberg, who designed the Cajun Cola can. "He had this idea and threw everything at it. You couldn't help but respond."

For most of 1989, I did not hear from Rick Duhé. He had talked of moving operations to New Orleans, or even selling out if the money got serious. Wherever he had gone, at least he left me with the warm feeling -- a delightful dropkick -- of knowing that I had played a part. "When I read your article, it was like a light bulb went on in my head," Duhé once told me.

Rick Duhé broke his silence in January 1990. Where had he been? I asked. How on earth was our product doing?

Gone was the playfulness in his voice. I can't talk long, he said brusquely, I have to get back to work. Work? I didn't have to ask. "I guess I've let everyone down," Duhé began in a sad voice. "I thought I had the world beat with Cajun Cola. I was convinced that we could make it. Maybe I was a con man, I don't know." His voice trailed off.

"You can get so connected with a dream that you lose touch of the factual place of where you are," he continued. "We had gotten so much acceptance in such a short time. . . . What else was I going to think but that I've pulled off a pretty incredible thing?"

Duhé paused for a moment. "I don't think I'll ever feel good about myself again until I pay back what I owe," he said.

He talked for another minute or so, rambling a bit. Then, with an edge in his voice, he said he really had to go. I didn't get to ask him many questions. And though he never got around to saying it, I understood what he had called to tell me this time.

Richard Duhé had failed.

* * *

No one was ever surprised to find Rick Duhé (pronounced do-AY) at his desk, hunched over some reading material. During breaks in his workday, he'd close his office door -- one of his prerogatives as a supervisor -- and study any of a dozen or so business magazines. He spent much of the spring of 1987 looking for ideas. Duhé yearned to be his own boss, earning maybe $35,000 a year by producing and distributing a product of his own making. The only hurdle: figuring out what that might be.

Enter Inc.

Our March 1987 issue featured Alan Canfield on the cover and told the story of how the family-owned independent bottling company weathered the runaway demand for Diet Chocolate Fudge, a lackluster product until a syndicated columnist developed a very public taste for it. During a lunch break in April, Duhé reached for the magazine.

Then, as he tells it, right there -- among the loose files and the unfinished futurity reviews -- nearly 200 years of Duhé family history took over. Duhé's Cajun heritage began shaping his idea, atavistically forming his lips into a new declaration of purpose. Why not . . . a spicy cola? he thought. Call it . . . a . . . "Cajun" cola. "I can't say there were lights, bells, whistles, or a parting of the skies," recalls Duhé. "It was just very intuitive."

And motivating. Not 10 minutes later Duhé was on the phone with Alan Canfield. He explained as much as he could, given that his idea was only a quarter of an hour old. Thinking out loud, he ruminated about America's increasing affection for spicy food, especially the Cajun kind. Canfield wasn't encouraging. "Look, son," Canfield, then 46, told Duhé, "thousands of people work for Coke and Pepsi, and they'll step on you like a bug. I've been at this for 29 years, and there aren't many independents left."

In any case, Canfield, always looking for new products to make, wished Duhé well. Call me back, he urged, if you decide to do anything with this. But Canfield's curiosity, combined with his sense that Duhé "sounded like a nice fellow, not one of those guys from California or New York who wants to eat the world," prompted him to pass the idea to his vice-president of research and development.

Ecstatic, Duhé rushed out to his local supermarket and emerged with a bagful of spices and two liters of Coke Classic. Over the next few weeks he spent nights huddled with his blender, pouring different combinations in and giving them a gulp. He exchanged results with Canfield, whose early experiments using a pepper derivative actually blistered lips. And after 36 hours or so, the stuff turned really deadly.

Likewise, Duhé gained strength over time. Canfield didn't dismiss his idea. With one eye on his company's payroll and excess production capacity, Canfield admits he was thinking that "maybe we could make the concentrate for him." Besides, says Canfield, "Duhé wouldn't go away. He's a nice fellow and he wears very well."

In May, having come up with some less incendiary samples, Canfield invited Duhé to his Chicago headquarters. They sipped several versions of Cajun Cola, each with a different spice level. That afternoon Canfield sent Duhé to meet with Steve Simon, president of S&S Public Relations Inc. Simon, who served as Canfield's PR arm, tried the cola and couldn't contain himself. You've stumbled on the next national sensation, he told Duhé. Mortgage your house if you have to, but get this stuff on the market. "Cajun was real hot," says Simon. "And I liked it."

Duhé was stunned. A national sensation? The words rang in his ears as he boarded the plane back home. Suddenly he seemed to be living out one of those stories he'd read in business magazines. Here he had come out of nowhere, "a real Mr. Nobody," and in only three months was on the verge of launching -- well, you heard what the man said -- a national sensation. A few more months like this, Duhé thought, and I'll be a fat cat sunning in the Bahamas. How odd to think, then, that those bottles, clinking softly as he loaded them into the plane's overhead compartment, bore no labels at all.

They wouldn't be anonymous for long. Soon everyone, everywhere, would know of Cajun Cola.

* * *

By September 1987, five months after his first call to Canfield, Rick Duhé decided to stop kidding himself. He was not creating the next national sensation in his spare time. He was spending nearly all of his time on Cajun Cola. Divorced and living alone, Duhé now found himself with a constant companion. "When you go to work every day, and all you think about is the project, it's time to go," says Duhé. "I was becoming too engrossed." Sensing his conviction, his boss wished him well. Some of his co-workers expressed envy because, he says, "they wished they had something as exciting going on in their lives." He could hardly blame them; the past few months had convinced him he was onto something big.

Lugging around the 16-ounce samples Canfield had made, Duhé poured a jigger's worth for just about anyone who crossed his path. Two of Duhé's church groups pronounced it heavenly. So did a Bloomingdale's representative, who, without even seeing a can design, expressed interest in staging an exclusive two-week introduction in Dallas.

At night and on weekends, Duhé poked around college libraries, learning about business plans. Once he had a rough draft, Duhé and his accountant, Nancy Menasco, began scouting for financing. Menasco introduced him to Bobby Jelks. A tax accountant with KPMG Peat Marwick in Shreveport, Jelks encouraged Duhé to talk to some wealthy individuals he knew. Jelks sensed that Duhé "just might pull it off."

Duhé was sure of it. Dressed in a pinstripe blue suit, with a wispy beard, the five-foot-seven Duhé projected utter sincerity. His solemn drawl and his boyishly bright hazel eyes combined to communicate dueling messages of sobriety and playfulness. Standing before venture capital clubs, or one-on-one with self-made oil millionaires, he became again the preacher he had been 10 years earlier. Here he was, once again, among believers. "I never heard any negative anything on this concept," he says.

By the time he quit his job in September -- going straight from his office to buy a new gray Honda Accord because he figured, quite presciently, that "my credit wouldn't get any better" -- he had only a few thousand dollars of savings and a $10,000 loan from a friend.

But a marketing consultant, hired to help him devise a marketing plan for launching Cajun Cola, introduced him to Jeffrey Watt, president of ABP/Watt Sales & Marketing Inc., a $220-million food brokerage in Dallas. "A great idea," Watt proclaimed, as soon as he heard Duhé's pitch. "But Cajun is happening now, so we have to move fast." Watt made copies of Duhé's business plan and sent one off to a contact at Stephens Inc., a Little Rock investment banking firm. Earl Bond, the investment banker handling special situations, read the plan, took a swig, and offered his assessment that "it tasted OK, it looked good, and I liked the name." Once they settled on the right financing vehicle, Bond felt sure he could round up investors. "Some investors like the thrill of walking down a supermarket aisle and saying, 'I own that company,' " he says.

Duhé used another contact to find Arthur Eisenberg, who ran his own small design shop. Though Eisenberg's main customers were Fortune 500 types, he found himself offering his services to Duhé on spec. "It was exciting, and it offered us more creative freedom," says Eisenberg.

It was coming together just as Duhé had hoped. All the talent and the money and the drive were descending on his simple invention and would combine to ambush and infiltrate the public consciousness. Whomever Duhé met, it seemed, wanted to do something for him, and didn't mind if he was just a little pressed for cash. Even Bozell Jacobs, one of the world's biggest advertising agencies, took Duhé seriously once Watt got him in the door. "A lot of it was chemistry," notes Todd Bresnahan, then vice-president.

With so many players, Duhé found himself at the center of something he barely understood. One afternoon in the fall of 1987, Duhé emerged from a two-hour meeting in a Dallas-area skyscraper with about half a dozen Bozell executives. "These are guys who charge $200 or $300 an hour," he told friends. And what had these high-octane types decided, exactly? Well, uh, something about positioning statements and, um, theme lines. "I felt like I was in Gordon Gekko's office, right out of Wall Street," recalls Eisenberg. "Here were these guys in $6-million suits, with slicked-back hair and 15 different phones, wheeling and dealing. And here were Rick Duhé and I sitting on a couch in the corner, watching everything that was going on. 'All we've got to do is get a million here,' we'd hear. He can't scrape up enough for lunch, and these Bozell guys are talking about a national rollout. It was the funniest meeting I've ever been in."

With Cajun Cola as his escort, debutante Duhé was coming out into a new world of high-flying finance. In December, Duhé was off to Chicago, where a franchising consulting firm picked him up by limo at his hotel. Then he jetted off for that first visit to New York City. On a frigid day in late January 1988, he met with Ross Colbert, a vice-president of Haas Financial Corp., an investment banking firm specializing in the beverage industry. He had come across Colbert at an industry trade show and sent off a business plan. "What we saw was a unique and clever product in a market that seemed to be receptive toward niche beverages," says Colbert. Distribution needed to be worked out, as he told Duhé over lunch, and marketing would cost a bundle. Don't worry, though, urged Colbert, who won Duhé over by showing him a list of a dozen potential investors. We'll try to raise $250,000 in fairly short order, Colbert explained, followed by about $750,000 by late spring. Lead me to that dotted line, Duhé thought.

With the money coming, Duhé could unwind. He spent the next two days ogling Wall Street, ferrying out to the Statue of Liberty, catching Rodney Dangerfield on Broadway. "It was like Jethro goes to the big city," he says. Walking in a late-night snowfall, dressed in his trench coat and sneakers, Duhé felt exhilarated. "It was exciting to be alive," he says. "Things were looking good."

The next morning, after downing his first cheese blintz, Duhé passed a homeless man sitting on a bench, shivering. For reasons he can't explain, he felt a kindred spirit with the man. Easing down next to him, Duhé struck up a conversation. For the next half hour, they talked about life, and fate, and gray skies. The man warmed up.

As Duhé rose to leave, he felt renewed. "It felt good to let him know that I cared," he says. "I wanted him to know that maybe, in some way, we were connected. Part of me understood what he was going through. "It felt as if I was only a few steps away from him."

* * *

"I'm a star!"

Duhé's hand was still quivering when he scribbled the words across his date book on March 2, 1988. Some advisers had assured him that Cajun Cola would be a media-driven product -- not successful so much because market testing showed it filled a need, but because newspapers and TV shows got people to try it. It sounded a little bit backward, but now Duhé could see how it worked. Under the headline "It's got dat zzzing!" -- Duhé's preferred slogan -- Shreveport's leading newspaper, The Times, reported that Cajun Cola would be on the supermarket shelves later that month.

The continuing absence of serious funding (though it pains Duhé to talk about it, his parents had by now kicked in a sizable sum) made Cajun Cola's appearance even more of a feat. In typical fashion, though, he managed to find a distributor who asked for no money up front. "We were looking for products and Cajun Cola fit right in," says Wendell Brooks, manager of Lin-Chris Munchies, the snack-food division of Shreveport Budweiser Distributors Inc. "Store managers liked the name, and it had a good-looking package."

That was Eisenberg's doing. Eisenberg had lobbied for a black can with a multicolored confetti design; then Canfield insisted that cola's true color was red. Duhé took some sketches and mock cans to informal focus groups, mostly composed of friends and art students. He settled on a five-color can that featured a pattern of green alligators and a full yellow moon against a bright red background. "Aside from some very unscientific polling," says Duhé, "it was strictly my personal preference." As was his decision to market the soda to young men, eager to test their mettle by tackling the spicy bite, and upscale types, who would mix it with, say, rum. "Of course, this decision came from a guy with years of marketing and beverage experience," notes Duhé, with a wink.

Then again, he was Mr. Cajun Cola.

Bozell helped shape his new identity. Before the product came out, they sat Duhé down for a day and tossed him about 25 of the toughest questions reporters were likely to ask. Duhé, a veteran Sunday School teacher, quickly learned to tell a story that was at least as palatable as the drink itself. In it, he cast himself as someone like the Kevin Costner character in Field of Dreams, a blind follower of his inner voice, practically willing his carbonated vision into existence.

During the week of April 6, just one year after the idea had first struck him, Duhé walked into a supermarket and ran smack into a 200-case display of Cajun Cola. Weary of reporting bank closings and savings-and-loan takeovers, the local media pounced on the new entrepreneur. Within a week, the Shreveport Journal had written two stories, and USA Today gave Cajun Cola its first national exposure. On April 28, he appeared on the local "Live at Five." The next afternoon he got booked on Shreveport's "Inside Story." "Everybody was talking about it," recalls Brooks. "Store managers were very impressed. District managers were calling us, wanting more."

They got the soda, and they got Duhé. On weekends, he showed up at supermarkets, handing out sample cups and filling up helium balloons that said Cajun Cola. Inevitably, some would float to the ceiling, providing free advertising until they drifted down.

Duhé, too, had left the ground. "It was an incredible rush," he says. "I had conquered the odds. Inventors aren't supposed to make it." In May Cajun Cola showed up at the annual "Taste of the South" party in Washington, D.C., and Duhé even managed to get it delivered to a breakfast Barbara Bush was hosting. "I couldn't get a vendor in Washington, and he's practically serving Cajun Cola in the White House," marvels Canfield. "He was everywhere."

Even, for pete's sake, The Wall Street Journal. On June 16, 1988, Cajun Cola earned a sentence on page one. With that, the wire services went berserk. Within a week, Duhé appeared in countless newspapers and on TV. And -- oh, yeah -- Duhé sent a six-pack to Inc. magazine. "The writer there told me it was great stuff," he recalls. "That praise was burned into my brain."

His visibility seemed to be paying off. In the first month, Shreveport Budweiser expected to sell no more than 2,000 cases of Cajun Cola. Instead, it sold 3,627. Retailers, of course, had yet to grant Cajun Cola precious shelf space. For the most part, they were selling it in off-shelf displays, at a promotional price of $1.99 per six-pack. The recommended retail price was $2.69, permitting them a comfortable margin of 23%. As they dismantled displays and raised the price, retailers expected demand to settle -- a bit. "We said, 'Let's see what it's going to flatten out at,' " recalls Brooks of Shreveport Bud. Instead, "It just kept dying." In May they sold 994 cases. In June a new round of promotions bumped sales up to 1,569 cases. After that sales tumbled down to 405 cases in July. Cajun Cola was going flat.

Armed with a leather scrapbook of press clips -- which he tended to pull out too often for most people's tastes -- Duhé believed "I could look at it and fix it," he says. He kept instructing Canfield to turn the spice level down. Furthermore, he decided, he needed some advertising. He had plenty of new friends in the business. "All the ad agencies wanted to get a chunk of money out of him," recalls Elinor Stephens, general manager of KTUX-99, a top-40 radio station in Shreveport. At the same time a chance elevator meeting had brought Duhé a chunk of money. Glen Graves, a Shreveport realtor and financial consultant, had actually known Duhé for years; in fact, Duhé had been married to his minister's daughter. Hearing of Duhé's woeful undercapitalization, Graves, who liked Cajun Cola, kicked in $15,000. "Some thought Duhé was a young genius," he says.

Few knew how lonely he was. At the height of his success, Duhé had only his six-year-old son, Shawn, with whom to share it. "It was hard to reach the mountaintop and not have someone there with me," he says. It was just Rick Duhé and Cajun Cola. And, as the product began to falter, he wrapped himself ever more tightly around it. He even took to calling it Rick Duhé's Cajun Cola.

No matter the growing evidence, he wasn't about to retreat. A distributor in Alexandria, La., tried it out, with no luck. Another tested it in Monroe, La., registering poor sales. Through a cousin of the owner of Shreveport Bud, Duhé even managed to send some trailer loads down to Daytona Beach, Fla., a failed experiment.

Things were turning ugly. Unable to admit defeat, Duhé felt he had no choice but to act as if Cajun Cola was taking over the world. The longer he could keep it going, the more likely an investor would come along and save him. Especially when talking with reporters, Duhé treated every feeler -- from fast-food chains or liquor companies or catalogs -- as if it was on the verge of becoming reality.

It wasn't over, Duhé told himself. Don't let it be over.

But as sales trickled down to 50 cases a month, he grew desperate. In October he drove 23 hours each way to meet with a food distributor in Toronto. Finally, in November, he loaded a trailer with furniture and a pick-up truck with Cajun Cola and headed to New Orleans. Maybe tourists would go for it. "I figured, 'If you're going broke in Shreveport, why not go broke in New Orleans?' " he says.

No matter where he went, Duhé, a business novice, was coming toe-to-toe with one of commerce's harshest lessons. For a brief time he had managed to patch together a coalition, a group of people united by their true interest in Cajun Cola. Some had dropped out, but a core group stood by him. He called them his "friends." Sure, they liked him. But they had their own reasons for being involved: Canfield wanted to produce the concentrate, Eisenberg wanted national exposure, and Bozell wanted a lucrative rollout. When it looked like none of them would get what they came for, they turned on Duhé. "I felt deserted," he says.

Media inspired and media driven, Cajun Cola had always found an ally in the press. Then, on November 14, 1988, the media disembarked from the Cajun Cola bandwagon. "Weak Local Sales Send Spicy Cajun Cola South," read the Shreveport Journal. Duhé, feeling betrayed, vowed that "if I could have gotten away with hurting the reporter physically, I would have."

Get to New Orleans. Find a distributor. Show them all.

Six months after appearing on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, Rick Duhé moved into a small spare bedroom at his aunt and uncle's house in a New Orleans suburb. One night, lying awake on his twin bed, he calculated that he was $100,000 in debt, not counting his own salary. The next morning he loaded his car with Cajun Cola and set off to find somebody who might be interested in carrying it. Riverfront restaurants, independent grocers, T-shirt shops. Some days, he'd sell it at a loss because he needed pocket cash.

Every once in a while, one of his creditors would track him down. They didn't want to hear about the next big deal -- "There was always a deal that was going to happen next week," says Eisenberg -- or the new potential investor. They wanted their money. "People that seem warm and fuzzy at one time stop being that when you can't pay them," Duhé observes. "When your company is going downhill, and you can't tell people when you'll be able to pay them, what kind of dialogue can you have?" Betrayed and isolated, Duhé was feeling lonelier than ever. By March 1989 Duhé had sold his inventory of Cajun Cola and wasn't in any position to buy more from Canfield. "I just wanted my sanity back," he says. "I wanted a normal life again." No more meetings. No more interviews. No more hope.

Rick Duhé just wanted to go home.

* * *

"OK, Mom," Rick Duhé shouts into the phone. "Well, I hope you are having a glorious birthday evening."

The thunder is so loud that Duhé's voice can hardly be heard; lightning has knocked out his connection twice. Each bolt seems to grow brighter and brighter, illuminating his small living room. There isn't much to see: a broken wicker rocking chair, a rowing ergometer, a rickety card table, and two folding chairs. A six-pack of Cajun Cola sits on the mantle, each can turned so that it faces out in perfect alignment -- a trick Duhé learned in the soda business.

Hanging up the phone, Duhé welcomes me in and offers me a seat. He is greatly relieved that neither of his parents mentioned Cajun Cola. Even now, in April 1990, nearly a year after his bankruptcy, his dad will usually ask, "Has anything happened with it?" What he's really asking, as Duhé knows, is whether they will see any of their money again. Duhé has asked me not to reveal how much they invested; he wants to spare them further embarrassment. Suffice it to say that they invested far more than anyone else. "I know the money was given out of love, but something like this can tarnish your relationship with your parents," Duhé says softly. "It's more me than them. I don't think I'll ever feel OK about who I am until I pay them back."

Of course, they wanted to protect him. But they couldn't do much. Last July his mother sent him a clip from the local newspaper. Thought you'd better read this, she wrote in a note, before you get into town. All he had to read was the headline: "Cajun Cola Sinks." The same reporter who had heralded Cajun Cola's arrival was now announcing its departure. "I guess you know you've made it when your bankruptcy hits the first business page," says Duhé. "I was a celebrity. My failure could not go unnoticed." The story reported that Duhé had filed for personal bankruptcy, a Chapter 7 liquidation, listing more than $500,000 in debts with assets estimated at less than $50,000. His attorney, Ralph Scott Bowie Jr., figures that maybe half of those debts relate to Cajun Cola. It was hard to tell, he admits, because Duhé didn't have much documentation. Some of the creditors' names, though, are familiar: Lin-Chris Munchies, $3,500; KTUX-FM, $10,000; Eisenberg, $14,000; Daytona Budweiser, $16,000; Nancy Menasco, $20,000. Documents list about 75 creditors.

For a time, Duhé talked of reorganizing. I'll take a job, he told Bowie, and work on Cajun Cola in my spare time. But after reviewing the documents and talking with Duhé, Bowie concluded that "he had no apparent ability to reorganize." A friend from his church, Bowie practically had to deprogram Duhé. "Put Cajun Cola out of your life and behind you forever," he told him. "Line up all your debts, declare bankruptcy, and start a new life, a life without Cajun Cola."

A life, he might have added, without many of the things Duhé had relied on: the Honda Accord he used to load with Cajun Cola; his tile-roofed home, from which he conducted much business; and, most irreplaceable of all, his pride. "It hurts to lose," says Duhé. "For a long time, I tried not to think about it."

Look at how far you got, folks told him. How many people could come up with something like that and actually make it happen? Others assured him that his failure was just a detour on the way to success, a "mini-M.B.A.," as Duhé puts it, "in the school of hard knocks." After all, he came out of no where and sold 30,000 cases of the stuff, more than 700,000 cans, which translates into roughly $150,000. "The kid will be back," predicts Canfield. Some days, even Duhé believes it.

But then there are times like this rainy night in Atlanta -- where he came, he says, "to forget Cajun Cola and get a fresh start" -- when he feels as haunted as he did in July 1989, creeping back to Shreveport to confront his creditors at a formal meeting. The nine-hour drive gave him plenty of shuddering time. What if I run into someone I owe money to? he worried. "I was afraid," he says. "In Shreveport, Rick Duhé will always be remembered for Cajun Cola. And there was a time when the mayor and the town were very appreciative of the positive press I was bringing them." Arriving at his parents' home after dark, "I just wanted to turn around and leave," he remembers. Instead, he lay awake, "anxious about who would show up," he says. In his mind, he saw Canfield pointing an accusing finger, a red-faced Eisenberg, a mob of creditors calling him a con man. "In my heart," says Duhé, "I know that's not what I am."

Before the creditors' meeting, he stopped in on an old friend, looking for moral support. "Well," he said along about mid-morning, "I guess I've got to go face them." He straightened his tie, drew a deep breath, and marched out the door.

No one showed up.

Feeling "pretty beat up," Duhé drove back to Atlanta, giving himself a pep talk. At least he had a job now. His former employer had hired him back in its Atlanta office. No, he couldn't go back to being the person he was before Cajun Cola, he reasoned. And he couldn't be Mr. Cajun Cola anymore, either. He needed a new identity, one that absorbed what had happened to him. "I don't want to be an old man, sitting in a rocking chair saying, Remember 1988? Remember The Wall Street Journal?" he says. "That peak in Shreveport was it. I don't think I'll ever see anything like that again. I need to heal."

And as Duhé well knows -- he holds a master's degree in counseling, after all -- catharsis is part of the process.

The sunny morning after the ferocious rains, I visit him again. He offers me one of the folding chairs. "I haven't really settled in," he says. Soon he is telling the Cajun Cola story al

Last updated: Aug 1, 1990




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