ANALYSIS

Defying inflation? How Arizona Iced Tea (mostly) maintains Its 99-cent price tag

Three things are certain in life: Death, taxes and, if Don Vultaggio has his way, the price of Arizona Iced Tea

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published July 7, 2024 12:10PM (EDT)

Domenick "Don" Vultaggio, co-founder and chairman of Arizona Beverage Company. (Audrey C. Tiernan/Newsday RM via Getty Images)
Domenick "Don" Vultaggio, co-founder and chairman of Arizona Beverage Company. (Audrey C. Tiernan/Newsday RM via Getty Images)

During times of sustained inflation — those periods when the price of a carton of eggs makes headlines — it doesn’t take much for a business executive to cast themselves as an enemy in the eyes of an overextended American public, but out-of-touch statements with a certain “let them eat cake” undercurrent are certainly a shortcut to achieving villainy. 

For instance, in February,  WK Kellogg Co. CEO Gary Pilnick was likened to Marie Antoinette for encouraging people to eat cereal for dinner as a way to save money; this, despite the fact that the price per unit of Kellogg’s products was up nearly 20% compared to the year prior, the highest increase among ready-to-eat cereal brands. “There’s no reason for you to jack up your prices the way you did, except to screw us,” said the narration in one TikTok video that went viral at the time. 

Months later, Brian Niccol, the CEO of Chipotle was similarly accused of “greedflation” as customers began to report receiving smaller portion sizes when they visited the Mexican-inspired chain. Reddit is littered with hundreds of similar complaints — which somehow weren’t ameliorated by Niccol’s recommendation that customers give employees a special look (eyes wide, head tilted in disappointment) when they “want a little more pico.” 

Perhaps that’s why Don Vultaggio, the founder of Arizona Iced Tea, is being lauded as an inflation-time hero for making one simple, yet audacious proclamation: The brand's 23-ounce cans, which have cost 99 cents for three decades, will continue to be priced at 99 cents for the foreseeable future. 

“We’re successful, we’re debt-free,” Vultaggio explained to TODAY’s Savannah Sellers in a June interview. “We own everything. Why? Why have people who are having a hard time paying their rent have to pay more for our drink?”

Vultaggio went on to say that he doesn’t intend to raise prices “in the foreseeable future,” a decision impacted by both his background — during his first job as a grocery clerk in Brooklyn, he made $1 an hour — and the current state of the economy. 

“Everything [people are] buying today there’s a price increase on. We’re trying to hold the ground for a consumer who is pinched on all fronts,” Vultaggio explained. “I’ve been in business a long time, and candidly, I’ve never seen anything like what’s going on now. Every single thing has gone up, and I call it ‘from a paper clip to a too-big filling machine.’”

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That said, there are rarely clean-cut victories for consumers under Big Capitalism and the real cost of Arizona Iced Tea is no exception. While Vultaggio can continue stamping “99-cents” on the can, that doesn’t guarantee stores will actually comply when it comes to their pricing. It’s a discrepancy that numerous observational comedians have used as fodder, and even inspired a satirical commercial on the FX series “Atlanta” which features the now-iconic line: “The price is on the can, though.” 

Since Vultaggio’s TODAY interview, X, formerly Twitter, has been flooded with field reports from bodegas and corner stores across the country, where users take and post photographic proof of offending cans, with prices sometimes up to $2. In response to one meme that depicted Arizona Iced Tea as a fantastical giant fighting back its enemy, inflation, an X user said: “As a New Yorker, I'm legally obligated to love Arizona iced tea  — and I do — but y'all can't be posting this … when it's impossible to find it for sale at 99¢ pretty much anywhere any more.” 

Since federal agencies don’t control how much your local supermarket or corner store charges, this isn’t illegal (and despite rumors to the contrary, there isn’t a federal hotline to call to report stores that slap a $1.34 price tag on a can of Arizona Iced Tea). This is something that Vultaggio himself has acknowledged. 

"I’ve been in business a long time, and candidly, I’ve never seen anything like what’s going on now."

“I hate to raise prices, I’m an old salesman and the worst day in a salesman’s life is when he has to go to a customer and say you have to pay more,” Vultaggio later told TODAY.com. “But on the other side of it, we’ve done all we can to hold the price.”

He continued:  “Unfortunately, we don’t govern how store owners choose to price their products. The price is on the can. We do all we can to help retailers remain profitable, so stores can sell it for 99 cents.” However, Vultaggio has promised that his company is “gonna fight as hard as we can for consumers.” 

“Maybe it’s my little way to give back,” he said. 


By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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