Junior Bridgeman
Junior Bridgeman

Ulysses “Junior” Bridgeman is refreshing his business model by trading in burgers and fries for a stake in The Coca-Cola Company.

The Coca-Cola Company is refranchising its North American bottling operations, according to a news release, and Bridgeman is becoming one of three independent Coca-Cola bottlers in the United States.

“We are excited about the opportunity to become a part of the Coca-Cola bottling and distribution system,” Bridgeman said in an emailed statement. “We look forward to the many possibilities that this new venture brings, as well as the new colleagues and friends to be made in these territories.”

Bridgeman has signed a letter of intent to acquire territory in Missouri, Illinois, Kansas and Nebraska from The Coca-Cola Company, as well as a production facility in Lenexa, Kansas, according to the release.

“We continue to make great progress in refranchising,” J. Alexander Douglas Jr., president of Coca-Cola North America, said in the release. “These bottlers are investing in the future of the Coca-Cola system.”

Thus far, The Coca-Cola Company has refranchised or received signed letters of intent to refranchise about half of its bottle distribution business in North America.

Bridgeman owns Louisville-based restaurant company Manna Inc. He is well known as a former University of Louisville basketball player and NBA sixth man for the Milwaukee Bucks, but after retiring from professional sports, the humble and quiet Bridgeman became an entrepreneur, investing as a franchisee in Wendy’s first, followed by brands including Chili’s, Mark’s Feed Store, Perkins Restaurant and Bakery, and Fazoli’s. He also owns Napa River Grill in Westport Village and the newly opened BirraCibo at Fourth Street Live.

The release notes that Bridgeman will relinquish his restaurant holdings in order to focus on building the Coco-Cola business. It’s unclear exactly how many restaurants Bridgeman currently owns, but according to Bridgeman Hospitality Group’s website, he owned 360 restaurants in 16 states in late 2013. Bridgeman Hospitality Group is a subsidiary of Manna Inc.

It is unknown if he will divest all his restaurant holdings or simply his national franchises. It also is unclear if he will sell the restaurants to other franchisees or hand the reins over to his children; Justin, Ryan and Eden Bridgeman all work for various subsidiaries of Manna Inc.

Bridgeman did not immediately return a call for comment about the business shakeup.

It is apparent from the release, however, that Justin Bridgeman will lead the Coca-Cola distribution business with his father.

Coca-Cola last made headlines in Louisville when Coca-Cola Enterprises bottling building at 17th and Hill streets was sold to Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated.

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Caitlin Bowling
Louisville native Caitlin Bowling has covered the local restaurant and retail scene since 2014. After graduating from the Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Caitlin got her start at a newspaper in the mountains of North Carolina where she won multiple state awards for her reporting. Since returning to Louisville, she’s written for Business First and Insider Louisville, winning awards for health and business reporting and becoming a go-to source for business news. In addition to restaurants and retail business, Caitlin covers real estate, economic development and tourism. Email Caitlin at [email protected]