Originally created 05/09/99

Blenheim to extend roots north



HAMER, S.C. -- The small black-and-white ad in the back of the New Yorker magazine shows the Blenheim Ginger Ale plant as it looked nearly 100 years ago -- a small bottling facility nestled in the South Carolina piney woods.

Never mind that today a line of clinking bottles straight out of Laverne and Shirley speeds by hunched-over workers in this modern factory that churns out 100,000 cases of potent, turn-your-lips-red ginger ale each year.

Or that owner Alan Schafer probably is better known to New Yorkers zipping to Florida along Interstate 95 by his alter ego -- Pedro, the mascot of the tourist trap South of the Border with its video poker parlors, gift shops, restaurants and love bungalows.

Mr. Schafer, Blenheim president Mackey Hayes and plant manager Charles Thomas are plotting to take the spicy concoction from the swamps and woods of South Carolina to Manhattan's penthouses as they attempt to expand its reach.

It was around the last turn of the century when Dr. C.R. Mays prescribed the iron- and sulfur-laced spring water from the town of Blenheim -- Mr. Schafer says "Blenum," as it's known across the Carolinas -- for stomach problems. Dr. Mays threw in ginger after patients complained of the taste, and Blenheim Ginger Ale was born.

The company went through various owners before Mr. Schafer bought it in 1993. "I was drinking Blenheim when I was a kid, about 75 years ago," he said. "And I didn't want to see it go down the drain."

IN THE 1980S, BLENHEIM

gained some national attention, appearing in Charles Kuralt's On the Road television series and in Playboy magazine. But then irregular production and inconsistent taste made many customers wonder if the spring had run dry.

Today, filters take out the iron and sulfur, but Indian and Jamaican ginger give the beverage its spicy kick. Blenheim, which costs about $16 for a 24-bottle case, sells about $1 million a year of three varieties of ginger ale -- hot, not as hot and diet.

With its signature black-and-yellow sandwich board signs, Blenheim has built a loyal following in small grocery stores like the Mauldin Open-Air Market in Greenville County. There, Nancy Lockhart says sales fluctuate from 25 to 40 cases a month, depending on the weather. The potent ginger clears up sinuses in a flash, making it a popular drink during cold season, she said.

Mr. Schafer, Mr. Hayes and Mr. Thomas, however, want to target new upscale customers, and Mr. Hayes hopes to increase mail-order sales and cut down on the company's shipping costs to retailers.

Mr. Hayes and Mr. Schafer think young executives in California and New York will buy Blenheim as a new specialty drink, just like they did with micro-brewed beer a few years ago.

Mr. Hayes wants to position Blenheim along with other luxuries. "If you're going to sell Mercedes, you're going to look at the demographics and determine your market segment," he said.

BUT TO DO THAT,

Blenheim must capitalize on its down-home roots and authenticity, said Tom Agan of Kurt Salmon Associates, an Atlanta-based retail consultant.

Jack Daniels, for instance, used the image of its hometown of Lynchburg, Tenn., to build a national customer base. Typically, though, niche brands only flourish nationally for a short time

"There's just a plateau they reach and they aren't able to get past that," Mr. Agan said.

And there is the danger that if they become too successful nationally, they will attract the attention of a Coke, Pepsi or Cadbury Schweppes, which makes the more sweet ginger ale, he said. Those companies can throw their marketing muscle into niche markets and swallow up smaller competitors.

John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, said many small brands have trouble expanding beyond their region because they struggle with relatively scant marketing budgets to gain name recognition.

Blenheim should market itself as a unique brand, like Snapple did in health stores, he said.

At the Mauldin Open-Air Market, Ms. Lockhart laughs at the thought of yuppies buying Blenheim ginger ale. Most of her customers, like the one who buys it to keep from drinking alcohol, don't fall into the high-end category Mr. Schafer and Mr. Hayes want to target.

"No, I don't believe the New Yorker part is coming into play here," she said.