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Ginger at Root of Their Profits

Beth Hughes, Special to the Examiner
Wednesday, June 9, 1999


IMPORT GINGER. Process ginger. Promote ginger. Sell ginger. Eat, sleep, breathe, walk, talk and dream ginger. Why not obsess if your name is your fate and you're The Ginger People?

After all, a little healthy obsession never hurt a business, as Abbie and Bruce Leeson, general manager and president of Monterey-based Royal Pacific Foods respectively, can attest. For them, ginger is a profitable passion, so proclaiming its spicy versatility, medicinal properties and considerable lore is what the less fanatical would call marketing.

The Ginger People was launched in 1984 with the $50,000 payout Bruce Leeson received when he quit his job in the Australian macadamia nut industry. The Leesons saw ginger as their rhizome to ride.

"The market was small so the cash outlay wasn't that great, but I took the risk of using that (payout) to buy product," said Leeson. He concedes that people in his adopted America "thought I was nuts" because it was hard to find a consumer who liked ginger who "wasn't Asian or a foodie. But I'd grown up with ginger in Australia, so I felt confident because I liked it, and my grandparents loved it."

Leeson began working with the Australian ginger industry in 1986 as his wife hit the road with Australian candied ginger and other products for demonstrations in markets and specialty shops. She met resistance. "People were spitting the stuff out," she said.

Good-for-you Product

Gradually, though, ginger began to gain widespread recognition as a good-for-you product. "Your spice cabinet contains an herb (ginger) possessing so many therapeutic applications that no modern drug can rival it," according to Paul Schulick, author of "Common Spice or Wonder Drug? Ginger & Health Care Rediscovers Its Roots," who trumpeted ginger's efficacy in fighting motion sickness and morning sickness as well as minor aches and pains.

Thus prompted, Americans began merging the European sensibility that ginger belonged in jams, candies or baked goods with the routine acceptance of it as an everyday ingredient in many Asian cuisines. "In the United States, the market became much more universal as the cultures came together," said Leeson.

Still, the Leesons, who by 1989 produced a ginger newsletter for their 12,000 accounts in commercial food processing and restaurant supply, realized that they needed to focus. Although sales increased year to year, they saw their non-ginger products — specialty foods like Australian candied fruits — "start to fade away," said Abbie Leeson. "We asked ourselves, "Are we defining ourselves as we should be?' "

Answer: no. So they recast their company's name, adding the moniker, "The Ginger People," capable of branding the ugly beige roots of an Asian tropical plant and putting the stuff in every household across America.

That was in 1995, when both Leesons worked half-time and the business had one full-time employee. Today, "Abbie and I are employed 200 percent of the time," said Leeson, adding that there were six full-time employees, eight prize-winning retail products and projected year-end sales in excess of $5 million.

He acknowledges the good fortune of never having a major supplier pull out or a bank deny financing although the company was self-financed from 1984 until 1990. A local couple who share the Leesons' passion for ginger are silent partners, holding a one-third stake in the company.

Until recently, when the ginger juice, one of their newer products, went into production, the company never needed to make major investments in equipment because the Leesons found processors and packagers capable of working to their specification.

Their expansion reflects the nation's fascination for all foods fiery — such as chili and, yes, ginger. Since 1992, consumption of fresh ginger increased 40 percent, candied ginger by 80 percent and ground ginger by 145 percent, according to import and domestic data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Hard-won Recognition

The Ginger People undoubtedly have profited from this boom. Their Ginger Chews, developed with an Indonesian producer seasoned by 65 years of making a similar but milder product for local consumption, was named "Best Candy" at this year's Scovie Awards, regarded as the hottest indicator of what is truly incendiary in foods. The prize is named after William Scoville, the scientist who developed a way to measure the heat in chilies.

The recognition was hard-won, for Ginger Chews had begun as a risky undertaking. The Ginger People had to buy about 2 million chews with a 12-month shelf life and commit to label printers in Hong Kong.

All told, they invested about $75,000 bringing to market a product now sold at Trader Joe's and offered at some trendy restaurants as the alternative to an after-dinner mint. Diners seem to appreciate the choice, for they call the Ginger People's toll-free number every day to track down local suppliers despite the heat the candy generates.

"Most ginger products have 2-3 percent ginger," said Abbie Leeson, who handles some of the calls from people who want to order products, swap recipes and tell gingery tales. "Ours are 8 percent fresh ginger — 8 percent is huge."

That extra blast of ginger marks all Ginger People creations, as do their other trademarks — a different, dementedly goofy and appealing character on the label for each product. Designed by Australian Genevieve Duverge, the firstborn is the ginger marinade guy (that's generic "guy"; the Leesons have yet to assign a gender or name to the character), who wears a white shower cap with red polka dots as he bastes and sings in a bright blue tub. This product was introduced in October 1997 at Andronico's markets in the Bay Area.

The latest offspring is a turbaned rhizome with the air of a rakish raja. Toasting "your strength and vigor," the guy sits astride a tiger with bared fangs as the animal races across the label for nonalcoholic ginger beer. That product will be launched in the coming weeks after $25,000 and two years of development under the auspices of Australian master chef Garry Sullivan at the Golden Pacific microbrewery in Berkeley.

The characters, which Abbie Leeson insisted on creating long before the first retail product rollout in 1997, are more important than mere labeling. "They work. They've made our business fun, fun for us, for the people we who work for us, and the people we work with," said Bruce Leeson, who, with his wife, talks about "the guys" in the manner of doting parents eager to broadcast a child's accomplishments.

Now, as soon as a new product goes into development, everyone in the company brainstorms the new character's identity, recognizing the importance of the packaging element in Abbie Leeson's mantra for business success: product, price and packaging.

"It would be fair to say that if we had a serious package, the business would still be growing," said Bruce Leeson, but he notes that most comments from their Web site ( are based on the characters.