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
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,"
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
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.
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
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
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 (www.gingerpeople.com)
are based on the characters.