Turning a Profit on Juice

A former spy picks forbidden fruit and sells health in the produce aisle.

By Christopher W. Davis from Reader's Digest | July 2009

But currants were already growing wild across the northern United States. And breeders had long ago developed new strains of currants and pines that were immune to blister rust. The feds lifted their ban in 1966, but as of the 21st century, 12 states still had restrictions on the books. Among them was New York.

Quinn went to Albany, the state capital, and began knocking on doors. He returned once a week, walking the halls, leaving his business cards, and begging for appointments. But he made little headway—until one day, a Wall Street Journal reporter interviewed him for a story. After it ran, state senator Bill Larkin’s office called to invite Quinn to Albany. Six months later, both houses unanimously passed a law allowing currant farming.

Quinn ordered seedlings from Canada and started planting. Now he just had to introduce America to the currant. Because of its strong, sharp flavor, the black currant was nearly always processed rather than eaten as a fruit. Juice seemed like the best option for reaching the most customers. The British product Ribena already did $200 million a year in the United Kingdom and Ireland alone and another $58 million worldwide. The pomegranate was showing the way in U.S. grocery stores, and açaí, a berry out of Brazil, was starting to hit shelves too. Neither was as high in antioxidants as the black currant.

Quinn started importing black currant juice concentrate to kick-start the market. Working with New Zealand growers, he combined varieties to develop a bottled concentrate called CurrantC. Now into its fourth year, CurrantC is making money.

Down the road, Quinn would like to fund studies and clinical trials to look deeper into all the health benefits—real, rumored, and legendary—of the black currant. “It’s a big deal in the world,” he says, “a super-fruit. I’ve got to keep spreading the word here. It’s just too good to keep it a secret.”

Getting Ahead with Greg Quinn

Q: How has your background helped your business?
A: I spent nine months visiting all the farmers in countries with the largest currant growers. The languages I learned in the Army came in handy. I do business in Poland. My Czech is close enough that I can stumble through, and it’s improving.

Q: What wisdom would you share with aspiring entrepreneurs?
A: Entrepreneurs see opportunities where others see problems. We’re willing, even eager, to take risks and are generally more passionate about what we believe in. The single biggest problem is that we are often terrible when it comes to counting paper clips or managing people. I would strongly suggest delegating the day-to-day management to the best people as soon as the venture is up and running.

Q: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: What I hear every time I fly: “Put the oxygen mask on yourself before you help anyone else.” You can’t help anyone if you yourself are struggling.

Q: Any tips for finding distributors for a brand-new product?
A: It takes a great product with a good story and a tremendous amount of shoe leather and hard work. Once we had our nectar in the bottle, we literally took it around in the trunk of the car calling on individual stores. When we had enough stores under our belt and some track record, we moved to the next level: taking it to larger chains and distributors and so on and so on.

Q: Do you have a business philosophy?
A: From an entrepreneurial standpoint, if you’re not passionate about an idea, don’t waste your time. There are too many other good ideas out there.

Q: How do you spend your downtime?
A: My favorite things are turning wooden bowls, fly-fishing, cooking, and gardening. When you’re starting a new company, however, these often take a backseat.

Q: Did you ever worry that things wouldn’t work out?
A: I’m more cognizant about what a failure will do to my employees and my family than to myself. The fear of failure is what drives me to succeed.

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