A tall, brawny Irish American walks into your office, puts a crystal goblet on the desk, and pours out a serving of a deep-purple nectar.
“This stuff used to be illegal,” he says in a gravelly voice. “We’re the guys who got the law changed. Twice the antioxidants of blueberries, four times the vitamin C of orange juice, as much potassium as bananas. Try it.”
Something like grape juice but heavier, not as sweet; tart but not as much as cranberry; dry, strong, and complex, like a good red wine. Meet Ribes nigrum, aka the black currant, and one of the misbegotten little berry’s most dynamic champions on American shores, Greg Quinn. As a farmer, a juice maker, and an entrepreneur, he has big plans for the super-fruit.
The rest of the world has known about the black currant for generations, he points out. The fact that it is a stranger here, and just poking its head up now, is a story that starts, oddly enough, with the Vietnam War.
As a young broadcasting school graduate, Greg Quinn drew a single digit in the draft lottery, which meant an almost certain plane ticket to Southeast Asia. But after a battery of tests revealed that Quinn had an unusual aptitude for languages, an Army recruiter leaned across the desk and whispered, “How’d you like to be a spy?”
After 47 weeks of total language immersion and training, Quinn was off to the tiny German town of Rimbach, on the Czech border. There a huge mountaintop antenna monitored radio chat behind the Iron Curtain. But spying left plenty of time to sample the local cuisine. To Quinn, who grew up in a middle-class, blue-collar Connecticut household, the foods of Europe were a revelation. And what better way to learn to cook them, he reasoned, than by opening a restaurant? With the blessing of the Army (and discounts on food and liquor from the PX), he rented a space and went into business.
Behind the restaurant were six bushes with dark-blue berries he knew nothing about. Schwarze Johannisbeeren they were called in German—black currants in English. He started to use them in sauces and tarts.
Fast-forward: Quinn sells the restaurant, goes to New York, works in the food business for several years, starts a family (two girls and a boy), and takes up gardening. Soon he’s writing a monthly gardening column for the local paper, lecturing at the New York Botanical Garden, and appearing on Fox as the Garden Guy. He writes eight children’s books about nature, enough to provide a modest income.
Then Quinn’s three kids head off to school; he gets divorced and finds a new love, Carolyn, who’s willing to help him take his hobby to the next level. The couple find a 140-acre ex–dairy farm in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley, and Quinn is ready to become a citizen farmer.
With about 25 acres for cultivation, Quinn knew that if he wanted his farm to be profitable, he would need a niche crop that he could sell to?high-end restaurants. He started visiting his neighbors, farmers who seemed to be hanging on by their fingernails. Then he met vintner Ben Feder, who made specialty cordials. Among them was cassis, a black currant dessert wine.
“Where do you get your currants?” Quinn asked.
“Now, that’s a real problem,” Feder said. “I have to go to Canada for them. Because, of course, you can’t get them around here.” Why not? Because they were illegal to grow in New York. Of course.
That struck a chord with Quinn. He knew—and loved—black currants from Germany. And he vaguely recalled what had led to the ban—something about a fungus. So he did a little digging.
Harvested in the wild, currants have been used for centuries as food and medicine. In the early 1900s, there were more than 7,400 acres of commercial red currant fields in North America. Nearly half of those were in New York State, most in Quinn’s neck of the woods. But in the late 1800s, an Asian blight called white-pine blister rust?arrived in the United States. It thrived on two hosts: currants and white-pine lumber. With their industry threatened, lumber lobbyists fought to ban all currant farming.
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.