Less Traveled 2012

Ernie Wiggins



Blenheim Ginger Ale is a hot find for a cool drink

Posted 6/12/2011 11:20:00 AM

All was quiet mid-morning on Memorial Day at the Blenheim Bottling Co. plant. Tucked away on the grounds of South of the Border, the famous rest and relaxation destination just this side of the North Carolina border at Interstate 95 and U.S. 301, the unassuming stone building is a fairly recent addition.

The Schafer Family, the owners of S.O.B. (the name that’s on the park’s vibrantly colored T-shirts), bought Blenheim’s boutique ginger ale company in 1993 and moved the operation the 40 miles from its original site in Blenheim. The original plant was turned into a museum but burned in 2008.

That was the year Kenny Cook came on board to manage the new plant -- even though, he confesses, he knew nothing about the bottling industry.

“I learned on the job,” he says, adding that he’s always been good with his hands, “mechanically inclined,” which has come in handy when you job is making sure all of the belts and injectors and thrusters are in sync.

Touring the darkened plant that morning, I could imagine the conveyors going full tilt and empty bottles being whisked along, pumped full of “hot” (Blenheim’s most popular variety of ginger ale), “not so hot” (a little less ginger and sugar) and “diet” (the sugarless variety), capped and then crated.
Several hundred pallets, each holding 108 cases of ginger ale, were waiting for transport -- a single day’s orders, Cook said. Blenheim distributes about 1.4 million bottles of ginger ale far and wide each year, mostly on this side of the Mississippi. Cook said the bulk of the company’s sales are still made at Pedro’s shops at S.O.B., where clerks are not shy about up-selling customers.

“You know you’d do better to buy a crate,” the clerk told me as I put two sixes on the counter. “You’re about to spend $15 for 12 and you can get a crate for $25. You can mix them any way you want.”

Sold. Hasta Luego.

Blenheim Ginger Ale was founded in 1903 by A.J. Matheson and Dr. C.R. May, who had been directing his patients to drink water from the Blenheim mineral springs to relieve stomach ailments. When patients complained about the harsh taste, May added a bit of ginger to the water and, voila!, as they say. Ginger Ale.

In 1920, May and Matheson built the first plant in Blenheim next to the mineral springs, but the company has long since stopped using the spring’s water. Today the company simply boasts on each 12-ounce bottle that its product is “From Pure Water.”

Alan Schafer, who founded South of the Border in 1949 as a roadside stand midway between Miami and New York, was a fan of the spicy beverage. When he learned the company was up for sale in the early 1990s, he bought it. According to Cook, little has changed in the way Blenheim ginger ale is made, except the addition of the diet line a few years back in response to requests from customers looking for the ginger kick without the sugar.

Cook, 35, has had a life-long association with South of the Border. He followed his father and uncle, who worked in the park’s entertainment and vending divisions -- rides and recreation. I guess you can say he is part of the S.O.B. extended family.

“I’ve worked everywhere except the restaurants and the hotels,” he said.

Though he mastered the plant manager job by doing it, Cook said he learned to think like a businessman from one of the best minds in tourism. “Mr. Schafer was a genius at what he did,” Cook said. Schafer died in 2001, and his grandson, Ryan, with whom Cook grew up, now overseas the park and the company’s affiliated businesses, including Blenheim.

“Most of the equipment here is from the other plant,” Cook said. He’s learned since taking charge of the plant three years ago that bottling beverages is an expensive enterprise, especially for small operations like his. Replacing a needed piece of equipment is equal to one employee position, he said, so equipment purchases are made carefully.

Blenheim Bottling Co. employs six, including Cook -- an office manager, two bottling operators and a driver for deliveries within 100 miles. Cook says the Internet has opened up new markets for them.

You also can buy it at many Piggly Wiggly stores across the Southeast and at other online retailers.

Blenheim fans from all over are ordering crates of the elixir delivered to their homes, which often means paying more for shipping than they do for the product, Cook said. But that’s a testament to the quality of the product, he said.

Blenheim will soon would be hosting a Japanese company interested in exclusive rights to distribute the beverage in that country. At a recent festival in Japan, Blenheim was prominently displayed as “A Southern tradition since 1903.”

Cook said he’s gotten similar inquiries from Switzerland but the company is moving slowly.

“They have to make it worth our while,” Cook said.