Eric Miller Is No Soda Jerk

Sometimes the business world throws a curve so surprising, you never saw it coming. That's what happened to Eric Miller, owner of Brooklyn Bottling Corp. Last year, Miller began selling Tropical Fantasy, a line of low-priced sodas, in New York's ethnic neighborhoods. Sales of the fruit-flavored sodas reached $2 million a month. Then someone started a rumor that the soda was made by the Ku Klux Klan to sterilize black men. Miller watched in horror as sales plummeted 70%.

Yet thanks to Miller's quick reactions and shrewd strategy, Tropical Fantasy is rebounding. Today, Miller distributes beyond New York, sales of his "gourmet" sodas are up, and he has big plans for a slew of ethnic sodas. Says Miller: "We wound up winning that battle."

How did he do it? Miller sent his employees to black neighborhoods armed with "truth flyers" to dispel the rumor. Next, he got the New York City Health Dept. to declare the soda safe. Says New York City Councilwoman Priscilla Wooten: "This was just a move to discredit a rising business." Miller even persuaded New York City Mayor David Dinkins to drink the soda in public.

Miller, 34, never did find out who started the rumor. Some pointed fingers at soda giants Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo, but they both deny any responsibility. Thanks to the countercampaign, Tropical Fantasy brought in $3 million this June, up from $600,000 when rumors were rife. Tropical Fantasy is even selling in California and the Midwest.

FAMILY TRADITION. Miller's $41 million outfit also makes Best Health, a line of natural sodas, iced teas, and juices. Best Health stems from a family tradition: Miller's grandfather sold the brand of seltzer years ago. Miller took over the business in 1988, added new flavors, and dubbed the seltzers "gourmet sodas."

Miller expects Best Health sales to hit $20 million this year. "Sales have increased 1,000% since we started distributing the soda two years ago," says Mike Spalluto of Gourmet Beverage Distributors, a New Jersey-based independent. But Carl Gilman, vice-president for sales and marketing at Snapple Natural Beverage Co. in Valley Stream, N.Y., dismisses Best Health as a copycat: "They're very similar to us."

As a licensee for Desnoes & Geddes, Jamaica's top soda company, Miller is targeting immigrants such as Madge Warren, who moved to Queens, N.Y., from Jamaica. "Its fruity taste reminds me of home," she says. And he's bottling the Postobon label for Colombians who pine for Manzana, an apple-flavored drink. "Latin Americans recognize it immediately," says Ruy Lopez, a New York and Connecticut distributor.

It all adds up to a nimble, avoid-the-giants strategy. Says Miller: "We take up the spaces that the big guys left out." After last summer's beaning, Miller can be glad he's still in the game.

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