Bibbs Soda bottles one of Block Island's most precious resourcesA Block Island berry has its day
Come late July, Block Island has two regular events to set your clocks by: the influx of tourists and the explosion of blackberries everywhere.
The tourists leave at the end of the day with the Block Island ferry. But those berries?
They stick around for three glorious weeks. These berries are the inspiration behind Bibbs, or Block Island Beverages, a natural, kosher refresher developed by Lenard Zide and his wife Susan MacDougall.
The Bibbs story is the stuff of Block Island legend.
Zide and MacDougall had friends who were visiting one weekend while they were staying out on Corn Neck Road. The friends went for a walk only to return with pails of blackberries. As friends sometimes do, the group saw this abundance as an opportunity for a party and began to mix and mash the berries with other stuff: sugar, tonics, sparkling waters, other fruits, vodka and rum. And in one of those fortuitous Block Island moments, the group discovered something tasty and refreshing and, as research later proved, seemingly unavailable on the open market.
An attorney by trade, Zide is passionate about Bibbs. One recent Saturday in midwinter he stood behind a table at Whole Foods Market in Cranston. He traded his suit and tie for casual attire and the Bibbs uniform, a purple fleece vest with the company logo on it. The Whole Foods in Cranston was the first store to carry the couple’s product and put it to a professional customer taste test. Spread out before him were the three signature flavors of his island fruit beverage: Blackberry Tart Cherry, Lime and Blackberry, and Blackberry.
The store on this late Saturday morning was mobbed and the Bibbs booth was a popular stop. Zide kept busy pouring samples. For those who wanted a little flourish, he planted a dollop of peach sherbet into the paper cups. The kids in particular liked the sherbet. And, customers, after they taste the beverage, bought it. Zide explained that the sherbert makes a good mixer because it has a little cream in it, as opposed to a sorbet that has none.
On that recent morning, the Blackberry and Black Tart Cherry were neck and neck in popularity, but the tart Blackberry and Lime had a select following. In this wholly unprofessional survey, about half of the tasters bought the refreshment. Everyone asked about the Block Island connection and Zide does not tire of telling the story about the buckets of humble blackberries, a plant that exists at every turn of the road on Block Island, and in (probably) every backyard.
Not Enough Blackberries
Now three years later, even Block Island’s abundance of blackberries is not enough to fill the bottles of Zide and MacDougall’s increasingly popular beverage. From the front porch concoction mixed up that summer’s day, Bibbs is now found in small venues on the Island itself, and in stores and specialty chains in 24 states. More may be added soon, as chains like Fresh Market expand west. Getting to this point has been a lesson for its creators in bottling techniques, sugar contents of fruits, labeling, distribution and marketing.
A true ‘start-up,’ the owners initially wanted to make the beverage on Block Island itself but realized quickly the impossibility of that enterprise. They found it would also be impossible to make it in Rhode Island or New England, for no plant in the region offered what is known as the cold-filled, tunnel pasteurizing method of bottling. Given the combination of juices being used, only a handful of plants around the country provided the cold packing process needed, so Bibbs was first bottled in the Midwest, at the Cold Spring Brewery, in Cold Spring, Minnesota.
That first run, in 2011, was for 2,000 cases. The owners then faced the issue of how to get the product to market. And yes, sometimes, it can be said, luck played a part. Through friends, Zide made contact with Holly Dion of the Cranston store. When Zide arrived in the store with his samples of Bibbs, she tasted it, liked it, and called together a team of other employees to give it a try.
Zide and MacDougall are also seeking to sell the product at HomeGoods and TJ Max. The company now produces 17,000 cases. And as the drink gains popularity, Zide himself is not sure where exactly it can be found. He recalls a phone call one day from a woman in Louisiana. She had purchased it in a Fresh Market down there and wanted to know where else she could get it.
“You’re calling from where?” he asked her with some surprise.
Today, the Bibbs story is as much about Block Island as it is about the berry that is the key ingredient to a flavorful beverage. Rhode Island has lots of islands, big and small, but Block Island is the one furthest from the shore. Its lovely beaches, natural settings and summer allure are a favorite for residents and visitors alike. Those who stopped by Zide’s booth at the Whole Foods in Cranston that day were not just tasting a new beverage, they were experiencing nostalgia. Some recalled the hour-long ferry trip to, as The Nature Conservancy once dubbed it, one of America’s last great places. Or perhaps they remembered a cocktail made with blackberries, sipped while on the terrace at the Manisses.
Rhode Island is a small state and surprisingly, there were those at the tasting booth at Whole Foods who had not visited Block Island. Most of these folks asked questions about Island life and were curious to visit. It is snowing the day of the tasting, and it seems as though Bibbs and its almighty blackberry have brought a spot of summer into the store, dispelling winter’s gray.
Taste Tests, New Flavors and Distributors
New Bibbs flavors are on the horizon. Zide’s team is developing two diet Bibbs: Blackberry/watermelon and blackberry/ginger ale. Finding a new flavor combination sounds easy but Zide said it is a difficult process. He has hired a chemist, Kerin Kennedy, who put together samplings for taste tests and directed her to always err on the side of tart rather than sweet. Once the samplings passed a taste test, it was off to bottling and distribution. (Kennedy is a food chemist and President of the Boulder, Colorado-based Precision Kitchen Foods.)
Fruits can be deceiving in their sugar content and/or their pulpiness, according to Zide. Some fruits might seemingly go well in a beverage but for this product, their sugar content could be too high, like an apple, or too pulpy, like a strawberry. Bibbs has a deceptively simple ingredient list, but to get it to market is one complicated task. Besides the chemist’s work, there is the bottling, the size of the bottles, the design and packaging. Through his work as a corporate attorney, Zide knew people in the food business and asked for help. Advice came from Dunkin’ Donuts, Hain-Celestial and Celestial Seasonings among others.
Taking the product to market also proved to be a major investment in both time and money, Zide and MacDougall discovered. The couple has no team of marketers, they are the marketers. But their unabashed belief in their product is clear, and they are also very careful in how they present it to the public.
There is, for instance, the etiquette of offering free samples. Zide was given a lesson in store diplomacy by Pam Grist, who at Whole Foods Cranston oversees all in-store demonstrations.
“Would you like to taste this product?” Zide asked a shopper who waits in line. She declined, and he did not press her. He asked another, who takes the small cup and smiles appreciatively.
The company keeps growing, and Zide said it is now breaking even. Maybe, after three years, a modest profit. Given the outright delight on people’s faces at the Whole Foods tasting, the question is simply why it is not happening more quickly? It is all about profit and distribution. But still, great strides have been made since that day on the porch. Zide said he likes the idea of small is better, and has decided to work with what he’s got.
And what he’s got is that iconic juicy Block Island blackberry — now available in a bottle.
For those whose curiosity is piqued, check out www.drinkbibbs.com.