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Jewish World Review July 27, 2000 / 24 Tamuz, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports

How to make a killing -- HERE'S SOME FREE ADVICE to any budding young entrepreneurs out there -- young men and women who want to make a financial killing like the Starbucks founders and their clones have done.

You know what I'm talking about. Ten years ago, a cup of coffee was just a cup of coffee -- something you got out of a machine, or at the neighborhood lunch counter. Cachet? Coffee had none.

Then came Starbucks -- and all of a sudden it seemed there was a Starbucks, or a Starbucks knockoff, on every corner. Coffee was . . . well, coffee was hot. That's why so many businesspeople were scrambling to get into the designer coffee business.

Trouble is, there are only so many ways to brew a cup of coffee -- and only so many purportedly-cool-sounding names to put on a store.

So who's the next coffee-related multimillionaire going to be?

This is where my free advice comes in.

I was flipping through a copy of Life magazine from the week of April 19, 1943 (I try to stay current), and came upon a full-page ad.

The ad showed the face of a woman -- as the face might appear in a tall, wavy funhouse mirror. The woman was holding what looked like a cup of coffee -- but her face was all stretched out and weird.

To emphasize the point, the headline in the ad said: "This woman is slightly distorted in her thinking."

The text went on:

"She is about to try her first cup of Postum, one of America's great mealtime drinks. BUT . . . somewhere she has picked up the mistaken notion that Postum is a coffee substitute -- along with the equally distorted idea that Postum is supposed to taste like coffee."

The ad sternly continued:

"It won't. Postum doesn't taste like coffee. Nor like tea."

After some explanatory text saying that Postum had a "distinctive flavor all its own," and that people should gulp it down "without any distorted ideas," the advertisement concluded with the words: "Postum -- one of America's great mealtime drinks."

Now . . . that word -- Postum -- vaguely rang a bell. I recalled seeing the word many years ago, when I was a child -- and I thought the place I remembered seeing it was on railroad dining car menus. That was it -- on railroad menus, the choices of hot beverages were coffee, tea or Postum.

But what did it mean? What was this Postum, and what happened to it? And why, in 1943, did its manufacturers feel so defensive that they had to take out ads saying that Postum did not taste like coffee?

I looked into it. It turns out Postum was the first product ever invented by C.W. Post of the Post cereals empire. In 1895, in Battle Creek, Mich., in a little white barn, he brewed his first batch of Postum -- a hot beverage brewed from cereal. His idea was for Postum to become a competitor to coffee.

It . . . well, it wasn't a huge success. It did just fine -- but people liked coffee, people liked tea, and there seemed to be some question as to whether there was really room for a third hot daily drink. The old magazine ad probably was an indication of Postum's quandary -- people must have thought it was a kind of coffee, and when they found out it wasn't, they required education. No one likes to be educated at 6 or 7 a.m.

Here's the surprise, though: Postum is still around.

"It's a small business," said Pat Riso, a spokeswoman for Kraft Foods, which now owns the Postum brand. She said Postum has a quiet but loyal following -- aboout a million packages a year are sold, which is not all that much in the grocery game.

Riso is the official spokeswoman for Postum. When asked what it tastes like, she said: "I have never tasted it."

So even Postum's spokeswoman has never tried Postum. And she said that Kraft does zero advertising for Postum. Not one dollar.

This is where the opportunity comes in for someone:

Nothing succeeds these days like products that call themselves "alternative." From radio stations to rock bands to medicine, "alternative" connotes cutting edge, ahead of the curve, desirable.

Postum shops -- that's where the money is. Whoever opens the first Postum shop next to a Starbucks will become wealthy within days. It's mysterious, it's offbeat, it's overlooked . . . it's warm and wet, and you drink it, but even its own spokeswoman has no idea what it tastes like. Talk about alternative. People would flock to it.

It'll make you feel . . . well, it'll probably make you feel like you're on an old train.

You could do worse.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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