Jewish World Review July 27, 2000 / 24 Tamuz, 5760
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Riso is the official spokeswoman for Postum. When
asked what it tastes like, she said: "I have never
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
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
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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