Bruce Cost and His Ginger Ale Look to Separate Futures

Bruce Cost and his eponymous ginger ale company are traveling separate paths these days.

A rocky divorce last summer saw Cost sue the company he founded to prevent the use of his name on zero sugar products, but today the dust, along with the lawsuit, has settled and both parties are looking to the future with ventures new and old.

Cost, 72, founded Bruce Cost Ginger Ale (BCGA) in 2010 with partner Terry Tang. A trained chef specializing in Asian cuisine, Cost had been brewing and selling his homemade ginger ale recipe for years at his Big Bowl and Wow Bao restaurants in Chicago, which were founded in 1995 and 2003 respectively. Insisting that any product bearing his name meet his standards for flavor, the original BCGA line of unfiltered ginger ales all featured real ginger and real cane sugar.

But craft soda has not been insulated from consumers’ growing rejection of sugar-sweetened beverages; despite Cost’s palate-centric approach, he said he faced internal pressure to grow the portfolio with lower calorie, stevia-sweetened line extensions. In 2014, BCGA moved into a new facility in Brooklyn, which Cost said was too large for its production needs and the company was not growing quickly enough. In August 2016, while still resisting any shift in approach to new product development, he was bought out by Tang for a reported $931,000.

After his departure from BCGA, the company launched a sugar-free SKU in February. Cost sued the following month.

According to Cost, the suit alleged a violation of an agreement between himself and the company that it would be allowed to continue to use “Bruce Cost” as a brand name for its existing products but prohibited it from releasing anything new under that title. The complaint alleged that “unbeknownst to Mr. Cost, at and around the time the [intellectual property assignment agreement] was being negotiated, Mr. Tang and the Company were in the process of developing and testing a new product.”

Cost said BCGA argued that the sugar free product, which was sweetened with stevia, did not constitute a “new product” and therefore did not violate the agreement. The case was settled later that spring.

Without Cost, the company has fully embraced an innovation pipeline including sugar-free products, along with new plays aimed at on-premise use. The sugar free ginger ale has since been shifted to the company’s Brooklyn Crafted brand, which mostly includes ginger beers, including sugar free and original varieties. In March, the company also announced Brooklyn Organics, a stevia-sweetened line of zero-to-5 calorie ginger ales featuring unique flavors including Acai, Classic, Coconut, Cola, and Guava.

“BCGA Concept Corp is thankful for the contributions that Bruce Cost brought to our company,” said Keli Roberson, marketing director at BCGA Concept Corp, in an e-mail. “The increasing demand for sugar-free options gave us an opportunity to expand our product line and target a new segment of customers while building our portfolio of products. We are excited about the direction that BCGA is headed and will continue to produce exceptional, craft product offerings for our consumers. With the launch of our newest line, Brooklyn Crafted, we are expanding variety by offering new flavors and sizes, inclusive of both sugar and sugar-free options.”

Under the Brooklyn Crafted line, the company has now rolled out sugar-sweetened ginger beers in 7 oz. bottles intended for use as mixers or in smaller pack sizes. The “Mini” line includes Earl Gray, Lemon & Lime, Mango, and Traditional flavors. Speaking to BevNET, the company said the product is currently sold in 24 pack cases intended for hotels, bars, and other service channels, although it may also enter retail.

With Brooklyn Organics, BCGA is continuing to work with retailers such as Whole Foods to grow the brand’s presence in the natural grocery channel. The line retails for $1.49 per 8.4 oz. can.

“Brooklyn Crafted is a very adult demographic,” Roberson said in a call last month. “Brooklyn Organics was created more for a health perspective.”

In light of some consumers’ issues with stevia’s flavor profile, BCGA expects that the product will not appeal to everybody, but that by growing the portfolio the company will be able to offer ginger ale to untapped demographics.

As part of his departure agreement Cost officially serves as a consultant for BCGA, although he’s not involved in the day-to-day. Instead, he’s gone back to Wow Bao, a quick-service Asian restaurant chain specializing in noodles, rice, and buns that he founded in 2003. The Chicago-based company is expanding outside of the Midwest and into the Northeast following an investment from Valor Equity, a private equity firm that has made prior investments in Dunkin Donuts and Elon Musk’s SpaceX. With Valor, Wow Bao is also embracing new automated restaurant technology made by Eatsa intended to significantly speed up the ordering process for consumers.

“I go to Chicago every week,” said Cost, who now lives in New York. “That’s where the product factory is, and I worked to bring it back up to quality.”

The grand opening of two new Wow Bao stores in Chicago is happening this week, with New York stores set to open by the spring. For Cost, the return to Wow Bao represents a homecoming of sorts back to one of his favorite ventures.

“More than anything else, I did everything for that concept,” he said. “Every dish.”

Cost said he still thinks about the beverage company a lot, and speculates about what may have happened if he remained onboard. Though Wow Bao is now his primary focus, he retains a special personal attachment to his years in the ginger ale business.

“Wow Bao was my favorite thing I ever created, and the ginger ale was a part of that,” he said. “I loved bottling it.”