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Grapette Expands Sweet Menu, Takes On New Orleans FlavorsLock Icon

4 min read
Grapette 136820 David Rice
David Rice, vice president and director of marketing at Grapette International, tosses back a signature soda at the Malvern plant. ( Karen E. Segrave)

Last summer, Grapette International Inc. quietly broadened its production palate of syrups, concentrates and powdered flavorings with a batch of distinct tastes a la New Orleans.

The Malvern manufacturer struck a licensing deal with National Fruit Flavor Co. to use its Big Easy recipes and make its branded lines of syrups, concentrates and cocktail mixes in Arkansas.

The addition of Zodiac frozen drink mixes, Old Comiskey cocktail mixes, Zodiac flavor shots, Sno-Ball concentrates and syrups, Tasty all-purpose syrups and Gambelini coffee syrups effectively doubled the Grapette book of business.

After enduring a pandemic-tainted 2020, the company is savoring a big rebound this year thanks to the combination of ongoing private-label contracts and new name-brand orders.

“Demand has been unprecedented,” said David Rice, vice president and director of marketing at Grapette. “Normally, we’d see a big slowdown this time of year.”

Rice was coy about Grapette’s revenue, but industry estimates peg the merged sales of the similarly-sized companies at about $8 million annually.

Grapette has doubled the workforce to 30 at its 45,000-SF plant and is looking to add more. The company is in the process of equipping a 5,000-SF addition to increase its output.

“I thought it would be like moving their production inside of what we were doing, but instead it was like stacking their company on top of our existing company,” Rice said of the 2020 deal with National Fruit Flavor.

Grapette established a relationship with the company in 2005 when it helped with production in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Hard hit by the restaurant disruption last year, National Fruit Flavor issued severance packages to its employees in case layoffs turned into lost jobs.

“That’s when we made an offer,” Rice said of the 2020 deal. “They were going to shut the company down. We reached out to them in May, and final documents were signed in July. About 80% of the customers we inherited are within 100 miles of New Orleans.”

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The Grapette International plant in Malvern is covered in work after emerging from a pandemic-tainted 2020. ( Karen E. Segrave)

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Katie Barrett bottles bubblegum Sno-Ball flavoring for icy treats. ( Karen E. Segrave)

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Karina Rodelo sorts and boxes electrolyte-stoked freezer pops. ( Karen E. Segrave)

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Katherine Hannah heat seals a bag of private label powdered sports drink mix. ( Karen E. Segrave)

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Zayne Morrison sifts citric acid into finer granules as it pours into a mesh strainer. ( Karen E. Segrave)

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Workers mix up a big batch of Sno-Ball syrup. ( Karen E. Segrave)

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David Rice shows the new plant space. ( Karen E. Segrave)

After a 2020 pandemic postponement, the Louisiana Restaurant Association Showcase returned last weekend. Billed as a two-day marketplace for restaurant and foodservice professionals, the Aug. 7-8 gathering was the first big opportunity for Grapette to connect with National Fruit Flavor clients and demonstrate its capability to carry the company’s legacy forward.

“We want to show that we are producing the original New Orleans flavors that people have come to expect,” Rice said.

Owned by the Gambel family since 1961, National Fruit Flavor was launched in 1917. Like Grapette and its purple namesake beverage, National Fruit was established on the success of a carbonated soft drink: Orange Squeeze. Soft drink bottling is no longer a part of either company’s operations.

“Their company is over 100 years old,” said Rice, who represents a third generation of family ownership in Grapette International. “We’re over 80 years old.”

In its heyday during the 1950s, Grapette soda was produced by more than 300 bottlers in 42 states. Back then, Grapette outsold all other grape-flavored soft drinks combined.

The company still produces the famed Grapette flavoring for its namesake drink. However, the company’s Orangette soda, which debuted in 1947, is part of a more popular niche these days.

“There are more orange soda drinkers these days than grape soda drinkers,” Rice said.

Founded in Camden in 1939, Grapette dwindled after the sale of its domestic operations in 1970. The company’s flavoring business was rekindled in Hot Springs during the 1980s, and the Grapette formula provided the flavoring for Walmart’s private-label grape soda.

“For a long time, you could only get Grapette under that name internationally,” Rice said. “When people would ask us where they could buy Grapette here, we’d point them to Walmart. For a while, it was the worst-kept secret.”

The domestic trademarks for Grapette and Orangette were reacquired in 2000, and a reappearance of the brands on Walmart shelves followed.

Grapette International relocated from the Spa City to Malvern in 1999 when it moved into the former Greenman Technologies plant in the Hot Spring County Industrial Park.

Sensory evaluation of flavors in the company labs is a constant for quality assurance as well as new product development. What’s the strangest flavor developed? That would be dill pickle for the snow cone market.

“We were able to get pretty close to that,” Rice said.

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