KING OF THE FRUIT COLAS: ENTREPRENEUR TELLS OF FIRM'S UPS AND DOWNS
When the former fruit beverage salesman told his boss in 1954 that he wanted to sell his own beverage, ''the man looked at me like I was crazy,'' recalled Newark businessman Frankie Shabazz. ''No one had ever heard of a black man marketing a soft drink,'' Shabazz said, ''but crazy or not, I knew I had to push on. I knew I couldn't keep working for someone else. I had to get my own.'' The entrepreneur's determination paid off nearly 10 years later, after he left his Kearny employer to begin his own business - the Shabazz Fruit Cola Co. on South 11th Street. The company distributes to local areas a bottled soft drink made of cola and fruit abstracts. The pink beverage is particularly visible in fast food restaurants on Clinton Avenue, Shabazz said. Shabazz devised the idea in the early 1960s while selling A&J Jamaica Ginger Beer for the A&J Bottling Co. of Harlem. The company's black owner, Alfred James, is Shabazz's role model. ''Around this time, my kids kept nagging me about drinking cola,'' recalled Shabazz, the father of six boys and one girl. ''I told them, 'No, you can't drink sodas. Drink fruit drinks. They're better for you.''' But Shabazz's eldest son was determined to have Pepsi. ''One day, he took a Pepsi and mixed it with some orange juice and some other juices,'' said Shabazz. ''I got at him about it, and he kept saying, 'It's okay, Dad, it's got fruit in it. It's a fruit cola.' That started me to thinking...'' Shabazz said the drink is quite popular, despite his lacking the resources to advertise and distribute it on a national level. ''I'm quite satisfied with it,'' Shabazz said last week as he loaded cartons of fruit cola onto a delivery truck. ''After all, I didn't start this business to get rich quick,'' he said. ''I started it because I wanted my own. I wanted to have something to show for myself.'' Shabazz's company and its owner have undergone periods of prosperity and poverty. Shabazz Cola boomed in 1973 when Shabazz saved the money to keep it going, but nearly bombed in 1986 when its owner lacked the resources to maintain production. Production started up again in 1989, when Shabazz managed to save some cash. ''It's been hard,'' said Shabazz, ''but I've always paid everything up front. I don't rely on credit because none of the credit facilities were open to me when I began this business. African-Americans have a particularly hard time getting funding for businesses.'' Shabazz said he was rejected by banks and other lenders when seeking financing for his idea. The rejections led the aspiring entrepreneur to brood one night to a white friend who owned a store in Newark. ''I told Charlie I wanted to go into business,'' said Shabazz, ''but that I was having a hard time of it. Charlie said, 'You're never going to go into business.' ''I said, 'Well, I don't have anything to go into business with!''' Charlie's response, said Shabazz, was, ''Well, start with that.'' Shabazz said he was initially angered by the store owner's ''insensitivity,'' but he later realized that the man had a point. ''I was never going to get financing,'' said Shabazz. ''I suddenly realized he was right. I was just going to have to do it myself. ''I was afraid,'' he said. ''I didn't have any idea of where I was going. But at the same time, I was exhilarated because I knew I was going somewhere.'' That week, said Shabazz, he did not pay his rent. He instead purchased labels bearing the words, ''Shabazz Fruit Cola.'' The new business was successful, said Shabazz, until the summer of 1967, when Newark rioters ''stole the drinks, right down to the last bottle. I lost everything I had.'' But Shabazz pushed onward, taking a part-time job and saving money to refinance his business - in Newark. The Houston native said he could not turn his back on Newark, the city he had come to call home. Shabazz said his wife, Bernice, was supportive of his every move with the business, encouraging him to stick with it. ''In our house, it was always the business,'' said Shabazz. ''The kids would ask me for shoes and I had to say no because I had to finance the business. ''But no matter how tough things would be, my wife would say I was going to make it,'' he said, smiling. ''And I would think to myself, 'What the hell is she talking about? This woman is crazy! Can't she see the situation we're in?''' Mrs. Shabazz joked that she encouraged her husband to stay in business for himself because ''I thought it was impossible for him to work for somebody else. He likes to make his own decisions. He's a little arrogant and he doesn't appreciate anybody telling him what to do.'' She noted, more seriously, that it was easy to support Shabazz because he always managed to pay the rent and care for the children.'' Shabazz states, “It is satisfying to know I have left my children something they can call their own.''