Remember the days when boxed wine was a strict no-no? Today, boxed wines are gaining more acceptance. One of today’s hottest drinks is sangria, and a Connecticut native is going all in with a boxed version of the fruity Spanish favorite. John Bello, the entrepreneur behind the SoBe brand of teas, juices and enhanced beverages, now brings Beso del Sol to the mainstream. With red, white and pink rosé sangria varieties, Beso del Sol can be found in stores and at venues including Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium. Bello offers some insight into his success and how his Plainville roots helped launch his business career.
In 50 words or less, how did a guy from Plainville become a beverage king?
I am not a king. I am an unabashed capitalist. I took advantage of the opportunities and doors opened to me growing up in Plainville onward. That, seasoned with hard work and a dash of luck, and presto, an American success story. It was a journey, at every stop from Plainville High School to college to the military to grad school to a series of jobs in marketing. I met people, gained experience, made mistakes, had success, kept going and arrived at a place where I was terminally unemployable — a personality flaw. Snapple, AriZona, Clearly Canadian and other designer beverage concepts, all started by neophytes with no experience and no money, just a great concept. SoBe, the dueling lizards and value-added nutritional elements combined to be a dynamite concept. That’s more than 50 words, but who’s counting?
What has to be considered these days when developing and launching a product, especially given the immense competition and jockeying for shelf space, as well as the fussy whims of the consumer?
The success formula is simple: a timely and relevant product with great taste and packaging, a solid, committed team, and tons of money to fuel success. The key then is execution — relentless and nimble and ferocious. The beverage industry is a designer industry. The marketplace is always looking for the next exciting, new and different concept. SoBe was all of that, the first broad-market nutraceutical beverage with vitamins, minerals, herbs added that didn’t taste like castor oil, innovative non-mainstream flavors, funky bottle, rainbow colors, great marketing and totally on trend with wellness and a dash of playfully irreverent sex appeal. Beso del Sol has all the success elements. It is an authentic, great-tasting sangria, on trend (varietal wines exploding), unique packaging (boxed wine receptivity is growing), brand personality and premium priced yet reasonable for a lifestyle beverage. What clinched my interest were the founders. They were experienced, hungry, committed and knew the space. What they lacked was working capital to fuel growth. I led a group that financed Beso with investors that not only provided growth capital but added advisory experience.
Your dad was in the beverage business, owning his own liquor store. Did the beverage bug bite you then?
What I learned from my dad was self-reliance, perseverance, the value of hard work and dedication and what it takes to get back up when you are down. My dad was a self-made man. He was a good example of the immigrant American success story. Success here is defined as making it possible for his sons to get an education and go on to build fruitful and productive lives for themselves and their families. He did little for himself. He opened a liquor store after being laid off from his factory job as a cabinetmaker. I went with him to the unemployment office in Bristol to get his check. He hated that. While my mom worked second shift at Fafnirs Bearings Co. in New Britain, he developed his own business. I helped him build the store next to our house on East Street — a very Italian thing to do. After securing a liquor license, he opened Jerry’s Package Store (his name was Generoso — “Jerry” Americanized). I helped him in the store doing various jobs from waiting on customers (as a minor, no less), packing the shelves, creating now-illegal bonfires with the empty boxes, examining the coins in the cash register for the elusive 1909 VDB penny, and nicking a six-pack or two for mischief-making with the East Street Gang. I admit it.
Wine connoisseurs have been well known to raise their collective eyebrows to boxed wines, going so far as to rudely refer to them as “the lowest level of the quality pyramid.” What taste, cultural and mainstream trend elements did you consider when attempting to elevate the pedigree?
I am not a wine snob. I have lots of friends who are. I don’t drink that much, but I drink and love Beso Del Sol. Part of the reason for my involvement is that my wife Nancy tried it and began drinking it with me every evening. It’s great since she heads the family investment committee. Beso comes in the bottle as well as the box, but the box got it going and is the main package.
We seem to currently be in the midst of the craft beer, barrel-aged spirits rage. What do you see as the next trend in adult beverages?
Wine, wine and more wine are where it’s at in the spirits industry. Craft beers are proliferating and cannibalizing the big base brands such as Bud, Miller and Coors. I also see lifestyle mixed drinks like Moscow mules and Dark and Stormies [dark rum and ginger beer] as gaining popularity along with Sex on the Beach, mojitos, Dirty Blonde and other fashion mixed drinks. That and hard seltzers and lemonades are the spirits growth drivers, from my view.
While I am sure you are a SoBe and
Beso aficionado, are there any beverages you absolutely will not drink?
I drink Beso because it’s a pleasant, light sangria that goes well with anything or simply by itself. Truth be told, I never drank much SoBe. Too much sugar. Beyond Beso and an occasional glass of wine, I don’t drink. I get high on life, as corny as that sounds or seems.
What did you learn in Connecticut that took you forward in life? And do you come back often?
I think people are born with latent personalities that are brought to life and nurtured and shaped by their environment. Growing up in Plainville and its environs prepared me for what was to come as I walked through all those doors into the future. Plainville (proud, diverse and industrious like many small towns in Connecticut) was a kind of cocoon which allowed me to find myself and develop. The safety net was always there. The support of family, friends (still my very best), teachers, Scout leaders, coaches and others provided a base of understanding and motivation to take a chance, develop and achieve. One stark learning experience was a brief stint at GE on the assembly line making circuit breakers. It was the first, but not the only time, I was fired. It was clear to me that an eight-hour shift on the factory floor was not the destiny for me. It did, however, give me a profound appreciation for what my mom and working-class Americans did every day. This helped in understanding and managing people and resources in the future. I do get back to Plainville for reunions or to visit my brother in Bristol, but I’m never going back to GE.
Once upon a time, you were president of NFL Properties, the marketing arm of the football league. Now Beso del Sol is sold at both Fenway and Yankee Stadium. How did you swing that, and who do you root for?
No question I have had fun in my endeavors. The NFL with all the players and personalities, SoBe with John Daly and Bode Miller, and now Beso with the Yankees and Sox were fun benefits of promoting lifestyle brands. I am a lifelong Yankee fan spawned by Mickey Mantle. I met him several times in my travels. What do you say to your idol whom you prayed wouldn’t strike out as you held your transistor radio to your ear while delivering newspapers? He delivered the big hit more often than not. Having gone to school in Boston during the Yaz era, I learned to love the Red Sox, too. But the ubiquitous “B” on hats in New England always meant Brooklyn.