Robert Corr. Part street-tough south-sider, part new-age guru. Part tough-as-nails businessman, part fanciful dreamer. One of his first goals was to make a million dollars by the time he was 40. Another was to save the world by getting people to eat and drink healthfully. He says his all-natural sodas and vitamin-enriched juices have been part of an effort to improve the drinking habits of his generation. They have also made him a fortune.
Now Corr has a new product. Part yin, part yang. Call it a cynical, calculated attempt to turn health-food sensibilities into major profit, or call it a genuinely magnanimous gesture to help humanity. Corr calls it R.J.'s Ginseng Beer. Sure, you can get drunk as a monk off of it, but it's good for you too. Not that Corr can say that directly. The feds have strong regulations governing the sorts of claims you can make about alcoholic products, but have a word or two with Corr and he'll have you convinced that just a pinch of ginseng in each bottle will energize you, give you a good buzz, make men more virile, and best of all not give you a hangover. "All my products have a meaning to them," he claims. "This beer has a meaning behind it."
To hear Corr tell it, his mother got him started as a health-food nut. "When I was playing baseball in Little League and in the Babe Ruth League I'd go out, and my mother would always put sunflower seeds and raisins in my back pocket and say, 'Stay away from the candy counter!' Mom was always giving me protein powders and sunflower seeds."
To hear his father tell it, Bob has long been something of a huckster as well. "He's always been a hustler," James Corr says, chuckling. "He always figured out a way to make a buck. When he was a kid just out of high school he'd have suits made for people. He'd give them swatches of material, and go down to Roosevelt Road and have the suits made for them, and make a little money off of the deal."
His sister, Pat Boldt, says, "I remember when he was 18 and he was over at my house, and I said 'Bobby, you better get on with your life.' He said, 'Are you kidding? I'm gonna be a millionaire before I'm 40.' I said, 'Get serious.' But he was right."
Sitting in his office in Posen, south of the city, Corr, who's 45, reflects on his life combining the do-gooderness of sunflower seeds and the cynical ruthlessness of business. He's a burly, somewhat macho guy with a thick south-side accent, a rebel with too many causes. He says he's been self-employed since he was 21. He went to Morgan Park High School but never graduated. He made some cash working in construction and driving a cab. He even did time in the National Guard, starting a scandal in 1969 because he wouldn't cut his hair. He beams when he tells the story.
"In 1968 and 1969 I was in the National Guard in Chicago, and out of 5,000 people I won the physical-training award. I was in great shape. I wasn't a bad soldier. But one day one of these officers comes up to me and says, 'Mr. Corr, your sideburns are too long.' I said, 'Hey, that's none of your business. I'm only here two weekends a month, and I'm not gonna cut my hair.'
"They made a big issue out of it, and I wouldn't cut it. My unit was a unique unit because it was all made up of lawyers' and judges' sons, and I was the only person there who wasn't politically set up. It went all the way to federal court. I was in a meeting once, and they physically took me and threw me in a cell block because I wouldn't cut my hair. I was just a normal guy."
In the meantime Corr was driving a taxi in Chicago, trying to come up with ways to make his first million. Then he wandered into a health-food store on Halsted Street called Food for Life. "I was just following a girl that I knew who I was madly in love with, and she went into this health-food store. As soon as I walked in there she was gone. She wasn't even in the store anymore, but I said to myself, 'This is exactly what I want to do. I want to promote good health to people. God, this would be really great.'"
With an investment of a little more than a thousand bucks, Corr opened Earth & Sea Natural Foods on the south side with his father. "I remember sticking my key in and opening up my health-food store, and I said, 'I did it!' Every time I used to lock it up at night I said a little prayer. I said that I have had so much fun doing this that I could leave that key in the door for anyone else to open it and take over. I always will remember that warm feeling, how great it felt."
He read up on health food and exercise and opened a yoga center "before anybody knew about this aerobics stuff." Then he started a second health-food store. Things were cooking until August 31, 1973, when a car accident almost put him out of business for good. "I walked outside my house. A car came screaming around the corner, and the driver was drinking out of a quart of gin. Boom! The outside mirror caught my head, and the car kept on going. There was a male nurse across the street. Within 20 seconds he came out to look at me. No sign of life. Nothing. Just dead. My father came out, and they were giving me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and cardiac massage. Four and a half minutes later they revived me. I was laid up in the hospital for a couple of months, and I was totally screwed up for about a year. I broke my neck. I went from 170 pounds down to 120. I was in serious trouble. They had to do operations to take out bone chips. They wired my neck up. But I made it.
"I feel fine now, but while I was in the hospital my yoga center closed, one of my health-food stores closed. And my dad, who was working 35 years as an insurance agent, retired from his job and took over one of my stores and kept it in business." James Corr still runs Earth & Sea Natural Foods.
At some point Corr discovered that mystical, aromatic, radishlike root called ginseng, which for hundreds upon hundreds of years has been used widely in medicines in Asia. It has a reputation as an aphrodisiac, a rejuvenator, a miracle root. "The American Indians used it. They didn't have cars to get around. They walked and ran around this part of the country, and they would take fresh ginseng root. Daniel Boone left the Cumberland Pass, and after he left he didn't return for 12 years. His wife had married his brother and had five children. Boone was held hostage by Indian tribes, and he learned the whole ginseng business. When he came back he started the largest export business of ginseng out of the Smoky Mountains. Daniel Boone was one of the first American ginseng traders. The root ginseng is the king of herbs. It's the most popular one in the health-food industry. It's a rejuvenator for the body. I've known runners my age who never had ginseng before in their life, and I give them a ginseng program to get on. They've decreased their times on their ten-mile runs. Ginseng is great stuff."
Ginseng Rush was born in 1978. A dark, foamy soda that tastes vaguely of bitter root beer, it was the first in a long line of beverages Corr brewed up, and it's still one of the most popular. He fondly recalls making the first batch of the stuff at Lasser's Beverages, a now-defunct north-side soft-drink company. He says the owner owed him a favor and bottled about 100 cases of the soda.
"I remember a distributor coming by. I sold somebody ten cases. I sold somebody five. I put some in my health-food store. And within a week, people were saying, 'Ay! We love this shit!' I went back to Lasser and made 300 more cases. I hand-labeled the bottle, because Lasser didn't have a labeler. I took all the bottles out of a box, and I said to myself, 'Man! I gotta get this automated!' So I started packing it up at a plant on Lincoln Avenue, and they ran 500 cases. I remember my knees were shaking. I said, 'Geeze, what'm I gonna do with these things if they don't sell?' It sold. Boom! I started producing the product in Denver and San Francisco. I was shipping it to all the health-food distributors, and it really took off."
In 1981 Corr opened up a restaurant near Ranalli's on Lincoln. He says the Rush Inn was kind of like a "healthy McDonald's." It stayed in business for only a couple of years. "I had veggie burgers and veggie fries and carrot juice and fresh juice. And two years into it I said, look, I have the potential for either a national fast-food chain, or I have the potential for a national soft-drink company. I made a decision. I closed up the Rush Inn, put all the stuff in storage, got out of the building, got 7,000 square feet of office space on Orleans, and I got ready to take off. I was there for one month, and I got sued by the Adolph Coors company for trademark infringement."
The lawsuit attracted national attention. He says it cost him half a million dollars in legal fees, but the free publicity probably almost made up for his losses. As a result of the suit, Corr had to drop his slogan "Made With Pure Rocky Mountain Water," which Coors said was too similar to its slogan, "Made With Pure Rocky Mountain Spring Water." Corr also had to change the name of his beverage line from Corr's to Robert Corr.
"We settled it, but it really ended up severely hurting the company. If I had it to do all over again, I would have sent the courts a letter. I would have said that this is my last name, and I will not spend my dollars in your courtroom to prove it. If you want to argue it together, if you and the judge want to sit and have coffee and bologna sandwiches, fine. Don't bother me. But I didn't. I was hooked by the nose."
In 1989 financial troubles forced Corr to close up shop on Orleans. He says he was a couple of million dollars in debt and considered filing for bankruptcy. Instead, he refined his operation and moved to an abandoned warehouse in Gary, Indiana, which he rented for 300 bucks a month. He paid back most of his debt and moved back to the Chicago area, setting up shop in Posen, where he says he's managed to make R.J. Corr Naturals profitable again.
In your grocer's fridge you can find Corr's sodas made with natural flavorings, juice sparklers, a vitamin-enriched juice called Gear-Up (also mineral-enriched and ginseng varieties), and Nature's Flavors sodas. The business has grown in fits and starts into a multimillion-dollar industry.
There were also products that flopped. A line of natural chocolate sodas came and went in the 1980s. Too expensive to make, observes Tom Swan, onetime record producer for Chess Records and current vice president of operations for R.J.'s Ginseng Company. There was the Nature's Breath breath freshener, an all-natural alternative to Binaca that failed to capture the public's imagination and lasted only a few years ("I try to compete with Binaca, but who gives a shit?" Corr asks). Corr started Rocky Mountain Seltzer but sold it. He also started Ginseng U.S.A., a ginseng brokerage firm that holds annual auctions of American ginseng crops; he recently sold that too.
When I spoke to him a few years ago, Corr said he harbored a great deal of anger when it came to alcohol companies. He said he wouldn't want to promote alcoholic products. The accident that laid him up for a year taught him about the evils of alcohol. "You know those California coolers?" he asked me in 1989. "I could've come out with something like that. I knew they were going to be big, but I don't want to promote alcohol. I think the alcohol industry is going to have some big problems ahead of them. I think the brewing industry is going to have some big problems. I mean, isn't it paradoxical for a guy to advertise beer and say, 'Hey, don't have too many of these!' Just a couple of years ago they were on college campuses doing these guzzling parties. Then they realized, 'Hey! Here's a kid who's 21 years old. We had to scrape his face off the windshield. He could have had a wonderful life.' Have you been to all these bars? These snuggeries? Guys aren't drinking as much. Times are changing."
Now Corr has changed. Enter R.J.'s Ginseng Beer--4 percent alcohol and in your local specialty grocery store in Chicago, Wisconsin, Florida, Texas, Colorado, and Oregon. The motto seems to be that if you're going to drink, you might as well get drunk on something that's better for you than normal beer.
"I wrestled with the idea for a long time," Corr say. "I just decided that if people drink herbal beers or ginseng beers it's better for them than drinking regular beer."
"Millions of people drink beer, and they drink beer with food," says Swan. "And I don't think drinking in moderation is very negative."
What Swan and Corr will say in interviews can't be used in advertisements unless they want to risk the ire of the feds. They're also careful to say that the claims they make can't be presented as facts. But the message is clear. Because it's loaded with ginseng (ten bucks worth per case, according to Corr), this beer will arouse you, energize you. They don't say it won't give you a beer gut, but one begins to wonder if they won't be making that claim sometime soon.
One claim they make but can't state officially is that ginseng detoxifies the alcohol in beer so that even if you drink a case of R.J.'s Ginseng Beer you won't get a hangover. And then there's that virility thing, the implication that ginseng beer is not only the one beer that won't slow you down but also the one that will speed you up. Swan says the Chinese believe foods that look like parts of the body have curative powers for the parts of the body they resemble. Beans that resemble kidneys cure kidney problems. Those that look like lungs cure lung trouble. And though he says he can make no claims about what ginseng cures, he points out that the most potent roots have three legs.
"A lot of people are saying oysters are out and ginseng is in," Swan says. "I can't make that statement myself, but it does have that reputation. It increases physical endurance, extends youth. Most beers imply sexual potency, but it's not true. Talk to any woman. Once you have a few regular beers in you you can't perform."
"This beer is the only thing on the planet that represents men's virility, that's good for men," Corr claims. "Men need it more than anything. Men are the ones who are constantly challenged about their performance, their sexual performance. Women can just bring them in and drop them out one at a time. But men gotta stay there and satisfy their wives and their girlfriends--and who the hell gives a shit about that? Well, ginseng does.
"I'll tell you what I want to do," he says conspiratorially. He does not appear to be joking. "I want to start Men's Virility Club of America. I see Budweiser coming down the street with six Clydesdales sweeping up horseshit. If they can get behind horses, I can get behind men. I can get behind virility. What the hell is going on for us on that level? Who the hell cares? Well, ginseng does. Ginseng. Ginseng cares. And the Chinese care. That's why three million pounds of ginseng go over there every year. Can a billion Chinese be wrong? Fuck the American psyche! Get into ginseng. I think ginseng is a major aphrodisiac. I do. There's no doubt about it. Who would know more about that than me? I'm taking it all the time and I know."
Corr is in his Posen office with Swan. They're snacking on a corn bread Corr's wife made with stone-ground wheat and ginseng beer. Corr says he might try marketing it in the near future. It's one of many new products he's planning, including an alcohol-free ginseng beer and new soda flavors, maybe another chocolate or strawberry-banana. He's talked about making a nonalcoholic champagne that "tastes just like Taitinger." He'd like to have a line of healthy beverages for senior citizens, perhaps a "James Corr Grand Pop." A ginseng cola and a ginseng ginger ale are in the works. There's even a plan to make an "isotonic" Gatorade-like beverage that would use brown salt from Tibet. "People in Tibet use the salt over there for all kinds of ailments," says Corr. "The yaks over there are the leanest nonfat kind of meat because they're always licking that brown salt. I want to get into that."
Whether these products will see the fluorescent light of grocery shelves is hard to say. When I talked to Corr in 1989 he was going apeshit over a product he said was going to be the purest water on the market. He talked of flying helicopters over glaciers in Canada to test water samples. There were going to be barges taking it from the falls, and flavoring houses inventing rare European flavors. It didn't happen.
"I think Bob is a visionary," says Swan. "Sometimes he's got more good ideas than he can act on."
If you let Corr talk long enough, you'll find he has an opinion on just about every problem facing America, and an inspired if somewhat cockeyed solution for reforming the system. He talks of changing the American legal system. He wants to promote alternative medicine and provide medical information at worldwide information banks, a service he would call "The Third Opinion."
"There was a group of people in my generation that was really concerned with promoting health to people, and there was a group of people that really didn't give a shit who became the heads of corporations," Corr says. "It's frightening to think that if you go to a store and turn off the switch, that everything there will still be edible if you came back in a year. If I were the head of a major corporation I'd be coming out with dairyless soups, items with no preservatives, low cholesterol, soybean-related items."
But he says he can only do so much. He's doing what he can to change the world, but he's just a pop salesman. Just a normal, everyday person who gets uncomfortable when he sees his name plastered all over grocery-store shelves. He says that if his company ever failed, he'd just open up a big health-food store or restaurant with his wife. He presents himself as a 90s guy, sensitive at heart but a tough SOB when he has to be.
"I'm the meanest son of a bitch to some people that you can imagine," he says. "I get in lawsuits with people who think I'm the terror. In the beverage war I'm a warrior. I'm not a wimp in it, because I'd be eaten alive. Some people that I have conflicts with see me as a real terror, but I forgive them when it's all over. When you've got a company you've got to protect it. I don't like some of the ways I have to survive in the beverage business. I mean, I don't like some of the shitty, negative parts of my personality. But if you're a warrior you don't go out and pass out beads on the battlefield. You sharpen up that sword and you swing it."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.