Anyone who enjoys craft cocktails has probably tasted a Fee Brothers product. The Rochester, N.Y.-based creator of artisan drink mix products has overcome many obstacles in its 155-year history.
Young Owen Fee arrived in America from Ireland in 1835. He opened a butcher shop in Rochester in 1847 and died in 1855, leaving his wife, Margaret, to manage the shop and raise the couple’s five children: four boys and a girl.
By 1864, Margaret and James, the eldest son, had converted the butcher shop to a saloon and delicatessen. James opened a separate grocery and liquor store and, with his three brothers, expanded to a winery and import business.
In 1881, brother Owen Fee Jr. and matriarch Margaret both died. The three remaining brothers — James, John and Joseph — renamed the business. James and John were partners and Joseph was their right-hand man until he died in 1895 at age 45.
“I’m led to believe James needed to borrow money from his brothers and the name became Fee Brothers because they felt a little slighted,” says Joseph (Joe) Fee, 54, one of the two fourth-generation owners. The other is his sister Ellen, 60.
“I’m president, treasurer, sales manager and the guy who climbs under machines when something breaks,” Joe says. “Ellen is vice president and secretary and doesn’t climb under machines unless she can’t avoid it. She does all the R&D on new products, runs the production and makes sure I have product to sell. We like to say she handles everything wet and I handle everything dry.”
In 1908, a fire caused $400,000 of destruction (more than $11 million in 2018 dollars), but six months later the Fees were up and running again.
During Prohibition, second-generation member John Fee Jr. got creative. A malt extract beverage called “Bruno” was labeled with the picture of a bear (i.e., beer) and a warning not to add yeast to the product, as it was likely to ferment. Wink, wink.
The illicit alcohol served in speakeasies often tasted terrible. Fee Brothers began producing flavorings such as Benedictine, Chartreuse and other cordial syrups to make the alcohol palatable. The company had inadvertently found its future.
After Prohibition, Fee Brothers returned to selling alcohol but had to downsize to survive. Several cousins exited, leaving the business to John Jr. and his wife, Blanche. They had two children, John C. Fee III (Jack) and Nancy. John Jr. developed the famous Frothy Mixer that gave a lemon flavor to whiskey sours and Tom Collins drinks, leading to the motto, “Don’t Squeeze, Use Fee’s.”
By 1950, he decided to focus solely on mixers. But he died suddenly a year later at 58, taking the mixer formulas to his grave.
“It wasn’t exactly that they went with him,” says Joe. “He had a recipe book. The procedures were written out, but the actual measurements were still in code. It would say, ‘take a scoop of ixmus.’ What was ixmus? What size scoop? We had his scoops, but didn’t know which one. Was it a rounded scoop or a level scoop? Working from my grandfather’s notes, my father had to re-create the recipes.”
Jack Fee had earned a degree in chemistry and a job at Eastman Kodak. Though he’d worked at Fee Brothers during summers, he knew nothing of production or running a business. His chemist’s training helped him figure out and standardize the recipes, while Blanche and Nancy kept the business going with the help of Blanche’s father.
Joe and Ellen are two of Jack’s eight children. Though their six siblings and many cousins worked summer jobs at Fee Brothers, they’re the only two who made it a career.
“My oldest brother, John, was in the business for about 12 years, but he and my father were like two gears going in the opposite direction,” Joe says. “My father was brilliant at keeping the facility in wonderful condition and setting everything up in logical order, but he didn’t want to make sales calls. He was not a people person. That’s where my brother came in.” John, now 70, left and became a highly successful insurance agent.
Joe enjoys meeting bartenders and selling the product. Ellen likes to mix things and wants to go home at night. “Too many family members in a business makes for arguments. My sister and I get along because I don’t want to do her job and she doesn’t want to do mine,” Joe says.
Both have veto power, but Joe says neither of them used it more than once in the 28 years they’ve been partners.
With only 14 employees, many long-term, there’s little formal hierarchy. “My shipping guy has been here more than 20 years,” Joe says. “We told people he’s a foreman, so if he sees people goofing around, he’s welcome to tell them not to.”
Joe and Ellen hope another generation will someday come into the business, but the siblings will make them work for it. “Both Ellen and I have done every job in this place, down to cleaning toilets.”
Their hard work has paid off. Today Fee Brothers offers about 100 products and ships to customers worldwide from a warehouse built in 2014.
Hedda Schupak is a frequent contributor to Family Business. She recently profiled Modlich Monuments of Columbus, Ohio.
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