The wisdom of the world can be found in the Bell Liquor and Wine Shoppe, on M Street near 19th. Look in the refrigerated case between the soda and the cheeses. That Bell's is a liquor store is irrelevant. Sara's, the carryout on the first floor of the Federal Communications Commission building a little farther down M, is also a repository of philosophical enlightenment, as is Deli 'n Dogs across the street. As are dozens of other stores around the Washington area, and hundreds more between Richmond and New York.
How do you find the wisdom of the world? First, look for a little 12-ounce brown beer bottle. On the top of the bottle is a red-and-white cap with the defiant slogan "Up Your Apples!" If you are looking for wisdom in beer, forget it. This is the healthy 1980s, and the beverage inside is decidedly unalcoholic. It's Elliott's Apple Juice -- "Pure and Natural," it says on the label, "made from over one pound of fresh, juicy apples."
We're not talking about fortune cookie platitudes here, either. Nothing like "Great things are in store for you." No, these are heavy hitters like Winston Churchill, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Peter Drucker, Pascal, Spinoza, Voltaire, Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Joe Louis and Bernard Baruch. Messages from the Bible, Talmud, Koran, Nikita Khruschev, Kierkegaard, Goethe, Somerset Maugham, Larry Bird (yes, that Larry Bird), Branch Rickey, Erica Jong and Mother Teresa. Mixed in is the anonymous folk wisdom of a veritable United Nations. There are African proverbs, Armenian proverbs, Chinese proverbs, Czech proverbs, Irish proverbs, Welsh proverbs and Yugoslav proverbs, to name a few.
An eclectic collection to be sure. There are 1,200 quotations circulating, with another 600 ready to be stamped on the next shipments of Elliott's juices (including Apple-Cherry and Apple-Grape). This melange of the high (Julius "Dr. J" Erving) with the mighty (Abraham Lincoln), is the brainchild of Elliott Hirsh, 40, a deceptively unimposing man, short with big round glasses but blessed with energy and confidence that won't quit despite a few setbacks along the way.
Hirsh is a man who combines the pragmatism of Joe Louis ("Every man's got to figure to get beat sometimes") with the detachment of Churchill ("I'm always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught"), into the determination of Vincent van Gogh ("What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?"). Those are all quotations from his bottle caps, by the way.
It's taken Hirsh a long time to reach his present degree of success. As Walter Elliott once said, "Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after another." Hirsh, a Philadelphia native, graduated from Penn State in 1968 with a degree in industrial education. "I was idealistic at the time," he recalled, and so he went to teach in an all-black junior high school in Miami. When the racial situation there became tense, he came to Montgomery County and taught graphic arts for half a year at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School before returning to Philadelphia and an inner-city setting.
Hirsh tried to resume teaching, but found, "I had had it. I didn't want to be in the classroom, I didn't want to be a policeman." That was 1970. As he put it, "I spent the next six or seven years figuring out what to do."
Hirsh worked for assorted companies, designing labels and product packages until he had a yen to apply the marketing skills he was using for the benefit of others for himself. So he tried his first venture, "Elliott's Old Fashioned Orangeade." He arranged for the drink, with 20 percent fruit juice, to be mixed and put in his first batch of 10,000 cartons. But he needed a refrigerated milk truck to keep the drink fresh, and there wasn't a lot of money around. "The truck looked like a bomb," he said, and it was constantly stopped by the police who wanted to make certain it had passed inspection. He had to keep the truck plugged in at night to keep his wares cold. That wasn't all.
"The day I started, they had the Iranian revolution and gas prices went through the ceiling and they had the gas lines. I couldn't get gas and it rained every other day, which was not a good situation for orangeade and lemonade." Just as Hirsh was selling about $50 worth of his product per day and making plans to extend his summer seasonal business into apple cider in the fall, the truck died and he was out of business, though not without learning a valuable lesson. Hirsh said his "strategic mistake" was in not pasteurizing the drink and putting it in a bottle, eliminating the need for a refrigeration truck.
He went through a succession of similar businesses. He tried to revive a family chocolate chip cookie business, but the price of sugar went up, so he liquidated the company while keeping the corporate name, Custom Cookies. He tried making chocolate-covered pretzels. He tried selling apple cider along with pretzels, but the juice, in 16-ounce bottles that were usually used by a New England salad dressing company, didn't have a sufficiently high margin for retailers. He got rid of the pretzels and the cider and did well selling Famous Amos cookies as an independent distributor until Famous Amos made a deal with a larger distributor.
By 1982, he had $2,000 to his name. Working for others hadn't worked out. His ventures into cookies, pretzels and orangeade had all flopped. He wanted another shot, and tried apple juice again. He was going to call his produce Scrumples, after a long-departed pretzel line, but a call from a company called Scrumples persuaded him to change the name to Elliott's. It wasn't a vanity label. In December 1982, "E.T.," the movie, came out and the boy who befriended the alien was named Elliott. "I figured every kid would know Elliott from 'E.T.,' " Hirsh said. His latest product was born.
Most commercial apple juices, according to Hirsh, are made from apple concentrate, but Hirsh, who didn't drink much apple juice as a child, decided again to go his own way, using only fresh apples, no preservatives or concentrates. The reason, he says, was simple -- "It tastes better."
He borrowed money from his mother and stepfather, found pressers to make the juice, a small brewery in New Jersey to pasteurize it. It was convenient to buy bottles from the brewery as well. After all, no one had put apple juice in a beer bottle before. It was the old story again, "one step forward, two steps back," he said. When his first juice was processed, he got bad advice on the pasteurizing temperature. Midway through the first delivery run, his driver told Hirsh there were "fuzzy things" in the bottles. Hirsh had to pick up the entire batch and destroy it. "If it hadn't been their money, I would have given up," Hirsh recalled.
He finally got the pasteurizing temperature right, and began, again, "paying his dues," delivering cases to 500 stores. He used a Schmidt's beer truck for deliveries and one night some thieves, seeing the truck, broke into the yard, ripped off the truck roof, and took all the little brown beer bottles -- which were filled with juice.
Until two years ago, Elliott's juice had a standard gold cap. Looking for something different, he and his wife were having dinner at a Chinese restaurant reading "inspired fortunes." Hirsh said he thought of putting quotes under the bottle cap, much as Celestial Seasonings tea loaded its cartons with philosophy. "I've always been impressed by quotes and quote books," Hirsh said, adding he always clips and saves those little jewels of tiny stories hidden in newspapers or in classifieds. Hirsh pored over his books and clips and picked out all the clips himself, copying them onto 3-by-5 cards. He made certain to copy down the source of the quote also, to give people something else to think about.
The next task, again, was to persuade a company to try something different. "I had no doubt it could be done," Hirsh said, noting that if Pepsi could put Michael Jackson tickets under caps, his quotes could also fit. He found a bottle cap manufacturer in Baltimore to print his caps, along with the quotes and "Up Your Apples!" slogan.
That phrase can have two different meanings. The stock meaning, which he gives at first to anyone who asks, is that his juice contains more apples than do the juices of his competitors, so that customers have "upped their apples" by drinking Elliott's. But after talking at length about all the inequities he sees in the world, including nuclear arms buildup, tax advantages by big business, loss of American manufacturing to foreign firms and the plight of the farmers, Hirsh admitted that "Up Your Apples!" just might have a ring of social protest.
Hirsh said he would group his quotes in five categories: humanitarianism, libertarian themes, common sense, consideration of a "balanced life," and advice to be wary of governmental authority.
Somebody out there must be reading; he sold about 4.8 million bottles of juice last year. But, not everyone likes what's under the caps. Hirsh once got a letter from a woman in Lansdowne, Pa., who complained about a quote referring to a world in which there would be "fewer children and in which we take better care of them." The quote, the woman wrote, "strongly smacks of planned parenthood." Perhaps heeding Bill Cosby's advice that "I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everyone," Hirsh responded with a letter reminding the woman of the "tragic situation" in Africa, Central America, India.
And when a Scarsdale, N.Y., man wrote he was "offended" by the "Up Your Apples!" slogan, Hirsh replied with a list of 12 items that offended him.
The list included "12 million people dying of starvation in Africa, the federal government trying to pass off ketchup as a vegetable in school lunch programs, children who sit in front of TV for hours and never read books, and the failure of the public school system to produce people who think and are self-motivated by achievement."
Hirsh's bottle caps have advice for everyone:
For congressmen considering banking deregulation, "Banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies." -- Thomas Jefferson. li,2
For those with health problems, "No physician is really good before he has killed one or two patients." -- Hindu proverb li,2
For taxpayers, "The school is the last expenditure upon which America should be willing to economize." -- President Franklin Roosevelt
For journalists, "Things don't turn up in this world until somebody turns them up." -- James A. Garfield