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Small Business Spotlight: Fee Brothers

March 01, 2019 10:02 PM

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) -- The sound of clinking glass fills this factory as much as it would at any other bottling operation.

But from the moment you walk into Fee Brothers on Portland Avenue, you realize it's more than just a factory, it's a look into Rochester's history.

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For 154 years the company has been in the Fee family, becoming an internationally respected maker of cordial syrups, bitters, and cocktail flavorings. 

"This is Owen, John, James and Joseph. And John is my great grandfather," said Joe Fee, pointing out the original four brothers. 

Joe and Ellen Fee -- brother and sister -- are now the fourth generation to head up this company. They recently showed News10NBC around their operation which includes a room that pays tribute to the company's past.

Inside are old bottles, jugs, photos, documents and of course antique bottling equipment.

Clearly, times have changed.

On this day, they're bottling cherry bitters through their automated bottling production line. Ellen Fee mixes up the batches.

"I gotta tell you, I've been doing this almost 40 years now," she says as she mixes. "The first time I ever made a batch it took me hours. I was so nervous. Now, yes, it's easy now."

To a visitor, the smell is overwhelmingly sweet. One by one, the five-ounce bottles move through the conveyor to be filled. The bottles are then capped and sealed. While that process is automated, the familiar Fee Brothers label is then applied by hand.

"They lay the label out and they then roll it onto the bottle," said Joe Fee. "Still done by hand because that's how grandpa did it."

Asked what he thinks customers like most about their product, Joe Fee said, "Consistency. They know they're going to get the same flavor out of that bottle every time they buy a bottle." 

And those bottles are bought by bars and restaurants around the world, with distributors in nearly every state and in dozens of countries.

It's the Fee Brothers' ability to adapt to societal changes that have allowed it to exist so long.

Originally, James Fee opened a storefront on Main Street downtown selling cigars, produce and other goods. Later, the brothers became a liquor and wine distributor.

"And along comes prohibition," Joe Fee explains. "And the liquor went away. He kept the wine because it was considered suitable quality to be used on the altar for sacramental use. He also started to make flavor to dress up illegal hooch."

The rest, as they say, is history.

After prohibition ended, the Fee brothers decided to stay in the cocktail syrups and flavoring business.

News10NBC's Brett Davidsen: "How many different kinds do you have?"

Joe Fee: "Eighteen flavors, the broadest collection of bitters from one manufacturer in the world."

Fee says they've seen a spike in business in recent years, thanks to the craft cocktail movement.

"And as a result, in the last say 13 years, our business has grown by like 500 percent."

Not bad for a company that's been around for a century and a half.

Davidsen: "What do you see going forward? Is there a fifth generation?" 

Fee: "To be determined. The day is young...who knows."

To learn more about Fee Brothers, visit their website here. 

If you know of a business you'd like us to shine the spotlight on, send us an email at spotlight@whec.com.

Credits

Brett Davidsen

Copyright 2019 - WHEC-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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