Lisa Ash lost count at 10,000 how many tea, coffee and cocktail concoctions she created for retail clients at Monin Gourmet Flavorings.
And that was in 2006.
"We're always developing a new signature drink that their customers can't get anywhere else," said the 47-year-old mixologist. "My favorite flavor? I love our Desert Peach, but right now I've moved on to chocolate and blackberry mocha."
Her workplace: the elegant loungelike Monin Flavor Cafe hidden in a nondescript plant that's the unlikely birthplace of flavored drinks found at McDonald's McCafe, Seattle's Best Coffee, Capital Grille, Red Lobster, Carrabba's and 45,000 other restaurants in 22 countries across the Americas.
Indeed, few Americans ever heard of Monin until they discovered what's in its tall bottles that are a familiar sight in restaurant and coffeehouse bars.
Owned by the third generation of its French founder, Monin cranks 120 syrups from cucumber to candied orange with a team-oriented staff that's enjoying the good times of mercurial growth. Sales rose 12 percent to $45 million in 2010, up dramatically from $5 million a decade ago.
It's a company where chief executive Bill Lombardo knows not only every one of the 103 employees, but the names and interests of their families. Helping to keep his memory fresh are framed professional portraits of each employee that hang in the halls. A few bottling line workers recall their employer fronting them loans for major car repairs, family emergencies and even helping make a home down payment.
The Monin social calendar ranges from quarterly parties and beach picnics with team-building games to $10-a-head golf outings, pro sports tickets and company-sponsored flag football and co-ed soccer teams.
"I feel like I'm part of the Monin family," said Igor Divis, a 27-year old Bosnian immigrant who rose to quality assurance lab tech in four years. "It's a fast-paced environment where everybody backs up everybody."
Pay and benefits are better than average, and turnover is minimal. Everyone is eligible for an annual bonus. A liberal time-off policy starts with 20 days off, which includes holidays, the first year, and 25 the second, which grows to 30 days in five. The company pays 90 percent of health, vision and dental insurance. It was fully paid until four years ago when executives figured co-pays might help employees realize how much health care really costs.
The 15-person field sales force doesn't file activity or expense reports, they just send in receipts.
Chief executive Lombardo outlines goals and delivers regular updates on company performance.
"The biggest thing is telling people what we expect and how we're doing," he said. "We don't have office politics. Many people came here from multibillion-dollar corporations just to escape that. It's easier when you're a small company. Everyone down to the guy who sweeps the warehouse stops by my office. The door is always open."
It wasn't always like this. Things were tough when Lombardo, a veteran Olive Garden and Planet Hollywood executive, was recruited as CEO in 2000. The company had just lost $2 million on sales of $5 million, so it was make or break time.
He cleaned out almost half the staff, laid out a new set of corporate values and charted a new course for Monin to make its place in the United States.
Founded in 1912 in the small French town of Bourges, Monin controls about half the tiny flavored beverage syrup market. The company chose Clearwater because of its small-town feel and proximity to pure cane sugar grown in the Everglades. But it foundered for a decade hoping Americans would mix its bottled flavors in drinks at home — even beer — as they do in Europe.
Lombardo saw the future as teaching coffee houses, restaurants and lounge owners how to make drinks using its flavors as an ingredient.
"Our biggest challenge is ignorance," he said. "Restaurant people don't know they could easily make a nice flavored drink of an ice tea or lemonade and charge more for it. Selling an ingredient requires one-on-one sales. I've got to give you a sample and a sales presentation. Pretty much everything is created by our own people."
At the Clearwater plant, Monin dilutes and pasteurizes natural extracts with pure cane sugar. It has also developed sugar-free flavors made with sucralose, stevia or erythritol, a root grown in Thailand.
The marketing edge is the company's Flavor Cafes in Clearwater and near the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
Last year, Monin drew a parade of food and beverage executives from 100 chain restaurants to its Flavor Cafe in Clearwater to invest a few days experimenting with flavored drinks there.
Monin mixologists kick things off by whipping up a few dozen custom drinks for each chain, usually in that chain's own glassware. They also can provide menu-ready color digital photos, table tent cards, window cling signs and promotional materials.
Today its flavors are poured into frappes, lattes, smoothies, handmade fountain sodas and milk shakes in addition to desert toppings and sauces. Next up: salad dressing.
During the recession Monin's sales rose while its core customers suffered sales declines because Monin picked up more converts.
"We've been adding a dozen new chains a year," said Lombardo, "There are 750,000 food service operations out there, so we have plenty of room to grow."
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727)-893-8252.