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Company continues to deliver its message in a bottle

Black Bear Bottling grows while keeping up with new standards

Dec. 14, 2010

Oak Creek — The Black Bear Bottling Group will hit its half-century mark under its current family ownership next year, but still keeps its youthful, spry attitude as a leader in food safety and environmental awareness.

A lot of the soda and flavored waters people see on grocery shelves is made at the Black Bear Bottling plant at 2025 W. South Branch Blvd., Oak Creek. Black Bear soda flows out of the Oak Creek plant to be sold all over Wisconsin, northern Illinois and in parts of Minnesota and Michigan. The plant also makes Caruso Legacy Gourmet Soda that is served all over the Midwest.

But it also makes soft drinks and waters for more than 20 customers selling under other brands, said Black Bear president Peter Caruso Sr. Some of those client soft drinks go to markets all over the country.

On track for safer approach

Black Bear just celebrated the finish of a massive remodeling that has won for it a Safe Quality Food Institute level 2 quality certification. That means the company can track every ingredient, from when it enters the plant at 2025 W. South Branch Blvd., Oak Creek, to the grocery store shelf it went to.

This kind of food safety improvement is driven by major retailers through the Safe Quality Food 2000 Global Food Safety Initiative, Caruso said. Such improvements heighten security by making food recalls easier, he said.

Caruso figures Black Bear is 18 months to two years ahead of most food plants in making the tracking improvements.

Being ahead of the game could give Black Bear an edge.

"This is something that is preferred by major retailers in the country, such as Target, Walmart and Walgreens," Caruso said.

The new year might even bring more business and a chance to expand, he said, noting that the plant may hire five to 15 more people.

Greener bottling

The remodeling that the company celebrated also had a lot to do with becoming even more Earth-friendly.

Black Bear already uses recycled products, but now all the lights are turned off in the warehouse on sunny days. Instead of having artificial light, sunshine streams in through 30 new solar light tubes in the roof. The skylights look like glass domes and they are fitted with prisms to magnify and direct light down into the building, Caruso said. The regular lights are flipped on when it's cloudy or dark.

"We just feel it's the right thing to do," Caruso said.

He also is a big believer in recycling in family life, he said, and so is his company.

Bottles of soft drinks and waters arrive at grocery stores packed in boxes that are 100 percent recycled cardboard, he said.

Also, the cardboard cartons of 4- and 6-packs of soda that shoppers take off the grocery store shelf are 100 percent recycled with 35 percent of that from paper and cardboard that families themselves toss into recycling bins at home, he said.

"We do pay more for the recycled products because there is more processing," Caruso said. "But we are doing what we can to help."

And helping is what Black Bear is known for, said Oak Creek Mayor Dick Bolender.

"Black Bear contributes to anything we ask them to," he said. "It's a very good community-oriented venture. They're just good people down there. I can't say enough good things about them."

And Black Bear's commitment to becoming more green fits in well with the city's emphasis on protecting the environment, he said.

"Oak Creek is blessed to have the first green business park in southeastern Wisconsin," he said. "Anything coming into the community has to make sure the environment is protected." The green business park is on 27th Street.

History in a bottle

Black Bear Bottling started in the early 1920s in St. Francis. Caruso's grandfather bought it in 1961, nearly 50 years ago. Caruso's father, Phillip, is the second generation in the company and still reports for work every day.

"He's still working and loving every minute of it," Peter Caruso said. "He's a real inspirational guy."

Peter is the third generation to head the company and his two sons are the fourth generation working at Black Bear.

They brought the company to Oak Creek in 2001.

The secret is to keeping a company thriving for all these years, according to Caruso, is simple.

"My whole family has a passion for the business. There is nothing we wouldn't do for our people," he said.

And the business and products themselves provide satisfaction.

"To see people enjoying it is great. It brings a lot of happiness to people's lives," Caruso said.

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