As a boy growing up in Ruxton, Hoby Buppert hatched so many business schemes his family dubbed him "Hobarama." He tried mundane activities like mowing lawns and unusual ones like the venture he found in a Popular Science magazine ad for importing knickknacks from the Philippines.
But he never opened a lemonade stand, which in retrospect might seem a bit ironic for a guy who is hitting the big time with BAWLS Guarana. Marketed in an eye-catching cobalt blue bottle with bumps (for a better grip), BAWLS is a highly caffeinated soft drink that has become the beverage of choice for computer gamers and others who, as the company says, "just can't fit sleep into their schedule." (BAWLS is not an acronym, but a trade name meant to be memorable.)
Buppert nurtured his entrepreneurial streak through Gilman School and Cornell University's Hotel School, where he graduated in 1991 with a business plan for a high-caffeine drink.
He based it on the guarana berry, a nutlike seed found on a climbing vine in the Amazon basin that offers twice as much caffeine as coffee and three times that of cola.
Guarana has long been a popular ingredient in South American soft drinks, and Buppert guessed that a new form of caffeine would go over well in this country with younger consumers who, like him, "can't stand coffee" and who find most heavily caffeinated soft drinks to be syrupy sweet.
With the help of a flavoring company, Buppert hit upon the taste he wanted, a citrusy cream soda with less sugar than Coca-Cola. It's a smooth and tasty sip.
But caffeine-sensitive folks should beware: Because it's a distinctly different taste from coffee, tea and colas, it's easy to forget that BAWLS carries a potent dose of caffeine -- 80 milligrams per 12-ounce bottle.
Even at 29, Buppert says he has to watch his intake; his limit is two per day. But he insists that guarana provides a smoother dose of caffeine than coffee: "I don't get the jitters as easily" from BAWLS, he says.
Buppert based his company in Miami Beach, where there is a hip, young culture, demand year-around for cold drinks and familiarity with Latin American drinks based on the guarana berry.
He sold the first bottle of BAWLS in November 1996, but the company's big break came in the summer of 1998, when a favorable review of the beverage was posted on a computer gaming site. That night, the BAWLS Web site (www.bawls.com) had almost 300 visits, up from the prior pace of fewer than a dozen each night.
It was a fortuitous pairing. Computer gaming was just getting started, Buppert says. "Luckily, we got to grow with it."
No wonder. The gaming phenomenon is based on the ability to stay awake for up to 48 hours, with anywhere from 25 to 2,000 gamers gathering for LAN (local area network) parties that span the entire weekend. BAWLS sponsors many of these events, and cases of the beverage have become almost as essential to the participants as the computers themselves.
To capitalize on the connection, CompUSA began selling the drink at its stores. That was a big deal for the company, Buppert says. But other deals are in the works, as consumers continue to look for novel sources of quick energy. In addition to its high caffeine content, guarana is said to help the body rid itself of lactic acid buildup and bring energy levels back to normal, prompting some people to turn to it as a post-workout beverage.
Locally, BAWLS is available at some gas stations, cafes and grocery stores, including Graul's Market and Eddie's of Roland Park in Buppert's old North Baltimore stomping grounds. Royal Farm stores have also agreed to carry it. A 12-ounce bottle sells for $1 to $1.50.
Try one and be wide-eyed for a long, long time.