Grocery aisles seem to be bursting with functional beverages. From alkaline waters to mood-boosting drinks to elixirs that promise skin-enhancing benefits, these beverages are booming. In fact, sales of functional drinks increased by almost 16% between November 2020 and November 2021, according to data firm Spins. With consumers taking a more proactive approach toward wellness, functional beverages are one of the fastest-growing categories in grocery. Within that category, alkaline water sales also show no signs of slowing down. According to Beverage Marketing Corp., retail sales in the alkaline water category are expected to balloon to $1.3 billion by 2023, representing 20% of the entire value-added water category. Enter Sheridan, Wyo.-based Plus Brand Industries, which offers an alkaline water designed to appeal to the consumer looking for a functional beverage that heals the body and the planet. Plus Brand CEO Chad Willis talked to Progressive Grocer about the popularity of alkaline water, his All-Scratch Technology and the future of the beverage industry.
Progressive Grocer: Chad, how did you come to start a career in beverage innovation?
Chad Willis: My entire life, since I was a kid, I’ve been super interested in health, nutrition and food. I owned my first health club by the time I was 19 years old, and I stayed in that business until about my mid-20s. I got a degree in business and was offered a big finance job. I took the job in finance, but I hated it. So I started dabbling in food, beverage and supplements. Nowadays, I wake up every day by 3:30 in the morning excited for the day doing something I really like.
PG: Tell me about the evolution of Plus Brand Industries.
CW: Well, I had created a few sports nutrition supplements. I was doing online sales with them and doing really well, but it was difficult to get the product into stores. So I started looking into developing a product in sports nutrition that would have easier access into stores. My family owns springs in Michigan, California and Alaska, so I had access to my own water points. So me and my brother, we said, “Hey, let’s start a bottled water company.” I already owned the Plus brand, and we wanted to deliver a superior water product. People loved it, and sales were great online. I decided to stop doing the sports nutrition and put all my attention into beverages.
PG: And that’s when you came up with Agua Plus?
CW: Yeah, I met with a couple of big development companies. One is called Power Brands US. I met with them to create an alkalinity formula that had a really good flavor. So I spent about six weeks with them, and we did test groups. Once we had our flavoring and formula perfected, you have to go through a computer analysis stage where it gives you an exact computer code of elements, so that you can mimic those elements over and over again, especially if you plan on growing and going national and bottling at multiple companies, because it has to pull elements out and add elements in to create the water. So that’s how we created the flavor and the formula for Agua Plus.
PG: What is All-Scratch Technology, and how did that come about?
CW: Well, the problem of confusion with bottles, whether at a restaurant, a bar or at home, has been going on for a long time. In any type of group setting, people confuse their bottles. It just happens over and over again. One time, I had a family reunion, and in the morning, I was watching people throw out bottles that were full. So me and my brother drove to Office Depot. We bought colored stickers and assigned each person a color, or wrote their initials on the stickers, so people would know which bottle was theirs. Eventually, me and my brother said, “There’s got to be a way that I can put a mark on this bottle so everyone knows which bottle is theirs.” We pulled a lot of patents, looked at a lot of things. We went to different companies, looking for a way to create a new chemical composition so that you could scratch in a name, but it would also be waterproof, can handle the sun, can get cold, not flake off. It’s a combination of about 13 different layers and a lot of different chemicals. We had to make sure the chemicals were biodegradable, not hazardous to humans or children. It was about two and a half years of work.
All of Plus Brand Industries' water bottles are made with recycled ocean plastics.
PG: And you were almost bankrupt by this point?
CW: Almost bankrupt, divorced and homeless. My wife was like, “You’re putting your entire life into this. What are you doing?” But it turned [out] wonderful.
PG: How is the supply chain crunch affecting your business?
CW: The hardest part right now is really supply chains, logistics and people. I’m late on one of our largest first orders because it took me a long time to get cardboard. It’s very difficult to get these types of materials right now, and expensive. Every time you think you have the supply chain fixed, something happens, price point goes up, your materials prices are changing daily. Logistics are crazy right now.
PG: What kind of response are you getting from consumers about the product?
CW: As soon as somebody has it, response is phenomenal. Flavor, packaging and the actual idea, the All-Scratch Technology. People love it.
PG: What else is in the pipeline, and when might it be available at retail?
CW: We have several different beverages coming out using the same alkaline water formula. One is going to be an immune booster. The others are mood-enhancing. We will also have different pack sizes coming out.
PG: What do you think accounts for the rising popularity of alkaline water, and where do you think the trend will go next?
CW: I think that simplicity has a lot to do with it, and consumer awareness, knowledge. Over the last five years, people have become really smart to nutrition and what they’re putting into their body. The internet has made it possible to understand what acidity means, what alkalinity means, and people like to know that they’re doing something good for themselves. They might eat bad here or there, but they really like to know that they’re putting something good in their body, because it’s being reinforced in front of them all the time. It’s in their face every day to take care of themselves.
PG: How far do you think Plus Brand can go?
CW: The long-term thoughts are, “We’re going to be the biggest.” I mean, anybody can make water. Anybody can make a functional beverage. But we can also deliver a solution to a problem. All of our bottles are made with recycled ocean plastics. So every single thing that we do, we think about the environmental footprint, the sustainability and the person at the end. This is stuff that I want me and my children to be really proud of, and that we would put into our body immediately without even thinking. That’s, I think, what’s going to separate us from a lot of different companies.
PG: Where do you think the beverage industry might be in five to 10 years?
CW: Very crowded, and then us. It’s happening right now. These big corporations, because they see all these beverages coming out, it’s affecting their bottom line. That’s why you’ve got the big companies buying up bottled-water and functional-beverage companies. These things are going to continue to happen because of consumer awareness. And now, with the way the world is today and the easy access into the marketplaces between the internet and knowledge, people are making better products. The companies that will really stand out are the ones that really do good and create that difference between them and the others. Because it’s either going to be marketing or a really good product or having that differentiator that separates you.
[WATCH VIDEO for the complete interview about functional beverage sales.]