Canadian spring-water brand making swift transition from niche to mainstream with planet-friendly packaging and breathtaking product innovation
It may not be the proverbial fountain of youth, but for Nicholas Reichenbach, the glacial spring located on his family’s property in Ontario’s South Bruce country near Lake Huron is nothing less than “The eight natural wonder of the world,” as he puts it.
While Reichenbach may be just a little bit biased, of course, the life-long serial entrepreneur has many good reasons to feel elated about making the most of his exclusive personal access to one-of-a-kind natural spring water continuously replenished inside the limestone aquifer underneath the earth’s surface, having trickled there from rainfalls above over an estimated 10,000 years.
Containing unusually elevated levels of natural electrolytes and minerals such as such as calcium carbonate, magnesium, potassium and zinc, the naturally alkaline water harvested at the Flow acquired property has allowed the founder of Toronto-headquartered Flow Beverage Corp. to become something of a poster child for sustainable harvesting and packaging of the world’s most precious natural resource.
Processed and packaged at Flow’s five-year-old production site a short drive north of Toronto in Aurora, Ont., the company’s flagship FLOW brand has expanded to become the fastest-growing premium water brand in North America over the last couple of years—bolstered by the consumers’ warm embrace of the brand’s sustainable Tetra Pak paperboard beverage packaging made almost exclusively from renewable and recyclable sources like wood fibers (cartons) and sugar cane (bio-based plastic caps).
Combined with intensive new product development that has resulted in the launch of innovative new flavored and functional water-based beverages under the Flow brand banner, the Flow Alkaline Spring Water brand’s success has not only enabled the company to secure sufficient private investment to proceed with the purchase of a second artisanal spring near Verona, Va., in 2019, as well as start up a nearby bottling plant and vastly expand its original manufacturing operation in Aurora.
Today spread out over 110,000 feet of production space across two side-by-side facilities equipped with state-of-the-art filtration, processing and packaging equipment, the highly automated Aurora operation employs 65 production staff on a seven-days-a-week schedule to produce millions of packs of Flow Alkaline Spring Water, Flow Collagen-infused Water and Flow Organic Flavored water products per month.
Available in over a dozen delicious and refreshing combinations packed with “good for you” minerals and other natural ingredients, the Flow brand’s double-digit growth over the last couple of years has also allowed the company to raise close to $100 million in financing to proceed with listing on the Toronto Stock Exchange on July 14—a fairly unusual accomplishment for any independent beverage company in North America these days.
“I think we really struck a chord with the investment community because, first and foremost, the quality of our water is one of the highest-quality still mineral waters sold in North America,” Reichenbach told Canadian Packaging on a recent visit to the Aurora plant.
“We make a high-end product that competes in the very large, fast-growing premium enhanced water category, where we are the largest company to package our water in the sustainable Tetra Pak packaging to create a perfect fit for the market.
“We grew our sales by several hundred per cent in the first three years of operation,” Reichenbach confides, “and we’re still going strong with 55 per cent compounded growth from 2018-2020.
“So as a high-growth company that has already invested over tens-of-millions in manufacturing and other production assets, we offer the scale, vertical integration and the high-margins that investors are looking for,” says Reichenbach, noting he feels privileged to have had the luxury of attracting the right type of investors to spread the company’s message of environmental responsibility.
“That’s why it made a lot of sense for us to take the company public—not only for our earlier shareholders, but also for the new shareholders interested in supporting the next generation of socially and environmentally progressive companies working to change the world by making it a better place,” Reichenbach proclaims.
“As a proud Canadian, I am thrilled to see Flow as a great public company listed on TSX,” says Reichenbach, noting he was also able to hire long-time water-bottling industry veteran Maurizio Patarnello, former chief executive officer at Nestlé Waters, as Flow Water’s CEO.
While Flow is far from the first company to benefit from the multitude of environmental attributes that Tetra Pak’s mostly plant-based aseptic packaging provides to many other food-and-beverage brand-owners around the world, the company’s commitment to exclusive use of Tetra Pak Prisma beverage cartons for all of its 20-plus SKUs (stock-keeping units) certainly helps it stand out from competition in the premium enhanced water segment, which is still dominated by plastic containers that have attracted massive backlash among a growing number of North American consumers in recent years.
“Producing Flow beverages exclusively in Tetra Pak cartons, a sustainable package in high demand, has allowed Flow to scale itself for the future as a leader in sustainable Tetra Pak packaging going forward,” says Camelia Rotarita, Flow Water’s vice-president of product innovation and co-packing.
As Rotarita explains, Flow water uses Tetra Pak’s one-liter, 500-ml and 330-ml Tetra Prisma cartons for the Alkaline Spring Water brand; 500-ml Tetra Prisma Aseptic cartons for flavored waters; and 500-ml Tetra Prisma for the collagen-infused waters, which contain 10 grams of protein peptide derived from grass-fed Argentina-and Brazil-raised beef per 500-ml serving.
“It is doing extremely well in the market: the consumers love it,” Reichenbach extols. “They love the way it tastes like the original Flow water, silky and smooth, but with the added benefit of collagen.
“Our whole portfolio strategy is largely based about infusing functional and nutritional enhancements into the product’s natural taste enhancements,” says Reichenbach, saying the company is already working on a new range of vitamin-enhanced water that it plans to launch into the market next year.
Naturally, these products will also be packed in Tetra Pak packaging, notes Rotarita, who is also in charge of the company’s fast-growing co-packing business focused on contract manufacturing of other brand-owners’ products packaged in Tetra Pak cartons, including sports drinks, nutritional supplements, coffees, teas, juices, smoothies, etc.
“We consider Tetra Pak a hugely important partner for Flow,” Rotarita asserts.
“The more consumers become primed and educated to the environmental benefits of opting for sustainably-sourced premium water in a Tetra Prisma pack over a plastic water bottle, the more we can focus our promotion on the quality, source, and taste of the water over packaging.
“Ultimately, the more recognition Tetra gets as a sustainable alternative to packaging, the more we find other brands in the beverage space reaching out to us to explore co-packing.”
Adds Reichenbach: “We are seeing natural foods retailers take a stance on plastic and carrying less of it in their water aisle.
“But this is just the beginning—the entire industry needs to repeat and emphasize this important message,” he asserts.
Shipped to the Aurora plant daily in stainless-steel tankers, the water harvested from the Bruce County aquifer undergoes rigorous quality control.
The product is filled under aseptic conditions and hermetically sealed, as where it moves along conveyors to a capper machine that applies the opening fitment (cap) and then onto secondary packaging, where the finished cartons are placed into a wraparound corrugated case and placed onto pallets for shipment or storage.
It’s a fairly similar packaging process on the co-packing side of the Aurora operation, albeit there is a lot more testing, sterilization and other thermal processing steps taking place prior to filling, as required by the different customers’ product recipes and formulations.
“Our entire filling and downstream equipment was purchased from, installed by, and is supported by Tetra Pak,” Rotarita relates.
“Their equipment is the mechanical heart of the operation,” says Rotarita, noting the plant’s three packaging lines have the flexibility to run several different Tetra Pak carton sizes in combination with several different capping options—most of them made from bio-based plastic resins sourced from sustainable certified sugar-cane plantations in Brazil.
“It all reinforces the message of Flow’s pioneering efforts in promoting Tetra Pak packaging to serve other brands entering the beverage industry,” says Rotarita, citing the plant’s investment into a MicroThermics miniature aseptic processing line to run small-scale trials to test prototypes before full-scale production.
For its part, the larger-sized processing equipment used at the plant includes several batching system tanks;
“We’re operating in a very competitive industry,” Rotarita notes, “so having the manufacturing capabilities we do is essential to keep us ahead of the competition.”
At this point at least, Flow Water is already miles ahead of the competition in terms of its wellness marketing strategy and certifications the company is allowed to display on its packaging.
Containing no sugar, juice, dairy, preservatives or GMOs, all of its current water brands boasts serial authoritative certifications for being organic, gluten- and free, Kosher product with FSC-certified, recyclable packaging, along with additional certifications from leading food standards authorities such as NSF and BRC.
“The BRC Global Standard for Food Safety certification gives Flow brand an internationally recognized mark of food quality, safety and responsibility,” according to Rotarita, while the companion B Corporation certification demonstrates the “core role that sustainability plays in everything we do.
“It is very much embedded in the DNA of the company and underlays all aspects of our production, from operations to sales and marketing,” Rotarita says.
“The B Corporation certification measures Flow’s entire social and environmental performance and shows Flow’s positive impact on community, environment and customers.”
Adds Reichenbach: “We have one of the highest B Corp scores in our industry.
“We jumped 30 points this year on our rating, and we did this with a multitude of different endeavors we do every year to make our company the best ESG (environment and social governance)-forward company in the global beverage business.”
As Reichenbach points out, the harvesting of Flow water at the source is done in controlled manner, whereby the company makes sure to use only a fraction of the spring’s water reserves for production—allowing rainfall and snow-melt to replenish the spring naturally.
Says Reichenbach: “We are proud that we are operating a carbon-neutral company, but that’s still not good enough—we want to be carbon-negative.
“We want Flow to have a positive impact on the planet around us,” he states, “and we want to make sure that we live up to our promise to our shareholders, and to ourselves, that every step we make has a positive impact on the planet.
“So we continuously work to not only offset all of our energy with green energy, both in Canada and in
the U.S., but make sure that our entire value chain is tracked and monitored to allow us to not only maintain carbon neutrality in terms of operations, but take it one step further in terms having negative carbon emissions.”
With its two plants’ combined capacity to produce close to 150 million packs of water per year, Flow products are currently sold in over 20,000 different retail locations throughout North America, according to Reichenbach.
Along with a fast-growing online business in various leading e-commerce channels and key celebrity endorsements from famous pop music and entertainment celebrities like Shawn Mendes, actress Halle Berry, NBA basketball star Russell Westbrook and super model Paloma Elsesser, to name a few, Flow is ideally positioned to generate further goodwill and brand awareness among the millennial consumers for years to come, according to Reichenbach.
“There is a huge shift taking place in the market towards the use of plant-based renewable resources,” Reichenbach notes, “and we made it our goal to become the Number One product in the North America RTD (ready-to-drink) markets to offer consumers the choice of renewable plant-based packaging.
“So we will continue to make further investments and undertake various social initiatives to make sure we get our hydration products out to people that need them the most, while making this planet a better place for our society as a whole.”
Says Reichenbach: “Good things happen when you work toward achieving the triple bottom line of people, profit and the planet.
“Thanks to our signature one-litre Flow in Tetra Pak, one of our best-selling products, drinking better in better packaging for the planet is becoming a movement that really unites status, pop culture and wellness.”