In a market with a long professed love of natural, sustainable and healthful food and beverage and an equally strong penchant for small business, a manufacturer of raw honey-infused waters found an incubator for the brand it hopes to take nationwide.
Seattle, WA-based Hunniwater launched its first line of namesake raw honey and juice-infused water at natural grocery co-op chain PCC Natural Markets in June 2013, a year and a half after founder Karin Butler and her husband (now the operations manager) came up with the idea.
“I like to say that ever since Eric made the first prototype, it's been living inside me. I just couldn't get rid of the idea,” Butler told FoodNavigator-USA. “At the beginning, you’re really just waiting for that first person to begin believing in you and share your vision. I knew we had something special when we showed the prototype to PCC and the buyer had the same reaction to our product as I did.”
At 80 calories a bottle in melon, pomegranate and lime flavors, Butler calls Hunniwater a "naturally functional healthy beverage" that is more of a snack than a meal replacer, though it could also be considered a more affordable gateway to juice cleanses, which have grown in popularity on the heels of high-profile celebrity and athlete endorsements.
“When we first thought of Hunniwater, coconut water came to mind because it's light and refreshing, and because honey also has electrolytes and minerals and can help you rehydrate,” she said. “We initially went after the coconut water drinkers. But we're also targeting people who've tried a juice cleanse, positioning Hunniwater as a sort of entryway to detox. Juice cleanses are pricey, so we offer a more affordable option [retailing at $3.19], though we’re not as hardcore.”
Consumers got the hint and almost immediately began asking if Hunniwater offered a line of detox beverages during sampling events. So the company rolled out its Hunniwater Detox line in ginger cayenne, matcha and cinnamon just a few months later, in October 2013.
“Living in Seattle, the water market scales way down when it gets cold and rainy, so it was a great time to introduce a detox line when people looking for more warmth. The products themselves are cold but they’re heartier, with warming, spicy ingredients like ginger, cinnamon and cayenne. They bridge that gap and are great for after the holidays when people are getting back on that healthy kick for the New Year and want a detox.”
At the crux of functional beverage and the all-natural appeal of honey
Hunniwater lies at the crux of two trends: the multifaceted appeal of honey and the fast-growing appeal of beverages with functional benefits. As consumers pay more attention to what they’re putting into their bodies, beverage is no longer an afterthought. For many, it's a convenient way to get added nutrition throughout the day.
“It feels like people are becoming more aware of what they’re consuming," Butler noted. "They also want raw honey and know the benefits of it," Butler said. "I also think we’re at an interesting point with all this instant gratification with Facebook and Instagram. It's definitely reached the beverage world as well. People want the convenience of something they can hold in their hand, and at the same time they’re settling down and enjoying meals more. They’re trying to reach a level of balance—if I do something quick during the day, I can slow down and enjoy my family at night.”
Despite that honey is naturally shelf stable, all Hunniwater products only have a 30-day shelf life—"it's more the yeast we're worried about"—Butler noted, which keeps inventory limited given spoilage concerns. Still, Butler said, that’s the kind of product they want to give consumers, "and I think that's where they're headed. They want something less processed."
Consumers don’t know how big of a voice they carry
Beyond making suggestions for product line extensions, consumer enthusiasm is proving invaluable as the brand looks to expand beyond its Seattle origins.
“We’re trying to arm consumers with ways to request our products at stores,” Butler said. “They have a big voice and don’t know how big of a voice they carry.”
That’s where social media plays a huge role in empowering consumers. “Social media has an incredibly high level of accessibility," she said. "We hope to harness that and use that because we are small and don’t have the funds to do a mass marketing campaign or get to all people we’d love to get to. So we’re starting with the people who believe in our product.”
Such community support appears to be paying off: In addition to PCC and other regional chains such as Thriftway, Ken’s Market, Seattle Fish Co., and 14 Café Ladro locations, Hunniwater recently secured distribution in upwards of 200 Safeway and Whole Foods locations in Northern California, which will prove helpful as it looks to grow its investor base beyond family and friends.
“Having names like Safeway and Whole Foods on board when we approach investors makes a huge difference,” she said. “We’re hoping to get to a state of healthy growth, but we can continue to get investors if we need another big push. We’ll follow that pattern as growth dictates.”
Somewhere between the kombucha and juice
With growing market penetration of functional beverages in mainstream channels, Hunniwater's targets for shelf placement are shifting as it looks to compete with the high-end juice segment.
“When we first launched, some PCC locations put us near the coconut water. But as coconut water has come down in price, we have a higher price point. In the other half of stores, we were placed near the juices, where we seem to do better. And with the launch of the Detox line, we’re moving more towards that. I think people are looking for natural functionality. We will even have a honey and lemon Detox product rolling out at Safeway. There I think we'll be somewhere between kombucha and juice, which is right where we want to be."
Butler has national aspirations for the brand—a honey revolution of sorts, as she calls it. "We could take this brand to some big places. Honey has so many great benefits. We’re looking into soaps and branching out into other areas like honey sauces in addition to extensions on our existing lines. We want to innovate while we can. It's easier while we are smaller."
But in the meantime, she' remains focused on the product and the message it sends to consumers.
“Taste is important and feeling good about what you’re doing is important. I can buy Hunniwater and feel good about putting it in my body. I can read the ingredients on the back of the bottle knowing they’re historically good for me, with no crazy, unrecognizable ingredients," she said. "When I see people out there enjoying the product, it’s like they’re drinking a little joy. I can feel really proud of that.”