On Christmas Eve, when they could have been enjoying a day off, the small, dedicated crew of Ohlson Mountain Mineral Springs H20 shows up at work to demonstrate their newest piece of equipment: a machine that fills water bottles.
At one end of the 59-foot, 25,000-pound behemoth, Liz Doan places new 20-ounce biodegradable bottles on the conveyor belt where they inch along to the filling station. Twelve bottles at a time stop under nozzles that gush with spring water from Ohlson Mountain. Once filled, the bottles snake over to where they are topped with biodegradable caps. The filling and capping operations are under the gaze of Steve Cromer and owner William Strutz, who move quickly to straighten bottles that aren’t exactly cooperating on their journey down the conveyor belt.
After getting capped, the bottles proceed down the line to receive labels, an operation watched by Jean Yenney, Strutz’s mother and the person credited with the idea of selling the water from the family’s Ohlson Mountain homestead.
These are no ordinary labels. They boast the artwork of Mirimia Kuzmin, a student at the Kachemak Bay Campus of the University of Alaska Anchorage. Some of the labels feature a bull moose; others, a sea otter. It goes without saying these labels carry the Made in Alaska logo.
After being labeled, the bottles head to the finish line, where Levi Catlin catches them and places them in cartons. They’re ready for consumers.
In December, Ohlson Mountain Mineral Springs H20 did a soft launch of its new line: water in 20-ounce biodegradable bottles that can be purchased individually or in six packs. Back then, the company was bottling in small batches, about 1,200 bottles per week. The machine has the capacity to bottle 1,200 per hour.
Four months later, the Ohlson Mountain crew has increased its production and the number of places where you can buy a bottle of Ohlson Mountain water. That list now includes Save U More, The Grog Shop, Fritz Creek General Store, Captain’s Coffee, K-Bay Caffé, Homer Short Stop, Redden Marine, Homer Spit and Tobacco, Essential One, Flying Whale at the Homer Airport, Wagon Wheel, Kasilof Mercantile, the Buzz in Ninilichik, Coop’s Coffee on East End Road and Country Foods/IGA in Kenai.
The average price for a bottle of the water ranges from $1.50 to $2.
It’s more expensive than, say, a bottle of Arrowhead or the Kirkland brand, because of the biodegradable bottle and cap. Those are features that Strutz and his wife and business partner, Mary Lou, point out with pride.
“Most plastic bottles take from 50 to 1,000 years to degrade,” says Mary Lou. “These take five to 10 years. The bottle starts degrading in two years.”
That’s because the bottles contain “the Reverte oxo-biodegradable additive which will break down naturally and in most cases will turn into carbon dioxide and moisture within five to 10 years,” she says.
The launch into smaller water bottles and the biodegradable bottles and caps are all in response to customer requests, say the Strutzes. Customers started asking for something besides the 5-gallon reusuable jugs, the core of Ohlson Mountain’s business.
The new equipment will bottle from a gallon jug down. For now, however, the company is sticking to the 20-ounce bottles.
Informal taste tests conducted at HEA’s Energy Fair and the Rotary Health Fair last year indicate there are opportunities for Ohlson Mountain water. In blind taste tests against various municipal water sources and the Arrowhead brand, most people favored Ohlson Mountain, says Catlin, the jack of all trades for the business, who conducted the tests.
In the future the company plans other blind taste tests against the specialty brands of water.
Those fishing in Saturday’s Homer Winter King Tournament or playing hockey in the Pee Wee Tier III Alaska State Hockey Tournament will get a chance to sample the fresh spring water and decide for themselves. The company is donating 1,700 bottles of water to those weekend events.
Those kind of community donations are a regular part of the company’s activities. As Mary Lou says, “We are a small company with a big vision.” That vision boils down to wanting “to be thoughtful in how we do things,” she says. That includes such things as excellent customer service, safety, environmentally friendly choices, community involvement and opportunities for young people.
Gratitude might also be considered a company value.
The Strutzes readily acknowledge the help they’ve received from others, including Bill and Dorothy Fry of Bear Creek Winery. The Frys have been instrumental in helping with marketing ideas and were the ones to suggest the Strutzes apply for the “Made in Alaska” logo. Other community leaders in Homer and Kenai also have been gracious in sharing their time and wisdom to help launch Ohlson Mountain Mineral Springs H20, say the Strutzes.
The company’s plans for 2016 include building a plant adjacent to the existing facility, which would allow them to consolidate their operations. They currently have an office and warehouse on Bench Circle.
When Ohlson Mountain Mineral Springs H20 launched Aug. 1, 2012, the Strutzes thought Homer would be their primary market. As it turns out, oil companies and larger business in Nikiski and Kenai have provided most of their customer base. The company hopes to expand that base of customers throughout the Kenai Peninsula — with both their 5-gallon and 20-ounce bottles.
With 70 percent of the bottled water in the United States coming from municipal water sources, the Strutzes believe they have an advantage with the natural spring water that they bottle on site.
“People like the mineral taste of our water,” says Mary Lou. “They like our customer service.”