By Lisa Esquivel Long
As Robert Johnson’s Fort Wayne kombucha company grew over the past year, he was increasingly pulled into a new direction: philanthropy. He now can say he’s founded two local beverage companies.
Johnson left Crossroads Kombucha, the company he founded, in May. He spent his 40th birthday in December talking about his new flavored sparkling water company, Bukal Beverage.
“It was a phenomenal 2½ years” at Crossroads, Johnson said. “Seeing Crossroads grow, I was a little unsettled. I was really being pulled into a charity vision. That was where my heart was.”
Johnson had discovered kombucha, a fermented tea, and started making it at home as a health drink. He got investor Tom Brookshire on board, and a year ago the two were setting up production in a warehouse north of Coliseum Boulevard. Brookshire at the time talked about his vision of taking kombucha across the country, while Johnson appeared more sedate as he discussed his goal of working with Indiana flavors.
“Bukal, it really formed out of tragedy,” said Johnson, who was named one of Business Weekly’s Forty Under 40 in March.
His wife, Yvonne, went home to her native Philippines, where the two had met in 2004, because her father had died. When she called Johnson, she was sitting by a river and describing to him all the fruits from her childhood that were readily available there.
“She said, ‘I wish we could bring this back home,’” Johnson said.
From that sprung Bukal, which means source, bubbles, fountain, spring and river, all of which played a role into the couple’s and the drink’s stories, Johnson said.
The company’s motto is “Let Kindness Bubble Up.” Under each bottle cap will be a similar message.
The couple had moved to Thailand to teach English for three years. There he saw poverty and a lack of sanitary conditions that he wants to help fund through the sale of Bukal drinks. He’s working with WaterROAM Singapore to bring water filtration systems to communities with no access to clean water. The group has added Cambodia to its network and has invited Johnson to a groundbreaking.
Each of Bukal’s three initial flavors is named for a river: guava lime mint for the Mekong River that flows from China to Vietnam; passion fruit peach for China’s Yangtze River; and mango rose for the Indus River that starts in the Tibetan Plateau and empties from Pakistan into the Arabian Sea.
A lab in Washington State will supply the flavors, with no sugar added or preservatives. He plans to start selling the glass-bottled beverages in 20 locations, including Bird & Cleaver restaurant on North Wells Street and grocery stores. The 25-calorie drink will retail for around $2 per 12-ounce bottle, then will add 4-packs in stores and offer 6-packs for shipment beginning in the spring.
The flavors have passed the kid test of their 9- and 8-year-olds because children will be honest, he said.
“I’m trying to teach them that even a kid can be an entrepreneur,” Johnson said. “At the same time, I want them to be kids.”
He has a silent investor. Yvonne serves as the inspiration and Johnson’s support, but continues her full-time job as an English as a second language teacher. He’s setting up shop in a storefront on Huffman Street, but Bukal will be bottled and sold elsewhere.
Already, he envisions creating three more flavors from either Africa or South America.