Meridian Beverage Co.: Reaching For New Heights
By SARAH THEODORE
Meridian Beverage Co. has found its niche in low-calorie flavored bottled waters, but rather than a specialty category, it believes its products have a healthy, mainstream appeal.
“We provide great-tasting, healthy, non-carbonated beverages with little to no sugar,” says Steve Lovinger, president of the Atlanta-based company.
It’s a slightly different proposition than the company started with. When Lovinger founded the company in 1992, his goal was to create an innovative spot in the non-carbonated single-serve convenience store market. It began with spring waters, and soon added a sweetened flavored water called Meridian Clear, a children’s fruit drink called Fruit Craze Jr. and a no-calorie flavored water called AquaCal.
But about three years ago, the company realized that low-calorie products were the way of the future and it reformulated several of its brands to reduce or eliminate sugar. It particularly wanted to reduce the sugar content of its kids’ beverages, and last year reduced the number of calories in its Fruit Craze Jr. product by half. The product is a 10 percent fruit juice product, with 100 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin C as well as B vitamins, in an 8-ounce sport bottle.
“I was very proud of changing that formula,” says Lovinger. “We’re saving kids 60 million calories a month on our product. It’s a step in the right direction.”
It also reformulated Meridian Clear to eliminate about 40 percent of the sugar it previously had.
But AquaCal is Meridian’s flagship product these days. It is a sugar-free, Splenda-sweetened flavored water, with calcium and vitamin C.
“What differentiates AquaCal is that it is full-flavored, with an adult sweetness level rather than an essenced flavored water, which is what everyone else is doing,” says Lovinger. “Our flavor is more akin to a diet soft drink.”
Lovinger says the positioning of AquaCal allows it to appeal to consumers who are looking for a flavored bottled water as well as those who drink full-sugar or diet soft drinks but are looking for another option.
While Meridian’s focus has shifted in large part to better-for-you products, it is not interested in organic or 100-percent natural offerings.
“I’m going for mainstream products,” Lovinger says. “If you look at leaders in the beverage categories — beer, soft drinks, bottled waters — they are popular-priced, premium items.”
A unique philosophy
Meridian Beverage Co. got its name from a lofty idea. “The name Meridian means highest point,” says Lovinger. “Our initial mission statement was to help all parties, including our consumers, retailers, wholesalers and our team reach their meridian. I am adamant about 100 percent honesty and dealing on an ethical basis.”
Lovinger says his business philosophy can be summed up in the phrase “balanced self interest,” rather than “greed is good,” and says it resulted from coming of age during the late ’60s and early ’70s.
“I believed in the ideals that my generation was espousing, and I kept to them,” he says.
That’s not to say he’s against having a profitable business. The company Lovinger says began on his credit card has had steady growth for several years. Lovinger is the primary shareholder, but all of the key people within the company hold stock. “Everybody in the company from me to the truck driver gets a monthly bonus based on case sales,” he says. “That’s because I want everyone to be focused on sales and customer service.”
In addition to honing in on healthier beverages, Meridian has expanded its focus from its original single-serve convenience store offerings to grocery, mass merchandise and drug store channels as well as some school distribution. It has distribution in 48 states, and takes an “every day low price” strategy in most retail channels.
“My goal is to provide premium, healthy, mainstream products in upscale, attractive, affordable packaging,” says Lovinger. “That’s why we’ve been successful”
Meridian ran its first newspaper FSI advertising last year, and this year plans four more in select markets, particularly in its Southeast and Mid-Atlantic territories. It also teams with charitable groups for marketing. “We love to provide product for charitable causes where we can do two things — support the charities and get our product sampled,” Lovinger says.
Juvenile diabetes is a favorite cause, but Lovinger says the company is interested in just about any cause related to children.
For the future, Lovinger says there are new products on the drawing board, but declines to give details, saying only that they are in the same vein as Meridian’s current line-up. In the meantime he says, “We’re trying to make a difference in health. I’m proud that we are a positive influence in the beverage industry.” BI