“We are family, I got all my sisters with me,” was famously sung by the four-sister vocal group Sister Sledge in 1979. Keeping their talent all in the family, four of the five Griffin sisters have been bottling pure, natural water sourced from underground limestone springs at the family owned Highbridge Springs Water Co. for the past 36 years.
Located in the Commonwealth’s famed Bluegrass region, the Wilmore, Ky., company’s base of operations is a rural 32-acre limestone quarry. Linda Griffin, president of Highbridge Springs Water, recalls how her father, Bill Griffin, purchased the property in the late 1970s as a mushroom farm, without telling his family about the purchase. Linda is the second youngest daughter of Bill and JoAnn Griffin.
“Having a background in warehousing, Dad recognized the quarry was one big warehouse: 32 acres, 130 feet underground with a constant temperature of 58 degrees. The question was what to warehouse,” Linda Griffin says. “My youngest sister, Mary, and I happened to cross paths in our hometown of London, Ky., in the spring of 1982. Dad told us he wanted to show us something. He drove us to High Bridge, Ky., and to the quarry for the first time.
“There were no lights in the quarry and only one lone concrete block building by the front entrance where the mushroom company had once packed the mushrooms. When we asked Dad what it was, he laughed and said, ‘It’s a warehouse, want to help?,’” Linda Griffin continues. “Both of us said sure, we would help, never dreaming what the future would bring.”
The Griffin family originally envisioned the quarry being used to store non-fat dry milk for the U.S. government as part of a dairy price-support program in the 1980s. An engineer was hired to determine how to handle the quarry’s high humidity in order to facilitate the use of corrugated boxes and to control the water from an underground aquifer flowing into a drainage ditch.
The water overflow turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “At times the ditch would over flow and water would run into the warehouse area,” Linda Griffin explains. “On one of our daily drives, Dad said, ‘Girls, let’s bottle that water.’ We thought he was crazy, but over the next several months as we continued to clean the quarry, install power and hang curtains to enclose 250,000 square feet, he kept bringing up the idea of bottled water.”
Bill Griffin’s vision was realized May 4, 1982, when Highbridge Springs Water Co. officially was incorporated. A tank was installed to capture the water flowing from the ceiling and PVC pipe fed the water around a column into a 3 million-gallon containment area. “This area was made with a 6-foot dam that we poured. The dam was later raised to 10 feet,” Linda Griffin says.
“We installed reverse osmosis equipment in the beginning to make the water sodium free and we continue that practice today,” she says. “One of our first purchases was a retired dairy, four-head gallon filler and capper. The rest was all done by hand. My father, my mother, my sisters and I worked diligently to launch Highbridge Springs Water Co. We sold our first truckload in August of 1982. With one employee, we bottled, sold and delivered all the water for the first few years. In 1983, we began hand-bottling 5-gallon [bottles] using PVC pipe and valves. We made a bottle washer and rinser using a hot water tank, stainless steel tanks and pumps controlled with foot pedals.”
Linda Griffin recalls the early success of the family business, thanks in part to environmental factors and an unfulfilled market niche.
“Our business was doubling and tripling during the first years with a drought in 1988 turning the red ink, black. We developed the bottled water market in central, eastern and southeastern Kentucky. There was no bottled water on grocery shelves when we began bottling,” she continues. “Our first wholesale account was Laurel Grocery [in our hometown], followed by Kroger and others, some of which no longer exist. We are happy to say we still enjoy doing business with many of our first accounts all these years later.”
Today, Highbridge Springs Water bottles and distributes its self-titled water packaged in 12-ounce and 16.9-ounce bottles and six-pack multi-packs. Highbridge also is packaged in 1-liter bottles and 1-, 2.5-, 3- and 5-gallon bottles, along with distilled water, to retailers and directly to consumers.
About 20 years ago, the company developed its Big Blue Swish label through a partnership with the University of Kentucky, Linda Griffin says.
“We developed the Big Blue Swish label for the University of Kentucky long before soft drink companies bottled water,” she explains. “Although we were squeezed off campus by larger companies, Swish is still sold and is a licensed product of the university.”
From humble beginnings, Highbridge Springs Water has grown from bottling 200 gallons a day in 1982 to its current production of 20,000 gallons a day on four bottling lines. Distribution has expanded from the back of the Griffin family pickup truck to three warehouses and distributors across the state. New distributors in central Kentucky as well as Madisonville, Ky.-based LBH Dr. Pepper are distributing 16.9-ounce bottles and 1-liter Big Blue Swish to 58 counties in central Kentucky and southern Indiana, and 20 counties in western Kentucky, respectively, Linda Griffin says.
“We are proud to have two distributors that have been with us almost since the beginning; D&R Vending covers the Frankfort, Ky., area and Danville Bottled Water covers the Danville, Ky., area selling and delivering the 5-gallon bottles,” Linda Griffin says.
Wholesalers pick up product underground and deliver to 94 Kroger stores in five Louisville, Ky., districts, Meijer stores, Gordon Food Service and Laurel Grocery, the company’s first account. Additionally, Highbridge does direct-store-delivery to Lexington, Ky.-based retailers, including Whole Foods Market, Lucky’s Market, Good Foods Co-Op and Roberts Health Food. The company also operates a direct-to-consumer home and office water supply delivery business serving customers throughout Kentucky and southern Indiana.
Embracing its local roots and giving back to the community is core to the company’s success. “We are a small local company with a loyal following. We employ 30 local people and we strongly support local events and causes,” Linda Griffin says.
As the trend to shop local grows, Linda Griffin expects the company to continue its upward growth and expansion. She cites statistics from the Small Business Association, which says that of $100 spent locally, $68 stays in the community compared with $43 of non-local purchases.
“Consumers are willing to pay for a local quality product from a company that gives back to the community,” Linda Griffin says. “Combine these advantages with the fact that Americans are now drinking more bottled water than soft drinks and we see a bright future.” BI