Juicing a Business

Jody Levy grew up in Bloomfield Village and went on to co-found a watermelon juice company that’s ecological and sustainable.
Jody Levy
Jody Levy says bringing part of her WTRMLN WTR company to Detroit is “top of mind.”

Jody Levy, co-founder and CEO of WTRMLN WTR, happily recalls her days as a kid growing up on Bradway Boulevard in Bloomfield Village. “There were bicycles and roller blades and softball teams and all of that,” she says. “But my parents were both entrepreneurs, and had me working in their various businesses from the time I was a kid.

“My mom’s retail store in Birmingham was called Basic Goods, and my grandmother had one of the first women’s boutique fashion stores in the state of Michigan, in Franklin, called Dickens Boutique. My father was in the movie industry with theaters and concessions, and he was also in the sporting goods and live events world. So, I was a worker. I learned when I was a kid that I loved to work, and create, and have responsibilities.”

Levy found her true passion very early. “I was in Quarton Elementary School and was asked to do a replica of a Georgia O’Keefe painting, and I hit flow state for the first time,” she recalls. “I lost all sense of time and space; I can still remember it to this day. I was like, ‘Wow, whatever that was, I like it.’ I was 8 years old, in third grade, and I came home from school that day and told my parents, ‘I’m an artist.’ ”

Soon she was taking classes at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center. “My grandmother, who I call Moonie, was always taking me to galleries and art shows and cultural events and experiences around Detroit, and the city became my inspiration,” Levy says. “I remember when I first saw the Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts and really understood how painting could be a device for storytelling, politics, and social issues.”

As a student at Cranbrook during her middle and high school years, she participated in a variety of art-based programs, even during the summer months. “I had a very unique experience at Cranbrook,” Levy says. “Because I was so devoted to fine art, I had a studio there — and the privilege of working with a couple of people who I consider my mentors to this day, who were part of the art academy and embraced my passion and drive for the arts and design, even before I got to college, which was amazing.”

Levy started college in upstate New York, at Skidmore. After taking a break to travel and spending a year living in New Zealand, in 2001 she earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the Art Institute of Chicago, with a focus on painting and fiber arts.

“Doesn’t every businesswoman have this degree?” she laughs. “But I was really focused on experiential storytelling, issues in our ecology and environment, the state of our planet, and the social responsibility of what I saw happening around the world we’re living in.”

That proved to be the ideal preparation for her first job after college. In 2001, Levy became a founding member of O2 Creative Solutions, a Detroit-based experience design firm where she worked with musical artists, hospitality venues, and museums, and helped startup entrepreneurs bring their ideas to the world. The work also involved planning events and experiences that featured artistic installations.

“This was the time when alternative fuel and energy vehicles, powertrains, and innovation were all coming to fruition,” Levy says. “I loved it. It was hybrid vehicles and fuel cell technology, hydrogen platforms, and looking at how the change in the automotive industry could make a direct impact on the world. There aren’t that many industries that do that. It was like boot camp for PR in nontraditional marketing, and really looking at how to engage people and immerse them in a story.”

Her aptitude for what she describes as “immersive storytelling” was a springboard to the next phase of her career, in 2011: launching her firm, Stitch Experience Design & Assembly.

“People learn in different ways,” Levy says, “so this was all about the theories of experiential learning. Some people hear, some people see, some people touch. This was all about applying that to the field of design and solving problems.”

In 2012, Levy attended the Burning Man festival, an annual late-summer event in the Nevada desert that explores different forms of artistic self-expression. “I go every year,” she says.

One evening she met Harlan Berger, the founder of Centaur Properties, a New York-based real estate development firm. “He started telling me about these hundreds of millions of pounds of watermelons in America,” Levy recalls, “and they’re wasted because they’re ugly, and (he wanted) to do something with them.”

Levy loved the idea, and she and Berger agreed to form a partnership and find a sustainable way to turn the melons into a consumable and moneymaking product.

“I met with an ethanol expert first,” she says, “because in my head I was thinking maybe we could find a way to create alternative fuel, which was the world I came from. I learned that watermelon is low-glycemic; it actually doesn’t have as much sugar as corn and, therefore, you can’t make fuel out of it.”

On the other hand, she quickly realized that watermelon juice had potential, and the possibilities got her attention. Levy, a health nut, says she was far from satisfied with what was available at the time. “There were very few products on the market that I would call clean,” she says. “They all had added sugar or chemicals, or they were pasteurized and they didn’t have any nutrients, so it was very hard for me to optimize my wellness and keep my body in balance.”

We try to be as zero-waste as we can … 800 million pounds of watermelon were being wasted annually, just in America. — Jody Levy, ceo, WTRMLN WTR

She also had another concern. “I was clued in to this much bigger epidemic,” she says, “which is the food waste problem in America, both on the agricultural side as well as the way we waste the food that we buy, the food that’s cooked in restaurants, et cetera. So that’s what sparked the idea of creating a clean product, along with a commitment to the clean food movement.”

In 2013, less than a year after they first met, Levy and Berger officially launched WTRMLN WTR in New York. In 2016, they moved the company to Denver. Today there are three facilities in the U.S. for processing melons and bottling the juice, which is available to retail customers for $3.99 or less. This summer Levy is introducing a new line of waters, called WTRMLN Sport WTR.

“It’s non-refrigerated,” she says, “and it has a year-long shelf life and is basically the cleanest sports drink on the market. That’ll be a game-changer for us because eventually we’ll be able to go outside of North America.”

For now, Levy is delighted with what’s been accomplished in just a few years.

“We became known as the company and the brand that really has integrity,” she says, “and (we’re also known for) how we source our ingredients, how we manufacture our products, and how we get it to people. (And we’re not) just in the high-end natural food world, but (we’re) one of the first brands that really is clean (and is available) in conventional grocery stores. Walmart, Target, Safeway, Albertsons, Kroger, and Costco really started to embrace what we were doing.”

In the process of literally making her juice, Levy is accomplishing another important goal.

“We try to be as zero-waste as we can,” she says. “In 2013, when we started, 800 million pounds of watermelon were being wasted annually, just in America. We try to use waste melons as often as possible — 25 million pounds a year and 50 percent of that is what is called ‘ugly’ fruit. Everybody knows we prioritize the melons that can’t be sold, because we want to support the growers we work with.”

Levy’s commitment to making a profit while improving the health of her customers — never mind the planet — has led to investments and endorsements from former NFL player Michael Strahan and NBA stars Chris Paul and Kevin Durant. Then there’s Beyonce. On the same day in late 2013 that Levy’s product was going on sale for the first time, the iconic singer and songwriter released her track “Drunk in Love.”

“It ends with the lyric, ‘I’ve been drinking watermelon,’ ” Levy says with a laugh, “and it was so crazy because the concept of drinking watermelon hadn’t really existed in the world until that morning, when we launched on the shelves.”

Naturally, Levy reached out to Beyonce’s people. “I didn’t want anything in return,” she says. “I was like, ‘This is so crazy! What are the chances of this? I’d love to send some product over.’ And we did. Her team called about a year later, and she and I met and we talked about our shared passion for helping people understand how important the food they eat is for their overall wellness, and how important it is to empower kids and all different people from all walks of life about clean food. We came together in that belief system, and decided to partner with one another.

“So many of the things in my life have been serendipity,” Levy continues. “(It’s) that magical right time/right place, that right person enters, or I enter, and it kind of opens up a universe that leads to the next, and to the next.”

It’s clear her hometown is at the forefront of whatever comes next for the 40-year-old Levy and her burgeoning franchise. She currently splits her time between Denver and New York.

“It seems like no matter where I live in the world, nothing else feels like home to me,” she says. “As a believer in synchronicity and surrendering to the flow, so to speak, I’ve sort of  let the wind guide me as to the reasons why I’m not back there yet.

“My gramma, my Moonie, is there,” she continues, “and my parents live in Birmingham and are very involved in the city of Detroit. I have a lot of friends there and I try to keep a pulse on what’s happening, and try to support and help in every way I can.

“I’ve been looking for years at ways to bring parts of WTRMLN WTR to Detroit. So much of what we do has to do with proximity to the farms, so we haven’t yet found the right connection point for this business. But I’m always looking at what we can build there, so it’s top of mind for me.”

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