For most people, a rainy day means the inconvenience of carrying around an umbrella or the cancelation of an outside event. But for Richard's Rainwater, the first U.S. company to bottle rain, the liquid is anything but a hassle as a wet day means payday.
Richard's Rainwater collected roughly 4 million gallons of rainwater from two locations in the U.S. in 2022, before purifying it and then packaging the liquid in bottles and cans. The water, caught before it hits the ground, preventing the need to add chemicals such as chlorine, fluoride or ammonia, is 100 times cleaner than the strictest bottled water standards even before it’s purified, the company said.
The company announced the opening of the world’s largest potable rainwater collection site in partnership with Faubourg Brewing Co. and its parent company, Made By The Water, LLC on Thursday. The collaboration creates Louisiana’s first-ever rain capture facility for drinking water, and is expected to collect more than 2 million gallons each year, according to the company’s press release.
Richard’s Rainwater CEO Taylor O’Neil said in the release it makes sense to capture rainwater in New Orleans, since it’s one of the three rainiest cities in the United States.
“I’m on a journey of cleaner water that’s harvested responsibility, is significantly better than municipal water with fancy branding, or bottled water ... that travels from a single source on the planet all over the rest of the world with carbon footprints,” O'Neil told Food Dive.
Sales for the water brand, which have soared from about $100,000 in 2017 when O’Neil and other investors purchased the brand, are forecast to top $10 million in 2023. The product is sold at thousands of locations, including Kroger, Albertsons and Whole Foods.
Dry hair and cardboard-stiff jeans
Richard’s Rainwater traces its roots to 1994 when Austin, Texas resident Richard Heinichen — a “hippie with a really creative wife that cared about water,” O’Neil said — got tired of well water that produced dirty dishes, dry hair and cardboard-stiff jeans. He installed a rain collection system and shared the water with his neighbors. Eight years later, he got approval to bottle and sell the liquid.
But for nearly 15 years, Richard’s Rainwater was run by its founder as less of a business and more of a hobby or passion project, O’Neil noted. It only had three employees working three days a week when Heinichen retired and sold the business.
The company delivered Richard’s Rainwater to hospitality outlets in Austin and direct to several famous people who lived in the city. Heinichen reportedly turned down an opportunity to sell to some area Whole Foods locations, O’Neil recalled, because the retailer required the product to be delivered only between noon and 3 pm on a Tuesday, requirements Heinichen deemed “a little too stringent for our day-to-day activities.”
Global water issues stoke demand
A decade later, issues and concerns pertaining to water have made it a focal point of discussion among consumers, farmers, regulators and retailers. Demand for Richard’s Rainwater has grown exponentially as consumers and businesses have placed a greater importance on products that are sustainably sourced and viewed as having higher quality.
Squeamish customers concerned about drinking rainwater have started to come around, too. O’Neil makes the point that when people ask where the freshest water comes from that glaciers are a popular answer. Rain is no different before it hits the ground, he said.
Water shortages, fires and climate change, particularly in the western U.S., also have placed a spotlight on how water brands owned by large CPGs collect water from natural sources such as aquifers and springs.
Concerns over bottled and tap water have also prompted consumers and regulators to consider other options. Residents in Flint, Michigan, are still coping with the consequences of elevated levels of lead in their water nearly a decade ago. Water sold by Whole Foods was called out in 2020 by Consumer Reports as having “concerning levels” of arsenic, and last summer, bottled water analyzed in France from Nestlé and Danone detected microplastics.
Such challenges have made it easier for Richard’s Rainwater to garner approval from state and federal regulators when it seeks to collect water in a particular area. Richard’s Rainwater executives have benefited from prior experience, too, as they come armed with a 100-page document showing the company’s history and how its idea has worked in other places.
“The regulatory environment today is very interested in, and much warmer to this kind of concept because a lot of these states are running into serious water problems,” O’Neil said. “And so anything they're doing around renewable, anything they're doing to advance water access and water quality, is met with a much warmer response today than 20 years ago.”
Stores have shown a greater willingness to carry the water as a way to draw in consumers and lower their own environmental footprint.
Serena Dietrich, director of sustainability at Richard's Rainwater who works with potential retail buyers, said she will study their sustainability goals before the meeting and come prepared with ways her product could help meet them.
“We’re not just a company that sells water,” Dietrich said. “We have the science and information behind it and the years of data to bring to the table to support how we can craft and support their goals.”
O’Neil added that “the reality of our business and our situation is if we get five or 10 minutes with you our hit rate [in getting you as a customer] is extremely high.”
Richard's Rainwater currently sells its product in still and sparkling varieties. The company has a large opportunity to expand that business as it builds out its network and signs up new customers. Still, O’Neil said there’s “absolutely an opportunity” to think about expanding into other products and forming partnerships with companies that use water as an ingredient.
The company’s fast growth and focus on sustainability could eventually attract interest from a larger CPG, bottler, distributor or retailer interested in working with Richard's Rainwater or buying it altogether, O’Neil admitted. But he said the company has “a huge amount of opportunity” to grow on its own and it's not actively seeking a sale or partnership.
“It’s our job to continue doing what we’re doing, and doing it at a high rate that’s improving sustainability where something like that might make sense,” O’Neil said.