Photos by J. Alan Paul Photography
Partnering with a powerful berry, Blake Johnson and Wade Gronwold have released a drink high in antioxidants, wanting to let the world in on the secret that is the aronia berry. Ax-water is a 30-calorie drink infused with the berries, creating a hydrating water for anyone to take anywhere.
The ax-water Team
Gronwold has been in the fitness industry since 2004. Prior to that, he played college football, amateur baseball and raced snowmobile professionally. He identifies himself as a “sports and fitness freak.” He currently has a clothing company, printing business and, since he and Johnson met at the gym, ax-water.
Ax-water comes in three delicious flavors, pairing the aronia berry with lemon, blackberry and pear, and black tea.
Johnson is an agricultural and biosystems engineer with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He also graduated with degrees in global studies and political science. He enjoys golfing, hunting, fishing, hanging out at the lakes, and spending time with his wife Ashley, who he says has done a great job of handling the social media for ax-water.
The aronia berry is packed with more than three times as many antioxidants as the blueberry or pomegranate. It’s a native U.S. plant, but Europe began planting it in the ’70s and 80s. They raise more than 50 million pounds a year and put it in more than 400 different products.
“The U.S. market is in its infancy, producing 1.5 million pounds in the whole country and maybe 20 or 30 products,” says ax-water Cofounder Blake Johnson. “People put them in products because of the antioxidant properties. I even had an iced coffee in San Diego infused with aronia berries.”
How it all began
It all started five years ago when Blake Johnson decided to raise aronia berries.
“My uncle lives down in Nebraska and was doing it,” he says. “I listened to what my uncle was saying about the benefits of the berries, and my dad’s side of the family had land down in LaMoure (North Dakota).”
To Johnson, it seemed like a no-brainer.
“It started off as a hobby—something my dad and I could do together,” he says. “After we started raising them, we thought there had to be a way to get a beneficial product out to consumers.”
Johnson’s dad, a physician, understands antioxidants and originally suggested a vitamin water.
“I wasn’t really sold on the idea,” Johnson says.
He brought the idea to Wade Gronwold, whom he met at the gym. “I had been talking to Wade for two years, bugging him at the gym,” Johnson says. “I told him he had to check out aronia berries and antioxidants.”
“The attractive thing to me was the antioxidants,” Gronwold says. “We had talked about it for the better part of two years, and then again when I started taking a product for a couple months.”
Gronwold has always taken antioxidants but was intrigued when Johnson told him aronia berries had the most.
“It made me listen,” Gronwald says.
After Gronwold looked at the aronia berry, he agreed they needed to do something.
“He seconded what my dad had said
about doing an infused water with aronia berries,” Johnson explains.
Now, there were two people with totally different backgrounds who thought it was a good idea. So Johnson decided to go for it.
“It took us about 10 days to have a clear vision,” Gronwold says. “(Blake) had a business plan done, and I had logos done. Things changed as we went, but otherwise it was a super-short process.”
Johnson and Gronwold saw how the trend of sugary drinks was diminishing and decided to market Ax-water based on its low-calorie content.
“It’s 30 calories per bottle,” Johnson says. “It’s an enhanced water so it’s hydrating, and then we have no artificial preservatives or sweeteners. We wanted to keep it a natural drink.”
Even though it only took 10 days to come up with their vision, finding a trademark proved a bit more difficult.
“We probably tried looking at 60 different names,” Johnson says. “We were originally X-water, and then right when we were going to do that trademark, it was gone.”
But they liked their logo and where they were at with their planning.
“We decided to (go with) ax-water because of antioxidant water. In the end, it seemed to fit even better.”
“I’ve grown up here my whole life, making a lot of great connections throughout the years,” Johnson says. “Fargo loves to support their own, and I know that anytime I see Fargo products and businesses, I want to support them. It’s been great to see all the support we’ve had coming back.”
“Fargo loves to support their own, and I know anytime I see Fargo products and businesses, I want to support them.”
“I think the product speaks a lot for itself,” Gronwold says. “But obviously, we don’t think we can do this on our own. Local support is important, and we want the community to look up to us. Hopefully, we can touch whatever realm that is and evolve from that.”
“We’ve got some other flavors in the works that will hopefully come out toward the end of this year,” Johnson says. “I think we’ll probably go to five flavors, and then we’ve already looked into the option of doing a sparkling line.”
“I’m currently working with Complete Nutrition, getting ax-water approved for their franchise,” says Gronwold, adding that getting it approved would immediately take the product to a national level. “I also just sent a case to the drummer from Florida Georgia Line, who is looking to potentially endorse. That would be a big (thing) for us. You never know what kind of doors that will open up.”
The health benefits are pretty remarkable, but Johnson and Gronwold can’t say any of them relate to health in order to sell their product.
“We actually talked to an attorney in Colorado and he said, ‘Even if Einstein said it cured cancer and Mayo did a study on it and 100 percent of cancer patients were cured, you still can’t use that to sell your product,'” Johnson recalls. “But there have been studies done where it has lowered cholesterol four to eight percent, lowered blood pressure eight to 20 percent, stabilized blood glucose more than 40 percent and helped UTIs four times better than cranberries.”
After researching all of these health benefits, Johnson and Gronwold knew they needed to get the aronia berries out there.
Transparency and Criticism
“I think that, in health and wellness, you see all these products that really aren’t transparent, and that is something we wanted to do,” Johnson says. “If it’s good or bad, just tell us it’s bad. If it’s sugary, and we like it, maybe we’re going to drink it anyway.”
Gronwold agreed that transparency is an important part.
“We don’t want you to support us if you don’t believe in us,” he says. “So don’t support the product if you don’t believe in it. There isn’t a reason for us to hide anything.”
Both Gronwold and Johnson welcome criticism.
“One of the first comments we received was from my mom about the bottle we intended to use,” Johnson says. “She grabbed the first bottle we looked at and said, ‘I would never take this. I am a female who has small hands, and the bottle is huge.’ That’s why we ended up going with that tapered, skinny bottle.” Other benefits of a smaller bottle include fitting in a cup holder or making it easier to run with.
“We started the idea but have had a lot of people help us along the way,” Johnson says. “Looking back, we have seen each person’s ideas come to life. Our board has been a great team, and we’ve found people to fill the voids that we aren’t good at.”
Not just for fitness
Looking at the involvement from their family, friends and board members, it makes sense that Ax-water is a drink for anybody.
“People who understand antioxidant value are going to drink it for that, and the ones who don’t, hopefully, will drink it for the look and taste,” Gronwold says. “I think we’ve got a diverse product that has unique look, tastes good and has an antioxidant value that is one of the best on the market.”
“I know that when we first started talking, we tried to stick with a low calorie, all natural drink, looking at the fitness industry,” Johnson says. “But it’s a product for everyone.”
“It’s important to hit home on the health and wellness side of it,” Gronwold says. “We all have free radicals in our bodies, whether it’s from exercising, the food we eat or the air we breathe. Antioxidants combat those free radicals, making it applicable for those in the fitness industry and those who aren’t.”
Ax-water really is a brand for everyone, no matter their age or lifestyle.