No average glass of water

October 20, 2004|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN STAFF

The exotic blue bottle in the silver slipper sitting at your elbow in that four-star restaurant is a sure sign that you are trading up in the world.

It is Fiji Water, liquid money from an aquifer in the South Pacific, more than 1,500 miles from civilization and its pollutants.

The square bottle sells for twice as much as the average bottle of water, but the select grocery stores that carry it, like Trader Joe's, report that it sells very well.

"We run a food democracy," said Trader Joe's spokeswoman Diane O'Connor. "We only carry what our customers buy, and we've been carrying Fiji Water for five years.

"That should tell you something."

Fiji Water is not just appearing on grocery shelves.

It is becoming the bottled water of choice in fine restaurants and it is a turn-down treat in the finest hotels. You also can spot it peaking out of the gym bags of the Hollywood yoga set or in attendance at fashion shows and culinary events.

Fiji Water has made cameo appearances on television in Friends, on the big screen in DodgeBall and 50 First Dates. It is on Prince's list of backstage requirements, and it is the secret to Ben Affleck's weight loss (10 bottles a day).

And it is the new "it" brand on college campuses.

Coming soon: a square cup holder for your car.

"Everyone focuses on the placement in movies and on TV," said Killeen Brettmann, director of marketing for the privately held Colorado company founded by Canadian multimillionaire David Gilmour.

"But we are also building relationships with 30 or 40 major chefs. Not only are they serving it, but they are using it in their cooking."

Charlie Trotter, Josiah Citrin, Nobu Matsushisa Jean-George Vongerichten and Roy Yamaguchi swear to its fresh taste and its import as a pure and healthful ingredient in their cooking.

And thanks to the silver slipper designed by owner Gilmour, they are willing to allow the pale blue plastic bottle on the tables in their restaurants, where it is quickly pushing aside Evian, the very first of the prestige waters.

"It really is a visual bottle," said Brettmann. "It has a strong presence."

Indeed, the shape and floral packaging - that's a hibiscus flower - have earned Fiji Water design awards as well as a loyal following.

Fiji Water made its first appearance on the South Pacific island resort built by Gilmour, who made his money in hotels and gold mines.

He saw that his guests were drinking bottled water shipped in from thousands of miles away, and he was certain there must be a closer source.

He negotiated with the Fiji government to bottle the water he found in the Yarra Valley on the isle of Viti Levu.

The water comes from an artesian aquifer. Rainwater has been filtered through volcanic rock, with each layer adding minerals.

Supposedly, Fiji Water has a high content of silica, which is reputedly essential for younger-looking skin.

"Some of those claims are certainly exaggerated," said David Schardt, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"Water is good for you, but there is no evidence that this water is any better for you. We don't know that much about silica to be able to say that it makes you younger."

Schardt says the Fiji volcanic aquifer "makes a nice story, but it takes some chutzpah to suggest that this stuff has ecological benefits when you consider how far it is shipped, and there is perfectly adequate water here."

Nonetheless, Forbes magazine included Fiji Water in a list of things "worth every penny."

"They certainly have a unique source and a unique tradition and a unique product," said Stephen Kay, vice president of communications for the International Bottled Water Association.

"They are making their mark both in retail and in eating and drinking establishments."

Sales of Fiji Water have jumped 60 percent in the past year, according to Brettmann.

By comparison, sales of Evian have dropped by almost 25 percent.

Fiji Water hopes to triple the capacity of its bottling plant to 53 million cases a year by February.

"We are actually airlifting new state-of-the-art equipment onto the island," said Brettmann.

"They are a small brand competing in a small subsegment of the water business, that being the premium-priced area, and they have done a remarkable job in a relatively short time," said John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest.

"Through packaging, they have been able to differentiate themselves from other waters and that's not easy to do in the beverage business.

"They have established a niche, and it is a good niche."

Availability

Fiji Water is available in the Baltimore area at Trader Joe's, Graul's and Giant, and at Anthony's Beer and Wine in Ocean City.

The price ranges from $1.59 for a 1.5-liter bottle at Trader Joe's to $28 for a case of 12 delivered to your home when ordered from the company's Web site, www.fijiwater.com.

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