Jody Levy is an artist with a background in creating immersive environments. But her career took a turn when she discovered a breakthrough in raw, cold-pressed beverages. She sought to find a use for the roughly 800 million pounds of watermelons in the United States that go unused each year. Levy, 36, is now co-founder of WTRMLN WTR — a cold-pressed watermelon beverage. Although she lives in New York City, Levy has brought a portion of the manufacturing of WTRMLN WTR to West Michigan and is looking at a Detroit location to possibly expand.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about growing up in metro Detroit?
A: I grew up in Birmingham and went to Cranbrook for most of my education. I’m an artist, and I spent time in a studio creating, which allowed me the freedom to explore and play in nontraditional ways. Growing up, I spent much of my time in the city taking classes, exploring the museums and the music scene.
Until recently, I owned a house in the Detroit area. My parents and grandmother are still there, and I am very connected to many projects and companies in and around the city.
After high school, I pursued an education in fine arts, approached school with an entrepreneurial perspective and got grants to travel around the world and study in many different places. I finished college at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Q: How did your career progress after college?
A: In 2001, as I was coming out of art school with a body of work focused on creating immersive environments that tell stories and connect on an emotional level, I began my career in the experience design space in the Detroit area with o2 Creative Solutions. Since 2001, I have been working with global clients including automotive companies, hospitality venues, museums and the entertainment space designing and producing nontraditional events, environments and experiences. From 2001 to 2013, when I founded WTRMLN WTR, I was based in Detroit and Los Angeles and working with clients all over the globe.
Q: When and how did the idea for WTRMLN WTR come about?
A: In 2012, I met my (future) co-founder of WTRMLN WTR, Harlan Berger. I met Harlan through mutual friends, and he started telling me about his idea to create a watermelon-based product and why.
He said, “You know, there are 800 million pounds of unused watermelons in America every year.” They come from growers all over the United States. They are unused because many watermelons are imperfect — scarring from the sun, bruised, not perfectly shaped — and therefore, people don’t want to buy them.
As a creative director, it’s my job to come up with all kinds of crazy ideas, so I started really looking at these unused watermelons as a challenge. We came up with this idea to create a food or beverage. It’s 92 percent water, so we thought if we could cold-press it, we’d get this divine, delicious nectar that’s packed with nutrients. It just set us on this wild path, so I brought everything I’d learned to the table, which was a keen business sense and an entrepreneurial spirit. The nature of the design experience is that you never do the same thing twice, so every project I’d done was entrepreneurial in that way; everything seemed like a startup.
We hit the ground running and found a food scientist — we were able to create a beverage product in a supersaturated market, and now our sales keep growing and we’re expanding internationally. I have always been very invested in healthy living, so this (job) doesn’t fall too far from where I’ve been. Now I work very much in the food and beverage space of clean, healthy food, and there are a few more products (in the works).
Q: How did you get the company off the ground, and did you face any major challenges along the way?
A: It took us six months to have a product ready, and we waited another month to launch with Whole Foods Market at its new store in Brooklyn. In terms of challenges, there were many — every step of the way, actually. But each and every challenge was a learning experience. This is the nature of inventing something.
Q: What’s a day in the life like for you?
A: Amazing. I’ve always known that I can take a concept and bring that concept into the world. But I also know that when you create something like a beverage company, you need experts that understand the industry. The day we launched the product was the day I started my search for our CEO. A year later, I found him. Now, with Rob (Paladino), our CEO, at the helm, I handle strategic direction of the business and creative direction for everything related to the brand and marketing. I’m involved in all departments and like to be super hands-on.
We’re a mission-driven company, so it’s a lot about how we can give back. I really see WTRMLN WTR as an interface, an interface to a story about how important clean, healthy living is in our day-to-day culture.
The reason I personally got into this is to tackle the epidemic of our food system and provide solutions. So many people are addicted to sugar and unhealthy products. I am committed to being part of the solution. We’re a raw, cold-pressed beverage, and there’s never any compromise to quality. We sell for $3.99 (for 12 ounces), which is (affordable) when it comes to raw, cold-pressed beverages that are not heated and have nothing scary in them.
Most of my days are spent balancing those things and thinking about how I can really maximize the impact of the brand, both from a high-level business perspective and from a creative perspective. If it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing. I believe that what differentiates a company is attention to detail, and that’s apparent companywide in WTRMLN WTR. We call it liquid love.
Q: How is the company tied to Michigan?
A: I’m excited because I’m trying to do more and more in Detroit and the state of Michigan. We’re actually doing most of our manufacturing on the west side of Michigan (Coloma, near Kalamazoo. The plant manufactures other beverage brands, such as a cold-pressed apple cider) as well as New York. As we grow, I plan to do more in the city of Detroit.