CHEROKEE, Iowa — Until about six months ago, Mary Beth Ehrig and her family quenched their thirst with well water from their rural Cherokee, Iowa, homestead.
However, the mother of two became increasingly concerned about what exactly was in that water due to its proximity to their farm fields. She began driving to downtown Cherokee to purchase the life-sustaining liquid from Noggin Water, a year-old local business.
“This is much more reassuring for us,” Ehrig said.
The hydration specialty store is the brainchild of Matt and Abby Harding, two Mesa, Arizona, transplants who decided to open Noggin Water in the Northwest Iowa community of about 5,000.
Noggin Water sells the fluid in three variations: Purified, alkaline and “secret water,” a product similar to alkaline water but infused with B Vitamins that turn the water a light shade of pink and provide an energy boost.
Abby Harding’s family is from Cherokee and she visited often over the decades she was away, a trip that eventually also included her husband and their three children.
Matt Harding, a Southern California native, said they were charmed by his wife's hometown, but there was always one aspect of the trip they all dreaded.
“They had pretty terrible water when we came to visit so we would always be buying our water,” Matt Harding said. “We had fallen in love with the idea of a water store in Arizona. They are pretty popular there — they do it differently than we do it here, we add our own little twist to things — but we knew that they needed it here and we felt it would work and we moved that direction to try and make that happen.”
One of the biggest challenges the Hardings expected to face was educating potential customers about alkaline water. That prediction proved to be unfounded.
“A lot of people started coming in because they saw that we had alkaline water,” Abby Harding said. “They couldn’t find it anywhere and a lot of people knew about it already, so it was kind of surprising for us.”
Matt Harding added: “There were some chiropractors and various people in the area that were telling people some of their issues was they needed to alkalize their body, so some people had already heard the term and once they saw that alkaline water was available they already kind of had an idea.”
What separates alkaline water from tap water and even purified water — aside from the taste — is the higher pH balance. In practice, the change reduces the amount of acid in the consumer’s body and supposedly helps treat ailments ranging from heartburn to psoriasis.
Corrinna Lenort, a dietitian at Hy-Vee’s Hamilton Boulevard store in Sioux City, noted the research on alkaline water and its health benefits is still inconclusive, so she doesn’t have a professional recommendation on the product.
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“Alkaline water’s high pH may have potential benefits for people who have constant acid reflux,” Lenort said. “However, acid reflux can also be remedied by restricting highly acidic foods and beverages: Coffee, citrus fruits, etc. Based on current literature, alkaline water is not proven to have superior health benefits compared with good-old H20.”
Although the Hardings have found tons of research in medical journals that support their beliefs in the benefits of alkaline water, Amy Harding noted they still walk a fine line when marketing the product to customers.
“We can’t say, ‘Get this to cure your heartburn.’ We can say it could help with it because we can’t guarantee it’s going to help with it; it’s not like a Prilosec (a heartburn drug) or something,” she said.
What they heavily rely on and have successfully generated is positive word-of-mouth from satisfied customers who aren’t shy about promoting how alkaline water has helped them.
“As people started to get relief from some of these things — being a small town — it just spread pretty quickly for us,” Matt Harding said. “We have people coming and being like, ‘Hey, I hear you have this stuff that gets rid of heartburn, what is this?’”
Interactions such as those and a plethora of customers who travel to the shop from across Northwest Iowa has inspired the Hardings to talk openly about potentially opening more Noggin Water stores.
“We have people that travel from Sutherland, from Spirit Lake, from Storm Lake, from Le Mars, Spencer, Ida County — people travel all over just to come here even if they have to drive 45 minutes to an hour they still do so it would be nice to accommodate those markets too,” Abby Harding said.
While the Hardings were always confident in this business plan, it took them a few years to even get it going. The couple moved to Cherokee four years ago; however, Noggin Water didn’t open until last year because the venture is entirely self-funded, which Matt noted wasn’t by choice.
“We did reach out at first to try to get some help to get open, well, plainly put, they didn’t think it would work,” he said of some local officials. “They are very used to agriculture here and thinking outside of that box wasn't something that they could see and they weren’t willing to take that chance on us.
"We came up with the term ‘persistancy’ — we had to continue to be persistent and consistent at moving it forward to the point of getting us open. We had to believe that once they could try the product they would start to see and luckily we got it to that point.”
Noggin Water customers can bring in any container they want to be filled or purchase one from the store. They also bottle water in-house, which Matt said had a major hand in expanding the brand.
"With the bottling part, it was really nice because it was like putting our business card in their hand with our product in their hand and they can try it themselves," he said. "They would try their other water they drink normally and realize ours is significantly better. It's not just kind of better; it's significantly better."