Something in the Water | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Something in the Water 

Unlike most caffeinated beverages, Water Joe tends to get guzzled. The lesson here is pace yourself.

Ho-ho boy! Whew! Yeah, I feel it now. Ha ha ha ha ha. This is fun. Whoa. Wait. . . . This is weird. I feel it in my forehead, pressing, and in my shoulders, squeezing. There's a steady whir doing pirouettes all through me, and my heart feels like it's doing power push-ups on my lungs. OK, slow down. Just keep breathing. It's going to be all right. You probably don't look as high as you feel.

We're in a room about as accommodating as a walk-in closet. It's the Oak Street office of Water Joe, the brainchild of David Marcheschi. Water Joe is a "caffeine enhanced" water beverage drawn from an artesian well in northeast Wisconsin, and I've just been given my christening. A few minutes before, unable to find a bottle for sampling in the clutter of posters and T-shirts--a stockpile of Water Joe paraphernalia--Marcheschi rifled through a box of the early prototypes containing varying quantities of caffeine and handed me a labelless bottle with only the number 16 written on it in Magic Marker. "This one should be OK," he said confidently. I examined it, not sure what I was checking for. "How high will this get me?" I asked with the same circumspection one would years ago have exercised over a baggie of 'shrooms. He had answered this question before it seemed, and there was a hint of pique in his voice. "You're fine," he reassured me.

I unscrewed and sniffed. No funny smell. This was encouraging. I went ahead and took a dainty sip, prepared to spew if I had to. But it tasted just as you'd expect spring water to taste: clean and delicious. Satisfied, I helped myself to more than a few generous swigs. In no time my 16-ounce bottle was empty and I felt like Garfield splayed across the window of a Trans Am wired for sound and doing about 90.

Was there more caffeine in that bottle than he thought? Was I just riding a bummer trip? A third possibility is that this product has an overly psychological side effect. Marcheschi agrees that Water Joe is a source of deep analysis among many first-time users. "Everyone wants to know how they'll be affected. It's equivalent to one cup of coffee. However that affects you, this will affect you the same way," he says with a shrug.

Maybe not. As he watches me peel myself off his ceiling Marcheschi admits he's seen this reaction before. During one of the summer's neighborhood fests--popular venues for his sample peddling--he hawked some bottles to a group of young guys who tipped them back under the hot summer sun and soon took to whooping and giggling, braying to the masses, "Drink Water Joe. It'll make you laugh." Marcheschi's explanation for these punch-packing responses is the general tendency of people to guzzle it--there are none of the usual hindrances of a hot liquid or a soft drink's pinch of carbonation. The lesson here is pace yourself.

But not too many people are doing it. Ever since Water Joe hit the market last year to the indefatigable trumpeting of the press, a population dizzied by the prospect of getting its caffeine kick in a virtuous bottle of spring water began stumbling all over itself to get it.

Some of the first to jockey to the head of the line were the ever-excitable traders at the Chicago Board of Trade, always in search of new--and legal--formulas to achieve peak performance. Since traders are only allowed to bring bottled water on the floor, this was truly sustenance of the gods.

The overnight frenzy caught many retailers unprepared. Stacey Londos, a manager at LaSalle News, a gift shop on the first floor of the CBOT, says she spent two weeks calling bottlers and vendors, desperate to respond to the constant battering for it. Now that she's fully stocked and ready to satisfy the high-strung throngs, she says, "I just feel sorry for the drivers who have to make the deliveries every day." Londos says normally beverage deliveries occur only once or twice a week. To say the clientele is loyal is like saying the grain market is here to stay. Some make purchases "every hour on the hour," while the business district's high-powered execs send their assistants over in cabs for reinforcements. Londos doesn't usually drink Water Joe--preferring instead at least one pot of coffee each day. But she's still gotten a taste of its buzz--with reporters and camera crews luring her into the spotlight. "I just hope I don't end up like the Snapple lady," she says, referring to a staffer who became a celebrity and was never heard from again when the beverage's popularity took a dive.

Corn-futures broker Peter Meyer, who's been designated Water Joe's poster boy by both local and national media, sums it up. "It kills two birds with one stone. I think caffeine has become the drug of the 90s; in the 80s it was cocaine." Why not just pop a couple of No-Doz? "There's a stigma attached to it," he says. "But nobody's going to think badly of you if you walk around with a bottle of water in your hand." His office goes through a case a week.

Another cult of loyal followers who seem to have an unrelenting need to be highly caffeinated is college kids. Though the CBOT found him, it was Marcheschi who went in search of this bountiful market. It's a demographic he feels he knows well. At 30, Marcheschi's not too old to remember his college years at Arizona State University, where he battled through his own all-nighters. It was then, shrinking from the disagreeable tastes of coffee and soda and forced to drink his water straight up, that he dreamed up the idea of caffeinated water. Still, he's the first to admit he could never have imagined himself one day zooming around in the Water Joe van, pitching it on campuses as a "new study buddy." Yet there he was recently, visiting his alma mater in time to offer the tonic as an antidote to the excesses of homecoming. Now sleep, he tells them, "is optional."

Water Joe boosters, it seems, are primarily those who are looking for the edge. Oprah's people have placed orders, and the trend among bands is growing. Members of the local band the WrightWalleys say it helps them during those long jags in the studio. When the Foo Fighters performed at the Chicago Amphitheatre, they threw bottles of it into the hopped-up crowd. And someone reported hearing that a band on a London radio station gave credit to the beverage for its success. Not surprisingly, overseas distribution is targeted for no later than early 1997.

But is Water Joe strictly for people who need the jolt but don't like the taste of coffee or soda, or is there a broader appeal? To me, someone who embarked on a gratifying coffee career at age five, the idea that water could ever replace coffee seems profane. There was a sacredness about the ritual of setting out cups and saucers, sugar and cream, as my mother made her morning calls and I waited patiently, looking forward to our time together, too innocent to realize how much I liked the buzz.

What of the urbanization of coffee, designer flavors, the klatches in moody coffeehouses filled with brooding artists and those who eschew alcohol? And what kind of mate is Water Joe to a cigarette? "We're not trying to change anybody, and we're not trying to replace anything," says Marcheschi. "A lot of people just don't like coffee or soda. They're tired of Evian, they're tired of the flavor of the week, and they're looking for an alternative. Let's face it, not everyone stands in line at Starbucks for the taste. Some are into it for the image. Anyway, the real coffee drinker is at White Hen."

What appeals to people is what Water Joe doesn't give you: no calories, no sugar, no preservatives, no carbonation, no stomach acidity, no dragon breath--and it doesn't stain teeth. Marcheschi says it's good for migraines and even suggests it as a solution for hyperactive kids, claiming it works like Ritalin to mellow them out. (The reason my mother never protested against our coffee rituals?) But above all, what Water Joe does seem to possess in sufficient doses is image appeal. "When people saw Joe Torre, the manager of the New York Yankees, drinking it in the dugout, we started getting all kinds of calls and E-mails."

David Marcheschi is a guy with an earnest demeanor and Tom Cruise good looks. He's the fresh-faced young man any mother would love to introduce to her single daughter. These are no small advantages when it comes to making him a credible voice to expound the benefits of Water Joe. No manic caffeine pimp here; he's soft-spoken with just the right blend of entrepreneurial drive to make him a contender.

He's also a neighborhood guy who grew up in Elmwood Park, a suburb, for those unfamiliar with it, not exactly known for trailblazing. It's an insular little hamlet, and many who start out there never really leave. But Marcheschi says he's always bucked the system, hanging out in the more liberal Oak Park and choosing to play tennis in high school amid a sea of baseball buffs. He played it well enough to make state and win scholarships. Then in 1988 he graduated with a degree in real estate and spent nearly eight years selling and mortgage brokering until opportunity met market share.

By the time the caffeine explosion hit, Marcheschi already had his finger firmly on its pulse. Though Water Joe was still just a twinkle in his eye, he began gathering information, talking to people, finding out their likes and dislikes. When the time finally seemed right--when the iced teas and sweet-flavored waters were rapidly losing favor--he got together with a chemist to come up with an optimal formula that left none of caffeine's bitter aftertaste, using friends and acquaintances as control groups. Next he focused on positioning. "What we decided was to use a very neutral name that a woman wouldn't be afraid to pick up. Women are 50 percent of the market, and they don't want to walk down the street with a bottle of Aqua Buzz or High Water [2 of the 12 knockoffs that have since hit the country]. You don't want to scare the public, otherwise you move right into the Jolt category. It's not even that Jolt has that much caffeine--it doesn't. It's all a matter of perception."

Just when he was beginning to think he'd never find a bottler for his product, his ship finally came in in the form of a delivery truck. That was two years ago--at the time he was still a full-time mortgage broker. "I was walking down the street and saw this truck parked in front of me that said 1-800-Do-Water." That was it. The truck belonged to Dave Holdener, founder of Nicolet Forest Bottling Company, headquartered in Barrington. Marcheschi discovered that he and Holdener shared a common philosophy about his product. "If Dave was someone who needed to crunch numbers, he wasn't going to be my partner, because this is a conceptual idea. You either get it or you don't." Things quickly began to percolate, and soon their joint venture became known as Water Concepts LLC. Today their monthly gross sales are in the six figures and distributed stateside.

To keep his vision pure, Marcheschi--working with a financial partner, Chris Connor, 35, who maintains his own business as a manufacturers' representative of furniture companies--is at the helm, guiding his product through any rough waters. His office is brimming with elaborate mailers and proposals from ad agencies, bottlers, and packagers eager to woo him. Except for working with an agency in Los Angeles to get Water Joe written into scripts as a product placement, Marcheschi likes things the way they are and plans to maintain creative control. "What makes this so much fun is that we have no limits on what we can do." One obstacle out of his control, however, is the decision of many retailers to stock Water Joe next to other bottled waters instead of butting it up against the Mountain Dew display, where the real caffeine junkie prowls in search of a fix. But he hopes to change that. Water Joe is still in its infancy, he says. "I perceive this as a long-term product. The beverage community sees it as a fad. But it's not a flash in the pan. It's a change of lifestyle."

Water Joe is classified as a "New Age beverage," which seems to imply that its prime distinction is healthiness. Will the excessively pure of body ever be drawn to spring water spiked with a legal drug? As it turns out Water Joe has already made a dent in the athletic community. It's the official sponsor of the 21st annual Inter-Sorority Volleyball Tournament in Santa Monica and was recently on hand during the time trials of the U.S. Olympic mountain-biking team in Colorado. Marcheschi says Water Joe also made a splash at this year's Chicago Marathon. I called a friend who ran the race--a dedicated health fanatic--and asked him about it. "Oh yeah, I saw it," he said. "I just smirked and thought there's something I'll never use." When I asked why, he said, "I won't drink it because it's unhealthy--it's a diuretic."

But according to an article in the Investor's Business Daily, supplied courtesy of the Water Joe office, caffeine works as an "ergogenic aid designed to boost performance in endurance sports because it...makes the muscles more efficient. It also helps conserve glycogen, the primary fuel for muscles which allows a runner to maintain his optimal pace for a longer period of time." As for fluid loss it advises, "So drink lots of water with caffeine." Water Joe?

The data clearly differ on the subject. Dr. Mark Kling, who practices emergency medicine at Columbia LaGrange Memorial Hospital and Cook County Hospital and is the strength and conditioning coach for the Chicago Blackhawks, resides somewhere in the middle of the debate. "I don't doubt that it's an endurance enhancer. But because it's only been studied in elite athletes and lab-controlled settings, it's not truly quantifiable as an enhancer yet." But if you're looking to impress the competition, to be a couple of steps quicker for some easy layups on the court during those contentious pickup games, this could be your secret remedy.

What's next? Coffee brewed with Water Joe for that extra pop? Frozen OJ mixed with Water Joe? Too late--it's already been done. Marcheschi says he's constantly amazed at the creative uses customers are concocting for his product. OK, but decaf water, that'll never happen right? "The crazy thing is it could possibly go. A certain percentage of the population would go for it because it's fun," he says. It's a joke he insists, but just to keep one step ahead of the game, Connor adds, "We did try putting it in pancake[s] to see if they'd flip themselves."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): David Marcheschi photo by Lloyd DeGrane.

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