A few years ago, Robert Johnson became a beverage entrepreneur by chance. A soda addict at the time, he wanted a way to get the fizz and flavor he loved in a soft drink with less sugar, so he started homebrewing kombucha, or fermented tea, in his kitchen.
Before long, his hobby grew into a full-blown business called Crossroads Kombucha, which started producing the fizzy drink using locally sourced fruits and herbs at 810 Donnell Ave.
After building the company for about three years, Johnson sold it and is onto his next venture: flavored sparkling water.
But not just any sparkling water, mind you. It’s called Bukál (boo-call), and it’s a sparkling water brand devoted to sharing the exotic flavors of the world with a powerful mission.
“Crossroads Kombucha just kind of happened; it was never planned,” Robert says. “This time, we’re trying to be more intentional, so we can make this into something that’s not just a product, but a story.”
Bukál launched with three flavors of sparkling water.
Along with filling a gap in northeast Indiana’s beverage industry with sparkling water, Bukál has a personal meaning to Johnson and his wife, Yvonne.
The couple met while teaching together in the Philippines in 2004. She grew up there, and he eventually moved there for three years, where they married and moved to Thailand for a while.
Robert says those years solidified his love of Southeast Asia. So when he left Crossroads in May and he and his wife returned to the Philippines for her father’s funeral that same month, they felt the desire to connect her homeland to their new hometown in Fort Wayne.
What both places have in common is water—or rivers, to be more exact. Bukál is the Filipino word for stream, fountain, oasis, source, and bubbles.
Since Fort Wayne has three rivers, the Johnsons decided to start their company based on three rivers in Southeast Asia: the Indus, the Mekong, and the Yangtze.
Each of these river regions defines the flavor profiles for Bukál’s first three types of sparkling water. The Indus is a mango rose, the Mekong is a guava lime mint, and the Yangtze is a passionfruit peach.
“It’s about drawing our customers into a bigger story,” Robert says.
A portion of Bukál's proceeds fund clean water projects in the regions the flavors are based on.
Along with giving local consumers a taste of Southeast Asia, Bukál is also connecting them with location-specific causes in the region. Working with an organization called WateROAM in Singapore, the company donates a portion of its proceeds to clean water projects within the same regions its flavors are inspired by.
The Johnsons hope to extend their flavors and support beyond Southeast Asia someday, too.
Robert says the goal of this effort is to expand people’s definitions of poverty and global need by showing them the range of places that are often overlooked and underserved around the world.
“A lot of times when we think of poverty, our mind goes directly to Africa, which has a huge need, but there are other regions that don’t get the recognition or support they need,” he says. “That’s where our passion lies—in those untapped regions.”
Bukál makes flavored sparkling water in northeast Indiana.
Along with being a good vehicle for giving back, flavored sparkling water is also a much easier beverage to produce and scale than kombucha was because it doesn’t have to ferment, Robert says.
“Kombucha was about a two-and-a-half-week process per bottle; this is about a day-and-a-half process per bottle,” he explains.
The Johnsons started making their flavored sparkling water at the Fresh Food Hub in Auburn earlier this year. Since then, they’ve received a Farnsworth Fund grant, attracted investors, and purchased the Hoosier building at 1036 Huffman St. to be the new home base of their operations.
They are currently in the process of renovating the space, and they plan to hire workers in production, delivery, event planning, and administrative positions soon. Check their website and social media for details.
The Johnsons stand outside Bukál's building at 1036 Huffman St.
While their space has a small storefront that will be open for visitors later this year, Robert says the easiest way to find Bukál’s products is at Fort Wayne area restaurants and grocery stores, like the 3 Rivers Coop where the water will be available by February, he hopes.
Since sparkling water doesn’t need to stay refrigerated like kombucha, he’s had an easier time getting it into restaurants, too.
“Sparkling water has a shelf life of about a year, as opposed to two or three months with kombucha, so it’s easier to work with,” he explains.
As he and Yvonne plan for the future, they are hoping to scale the product to even more restaurants and stores nationwide, making them potential competition for big name brands like LaCroix.
While they didn’t initially plan on being serial entrepreneurs, Yvonne says the Fort Wayne community has inspired them since they moved here in 2011.
“I think it’s a very big reason why Crossroads and Bukál were born,” she says. “There’s an entrepreneurial atmosphere here in Fort Wayne, and there’s the support of the community, as well.”
The Johnson’s flavored sparkling water will soon be available at several Fort Wayne area locations, including:
Bird and Cleaver
3 Rivers Coop
Fresh Food Hub
Auburn Brewing Company
The River Coffeehouse
Cathy's Natural Market