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'Smoke juice' manufacturer opens in Hartland

Company produces liquid for e-cigarettes

July 25, 2011

Four years ago, Christian Berkey smoked 21/2 packs of cigarettes each day. He had a typical and successful American life, working as a store manager for Apple. Then he got hooked on something that would change his life.

"I had seen a news article about electronic smoking, and I thought I would order one (an electronic cigarette). I'm a big gadget freak and a smoker, so I thought if they call it an electronic cigarette, it must be for me," Berkey said in an interview.

When his new gadget arrived, he was amazed at the results.

"It was amazing. It absolutely mimicked the sensation and action of smoking," he said.

The light bulb went off, and four years later, Berkey is the CEO of Johnson Creek Enterprises, which hosted the grand opening of its new 25,000-square-foot Village of Hartland manufacturing facility yesterday at 455 E. Industrial Drive. The company manufacturers what Berkey dubbed "smoke juice" for electronic cigarettes, the liquid off off which e-cigarettes run. The smoke juice is vaporized, delivering both nicotine and flavor to those who use it.

The company moved its entire Johnson Creek operation from a small 1,400-square-foot facility over the course of the last several months after experiencing almost 50 percent annual growth and announcing plans to double staff.

"It took about a year to find the facility we were looking for. We looked everywhere. We looked in Johnson Creek. We looked in Oconomowoc. We even looked as far as Waukesha, and we found a facility here in Hartland," the CEO said. "It was just one of those things where it was a no-brainer. We walked into this place and realized that if we had built a facility from the ground up, this is how we would have done it. It was exactly what we were looking for."

Officially open for business on July 25, 2008, the company quickly outgrew its original Johnson Creek facility, necessitating its move to Hartland. The new plant has 4,200 square feet of lab space, a far cry from the basement where Berkey first developed the smoke juice that led to his company's founding.

Humble beginnings

When Berkey tried an e-cigarette for the first time, he found the product superior to any traditional cigarette he had ever tried, but there was one problem.

"The one thing I didn't like was the actual flavor," he said. "It had a real chemical aftertaste to it. The technology was great. When you inhaled, it felt just like a cigarette.

"Everything was coming out of China at the time. You didn't really know what you were getting. You didn't really know what was in it."

Berkey was shocked to find that there were no American companies producing e-liquid, as it was called, and thus he set to work to create something he would want to smoke himself. With no entrepreneurial or chemistry background, Berkey spent almost a year developing and perfecting flavored smoke juice in his basement.

Eventually he posted about his product on an online forum, asking e-smokers if they would be interested in a free sample. He received 400 responses, which prompted him to conceive of his new creation as a business idea. He cashed in his 401(k) and gave his two weeks' notice to Apple. Three years later, he is an official business success story.

Growing fast

The company now has 21 employees, with plans to add 17 more by the fourth quarter. With the added space at the Hartland facility, Johnson Creek Enterprises also plans to unveil its own electronic cigarette by year's end, meaning the company will now produce what Berkey calls the hardware, or e-cigarettes themselves, in addition to the flavored smoke juice, or the software.

"I can't even tell you how awesome it is for me to know that we're a Wisconsin company and to kind of show what's possible here," Berkey beamed. "I really want people to understand what is possible in an environment like this. I know the economy is in the toilet, but it does not mean that a company such as Johnson Creek can't make something incredible like we used to."

E-cigarettes have carved out a niche for themselves in today's growing $250 million e-smoking marketplace, where, according to the company, 1 million people will switch from traditional cigarettes to their electronic counterparts this year. Smoking bans around the country are also helping to drive the explosive growth of the industry.

"As smoking bans have proliferated across the country, people are looking for an alternative," Berkey explained. "Electronic smoking is not covered by the smoking bans. You can e-smoke just about everywhere."

Because e-smoking only produces a vapor, not actual smoke, people are free to smoke them in bars, restaurants and even on some airlines, Berkey said. Add to that the flavor, and e-smoking offers a powerful alternative.

"Traditional cigarettes don't actually taste like anything," he said. "They taste like cigarettes. What we hear over and over again from our customers is, 'I've been a smoker for over 30 years, and this is the first time I've actually experienced flavor.'"

Johnson Creek's smoke juice comes in a variety of flavors, including original, spiced apple cider, black cherry, French vanilla, espresso, mint chocolate, summer peach, chocolate truffle, Arctic menthol and Tennessee cured, a concoction with hints of vanilla and caramel.

And while Berkey balked at claiming that his product was healthier because of FDA regulations that bar him from marketing his product as a healthier alternative, he offered, "what I like to tell people is just the facts. When you light a traditional cigarette, and you inhale, you are instantly consuming over 4,000 chemicals. When you ingest our product, you are ingesting seven ingredients. I let people kind of make their own decisions from there."

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