By Gregory Daurer | Apr 02, 2023
Salt Lake City, Utah
Can manufacturing and contract canning
"We're entering this industry as a real disruptor," says Saalwachter about Vobev's place in the can-making, beverage-producing, and can-filling world.
Traditionally, as part of its supply chain, a small to mid-sized beverage brand will order aluminum cans from a large can-making company -- if the can-maker even has the willingness to deal with someone interested in a smaller volume. And a brand will often need to have its beverage made and filled by someone else. It will also need to be packaged, and then there's the additional cost of warehousing the cans.
Vobev can accomplish all those tasks for customers at its 1.2-million-square-foot facility, spread across two buildings on a reported 65 acres in Salt Lake City. As one cost-saving example cited by Saalwachter, a beverage brand can save on the freight expense of having empty cans sent over to a contract-filler. "It's just incredibly convenient to have all that under one roof," he says.
Vobev has been making aluminum cans for about a year now, offering a skinny 12-ounce version (a size popularly used for some seltzer drinks), an 8.4-ounce size (which often holds wine and some energy drinks), and 7.5-ounce cans (often filled with cocktail mixers or serving as mini-soda cans). Standard 12- and 16-ounce cans are in the works, as well.
Furthermore, the company has been preparing beverages from customers' ingredients and putting them into those aluminum cans for about eight months at its SQF Level Three facility. "Currently, we're making energy drinks," says Saalwachter. "We're doing flavored, carbonated waters. We're doing mixers, like tonics. We're doing Bloody Mary mixes. And we're doing sodas, or, as we say, CSDs -- carbonated soft drinks." The company is also seeking licensing which will allow it to produce alcoholic beverages like hard seltzers and ready-to-drink cocktails.
But it's not just startups Vobev is attempting to sell on its services. "Some of the world's largest marketers of canned beverages don't fill their own product," notes Saalwachter. "They rely on third-party fillers or contract packers like ourselves."
While the company isn't making anywhere close to as many cans as a major producer like Ball, Saalwachter attests to the quality of Vobev's manufacturing capabilities. "This is all state-of-the-art, super-high-speed, best-of-the-best, brand-new equipment," he says. "I tell our customers it's the same stuff the world's largest can-makers would be purchasing, and the world's largest co-manufacturers and fillers would be purchasing. So we're not taking any shortcuts." Saalwachter indicates Vobev has the capacity to manufacture "well over a billion cans a year."
Can-making is a multi-stage process involving huge coils of aluminum: "They're so big and heavy that only two can fit on a tractor trailer," says Saalwachter. After being pressed into cups, the cans' bodies are formed, before being trimmed, and an internal protective coating applied. Afterwards, printing is added to their exteriors.
And it's all being done in Salt Lake City. Saalwachter notes how, "We saw a need in the Western United States for both empty cans and filled cans. We're getting a lot of interest from local customers in the Salt Lake area. And then, really, a lot of Western United States -- so Colorado all the way through the West Coast."
While there's a lot to unpack about Vobev's story, there are numerous details which the company keeps close to its chest. Saalwachter won't discuss how many can-making or filling lines Vobev presently utilizes. "We prefer to keep a lot of that intelligence to ourselves as to what's being added into the market, for competitive reasons," he says.
Saalwachter also won't reveal the names of any products presently being made at the facility due to NDAs, although he indicates there should be "somewhere between 40 and 70 customers" by the end of the year when the facility's capacity is further built-out and another 100 or so workers are hired.
Vobev's origin is somewhat opaque, as well, although Saalwachter says "a couple of our founders and leadership came from" the alternative plastics and packaging industries. When asked how the name "Vobev" came about, Saalwachter replies, "It's a combination of our founder's name and the word beverage." But Saalwachter won't disclose who that founder is, noting how, "He likes to fly under the radar."
One thing Saalwachter can't conceal is his enthusiasm about the company's direction, calling Vobev's vertical integration a "brilliant idea." Previously, Saalwachter -- who works for Vobev remotely from Grand Junction, Colorado -- held the position of director of business development for North and Central America at Ball Corporation, so he's intimately familiar with the aluminum can business.
"We've made amazing strides," enthuses Saalwachter about Vobev. "We've accomplished a great deal. We still have more work to do, but we've come a long way. And I think we're proving a lot of naysayers wrong. You know, this is complicated -- but it's also quite achievable. And we're doing it -- and it's going great."
Challenges: Scaling up. "It's an incredibly challenging technical endeavor that we're undertaking," says Saalwachter about Vobev's capacity to make cans, then fill and package them. "I think it's going better than any of us expected. It's going better than our competitors ever expected."
Opportunities: "I think we have a very sound and organized business plan, a game plan, as to where we're heading," says Saalwachter. "And so our biggest opportunity is to continue executing that plan -- which, quite frankly, we already have been. And we just need to see it through the finish line."
Needs: About 100 more employees. Saalwachter says it's hiring "the balance of our teams."