Italian mineral water San Pellegrino's production facility is being given a makeover and The National was invited for a tour inside the plant in the village of the same name
Fresh approach bubbling for brand with century of fizz
At the tables of Il Borro Tuscan Bistro, a high-end restaurant located inside Dubai's Jumeirah Al Naseem luxury hotel resort, Italian cuisine comes at its best.
The award-winning outlet, opened by Ferruccio Ferragamo, the owner of Salvatore Ferragamo luxury superbrand, serves daily-fresh imported Burrata cheese or red prawns spaghetti, and always with a bottle of San Pellegrino, among the most famous Italian sparkling mineral waters. It comes in a limited edition glass bottle, specially designed by Bulgari for five-star locations.
There may be no surprise that an exclusive fine-dining restaurant also wants to be as refined in the beverages it serves, offering customers the quintessential essence of "La Dolce Vita". On the shelves of the Ginger All-Day Dining outlet in Abu Dhabi’s TwoFour54 media zone, perhaps not the poshest venue you can imagine in UAE, San Pellegrino is also among the water on sale. However, here there is no signature edition, just a basic 2 fluid ounce plastic bottle.
While San Pellegrino water seems to be everywhere in Emirates, both the hyper-fashionable bottles and the more commercial plastic versions have travelled a long way to be here. They come from a secluded green mountain valley in Northern Italy, a two-hour drive east from Milan and some 3,000 miles away from the hot Arabian Gulf deserts. Last year, about 1.45 billion bottles left San Pellegrino, a remote village, dispatched to the shelves and tables of stores and restaurants in 153 countries around the world.
For more than a century the water from these mountains just south of the Alps has been bottled, dating back to 1899 when a Milanese lawyer called Cesare Mazzoni founded the San Pellegrino mineral water company. Mr Mazzoni named the company after the village because it had been famed for the health properties of its water. One year after it was founded, the company was listed on the Italian Stock Exchange.
At the time, Europe was in the midst of the Belle Époque boom. The 19th century fashion was to build resorts next to the spas and thermal provincial towns across Europe. The Grand Kursaal, as they were known at the time (a German word which was banned during the First World War and replaced with a French one), were worldly venues where the high society gathered, the dress was tuxedos for men and big draped skirts for women. The small village of San Pellegrino opened a resort attached to the San Pellegrino thermal spa in 1905. That venue, however, closed in 1917, soon after the First World War ended. The spa - now called QC Terme – is still running today as a luxury resort where northern Europeans enjoy the outdoor hot water pools while sunbathing.
San Pellegrino bottled water is carbonated at its factory and during its 120-year history, the blend that comes from the underground basins has been changed only once.
The uniqueness of the brand is that in the modern world of globalisation and marketing, it is somehow a bit of a throwback.
Even so, today a big, modern-looking, grey concrete building welcomes people at the entrance of the small village of San Pellegrino. Trucks occupy the space in front of the entrance: giant billboards advertising San Pellegrino water offer both a sign so that visitors know where they are and an obstruction of an ugly view of water storage facilities.
“Water is pumped from below,” says Salvatore Duccio Sbriglione, the head of the plant in San Pellegrino. “It goes into tanks you see at the entrance of our building and then we add the gas.”
The water is extracted from various underground wells at a depth of 100 metres and at a temperature of 25°C. Rain fall in the mountains feeds the source: it takes a 30-year journey for the water to come down from the snowy heights to the underground wells and become the tasty, iron-laced liquid that it is. That means the San Pellegrino water that people are drinking today comes from 1988, before the Berlin Wall fell and when Ronald Reagan was the US President.
San Pellegrino is not all about past and history, though. Inside the plant, a mechanical noise is the constant soundtrack: thousands of empty bottles are running on an intricate labyrinth of treadmills that look like a miniature rollercoaster. Green glass containers are washed, cleaned, filled with water and packed. On one corner, a pile of bluish small paper sheets sits, bound together with a brown ribbon, looking like a stack of cash from a bank vault. These are the San Pellegrino labels that will be eventually glued on the bottles at the end of the process.
For decades San Pellegrino was a niche product until Switzerland’s Nestlè bought it in 1997. At the time the company was the property of Bruno Mentasti Granelli, the Italian king of mineral waters and a close friend of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Nestlè, along with Danone, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, is one of the biggest players in the fast-growing global bottled water market, which is forecast to reach a value of $350 billion by 2021 from $170bn in 2014, according to The Business Research Company.
In the two decades since, Nestlè has turned San Pellegrino into a global brand with 54 per cent of this mineral-rich water (two glasses contains as much calcium as milk) sold outside of Italy.
When the company wanted a matching still-water brand in its portfolio, it bought Acqua Panna, a still-only water located in Tuscany sold as the non-carbonated companion to San Pellegrino.
Nestlè has also brought innovation: Mr Sbriglione shows me a pinkish - coloured can filled with some kind of flavoured drink - which is a new top secret product expected to be launched soon on the US market. Revealing more details than that would cause havoc at Nestlè’s headquarters, I am told. Innovative packaging is the latest trend in the bottled water industry, says ResearchandMarkets.com, including re-sealable and recyclable materials. The recycling of San Pellegrino bottles alone saved 280 million Swiss francs (Dh971.9m) and 550,000 tonnes of CO2, according to Nestlé.
Operating as a world-wide brand, with €900m (Dh3.77bn) in revenues last year, also has its challenges: every day 130 trucks come and go from the plant. With no trains, no airports, tyres are the only transportation mode available here. The company must work relatively harder to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions given its factory’s remote location. It is committed to doing so through a sustainable logistics strategy including using LNG-powered vehicles.
The bottling plant was opened in 1970 and these days is showing the signs of passing time. Space is the big issue here: packed between the mountains and the river, there is no possibility for the facility, where 468 employees work, to expand. Due to success and over-crowded roads, Nestlé has launched major restyling of the entire plant. A global pitch was launched to seek the best design solution and the Danish BIG studio was awarded the job last year. The local environment is top of mind and trucks will no longer cross the small village of San Pellegrino. A brand new 120 metre long covered bridge will traverse the mountain river and provide direct access to the facility from the south. A new parking lot will be built to accommodate 120 vehicles. More space, in front of the entrance, can then be made available for a visitor centre to welcome tourists.
The entire industrial plant, 17,500 square metres that looks a bit dull and dreary today, will also undergo a massive restyling: arches, squares and porticos will evoke Italy’s Renaissance architecture. It will take 3 years and €90m of investment to transform the old-style facility: white arches decorated with ivy, glasses and public square with gardens and benches. A restaurant and some shops will complete the new area, which will become an entertainment venue.
Some of the old spirit of the Gran Kursaal era will perhaps be revived. Village inhabitants will at least be grateful for less traffic, smog and a more-lively area.