From Union Kitchen Stores to CPG CEO

Door to door sales is a notoriously gritty task. Pair that with a national recession, and you are going to face a lot of not so polite rejection. Lauren Watkins, Founder and CEO of Afirma, a bottled water company based in Washington, D.C., spent her college summers, smack dab in the middle of a national recession, selling home security systems door to door. She had to learn how to maintain a mindset that kept her going despite the less than ideal circumstances. In those moments of challenge, Lauren found herself using affirmations based around the statement “I am” to keep her moving towards her goals. When Lauren decided to start her own food business, she knew she wanted to center it on connection and self-love.

Enter in Afirma, founded in 2018 and sourced from natural spring water from the East Coast, each bottle features a unique affirmation. Its hydration with the self-loving ritual of “I am.” The idea is to create an easy way that fits in everyone’s already established habits, for a moment of mindfulness and to love on you. “I am dedicated to creating an awesome life for myself,” “I am enough,” “I am listening to my body,” are just a few of the endless possible affirmations customers could receive. Afirma products are now found in retailers across the DMV including in the cafes of fellow Union Kitchen Accelerator Member, Compass Coffee. Afirma is also the leading water bottle brand at all Union Kitchen locations, beating out Core, Smart Water, and other national brands. 


How did Lauren go from door to door sales in college to running a successful water bottle company? It started with a move to Washington, D.C., where she became acquainted with Union Kitchen while living across the street from the 9th Street Store in Shaw. “I loved stopping by to see all the new products made by local entrepreneurs and for their gluten-free options,” Lauren shared.  

After seeing all the local brands sold at Union Kitchen and meeting other Accelerator Members, Lauren decided to take the leap and turn her idea for convenient mindfulness to fruition. She worked closely with Union Kitchen and the community of entrepreneurs to refine her water bottle concept and launch into the local market. In less than four months, Lauren had a product in stores!   

Throughout this process, Lauren decided that learning about retail from the sideline wasn’t enough. She wanted to know everything she could and connect with consumers as much as possible. Lauren applied to work in the Union Kitchen stores, taking her learnings to the next level. 

This hands-on retail experience allowed Lauren to understand the full supply chain of a packaged food and beverage product. After nailing down manufacturing, it was in our stores that she learned what retailers and consumers really want. She experienced what it was like to merchandise, place and receive orders, and deal with ambiguous case boxes and confusing product labels. She learned the right questions to ask when thinking about constructing her own product. 

Perhaps the best example of how consumer feedback in store has supported the growth of Afirma was when Lauren was checking out customers at the register. Lauren would always ask, “What do you like about this water?” “Why did you pick this water?” and “Did you know there is an affirmation on every bottle?” She quickly realized that consumers didn't notice the affirmations on the side of the bottles. As she watched consumers squint to read the small print of the affirmations, she realized that she needed to make the “I am” affirmation statements much larger and more pronounced. Lauren went back to the drawing board, iterated the product packaging, and in the second version, made the affirmation much (much!) larger so that it could not be missed. 

“Union Kitchen is a great space for learning and growing and doing so with other food entrepreneurs. If you’re not ready to jump, stick your toes in. Come into the stores and talk to the team,” Lauren shared as her advice to anyone who wants to start a food or beverage business. Be sure to stop by a Union Kitchen store and check out your very own Affirmation on an Afirma water bottle.