Water means jobs for Saratoga

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Latonya Williams likes going in stores and seeing the phrase "Bottled by Old Saratoga, Inc." on the labels of water bottles.

For the last nine years, she has been part of the team that bottles and ships the mineral-rich, alkaline water from the Black Creek Aquifer at Saratoga.

"I was blessed to get this job," said Williams, of Saratoga. "I love it. I thank God for it because a lot of people don't have one."

Williams is one of 26 employees of the company, located at on the outskirts of town on N.C. 222.

When the company started in 1993, it was just what Saratoga needed.

"It was really a blessing for us because all of the people who worked the tobacco didn't have jobs, and it hired a lot of those people," said Saratoga Mayor Thomas Hawkins. "It's been good to have something for the people to do in Saratoga."

OSI is the largest employer in Saratoga.

Lynn Holbrook is a Saratoga resident. She is office manager and has been with the company for 24 of its 25 years. 

Holbrook started out on the production line filling bottles and worked her way up to her present position.

"I basically ran every machine out there except for the palletizer," Holbrook said. "I have worked in every aspect, even to backwashing filters."

"It's a very small community, and all the businesses left us years ago when 264 came through and so it still keeps the little town going," Holbrook said.

In the late 1980s, the North Carolina Department of Transportation completed the U.S. 264 bypass around Saratoga, diverting east-west traffic away from Saratoga.

"It's like all small towns that have been bypassed," Hawkins said. "We had a grocery store. We had two service stations. We had a big agriculture plant at one time that made fertilizer and sold fertilizer, but those things are gone in the past now. We had a cotton gin here at one time, but they moved out because they could get more land for a bigger place to put the cotton gin. Most of those things were closed or really going down before the bypass opened, to tell you the truth."

Hawkins, who has been mayor off and on for more than 30 years, said jobs in Saratoga were geared to tobacco, and the new highway just outside the town limits had a deep effect on the town.  

The establishment of the Old Saratoga plant was a blessing for the community.

Holbrook said the company's workers have to pull together to make things happen. 

"It is very important to a business," Holbrook said.

General manager Anthony Verdini said every member of the OSI team is vital in the company's ability to produce 5 million gallons of water annually.

"It's like an orchestra, and everybody has to play in sync," Verdini said. "If one person's not in sync, that throws the production off. They are co-dependent on each other to get production out."

If anybody is failing to do their job, that will mess somebody else up down stream.

"Being a small company, if we don't do things at an 'A' level, it's going to hurt us," Verdini said.

Everyone knows their jobs and that they have to work as a team.

"If one thing goes awry, the whole thing cascades down into not working correctly," said Brad Filson, plant manager.

Filson and Verdini said they know they can depend on the institutional knowledge of Ricky Hernandez, who has been with the company for 20 years.

"He has been the catalyst that has kept that thing running," Verdini said.

Hernandez, of Stantonsburg, is a company supervisor, mechanic and floor worker.  

"The first thing is just to let them know what we are running that day and to make sure that everybody knows that they are not alone out there. I'm here to help or I will send them help if they are not able to handle the task at hand," Hernandez said.

Hernandez has run every piece of equipment in the production line. In doing so, he knows how they operate and can recognize on a daily basis what it does. 

"I know what's ordinary and what's not ordinary. It's mainly sounds and being able to remember that didn't run like that yesterday," Hernandez said.

Hernandez said it is rewarding at the end of a solid production day.

"It can be hectic trying to get to that goal, but once you reach that goal, I just feel so accomplished, and I hope everybody else out there does to," Hernandez said.

Verdini said part of the company's success is that they have a good product to sell.

The water in the Black Creek Aquifer runs underground from just west of Durham to Wilmington. The age of the water ranges from 400 years old to more than 26,000, depending on the depth.

"Ours is a very special water because of the age of it, the geographic location of the aquifer and because of the mineral content of the aquifer," Verdini said.

The water is a natural alkaline water with a natural pH of between 7.45 and 7.65.

"When we are born, every single one of us, our blood stream, our pH factor, is between 7.35 and 7.45. The reason why they tell you to drink alkaline water is because alkaline water hydrates you six times quicker than normal water," Verdini said.

The water is mineral laden.

"Not only is the water an alkaline-based water, it's an electrolyte-based water," Verdini said.

Tested hourly on the hour as it comes out of the well, the water is filtered and even taste-tested before it is bottled.

OSI water is sold under numerous brand names, including Food Lion, and is expanding.

"It's the best possible water you could drink," Verdini said.