By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Apr 10, 2014 at 11:03 AM

Whether you support the e-cigarette industry or not, one thing is indisputable: it’s a phenomenon that’s growing rapidly. And while the companies that produce cigarette alternatives are based all over the world, one exists right in Milwaukee’s own backyard.

Hartland’s Johnson Creek Enterprises, which makes Johnson Creek Smoke Juice, has quietly grown to an $8.5 million business and is expanding. It just announced a partnership with Republic Tobacco – a company that makes rolling papers and smoking accessories – and through this relationship, it expects to grow even more quickly.

Johnson Creek’s products – mainly vaporizers and "smoke juice" in the form of liquid vials and preloaded "cartomizers"  – have been available in limited retail stores, but mostly online, until now. This new partnership will put their products in convenience stores all around the country.

"Our goal is to be the largest (e-cigarette) company in the world," says Johnson Creek Chief Operating Officer Heidi Braun. The company also produces the smoke juice for the popular brand of e-cigs, Blu.

Before we go any further, we should point out that Johnson Creek says it isn’t interested in turning people into smokers, especially children. It is also not a smoking cessation tool.

"Our product is simply for smokers above the legal age in your state – most likely 18 – that are looking for an alternative to smoking a traditional cigarette," says Braun. "If, down the road, by using an e-cigarette (someone tells) you, ‘Hey, I stopped smoking.’ Well, that’s their own thing, but we’re not looking for that at all. It is very important that people understand that responsible companies will not tell you that this is a smoking replacement."

Indeed, the product does contain nicotine, and it’s addictive like cigarettes, but it doesn’t contain any tobacco. Just nicotine, no additives and seven ingredients on the FDA’s "GRAS" list (Generally Recognized as Safe), according to Braun. Notably, Johnson Creek also sells versions of its smoke juice that don't contain any nicotine at all. And while other companies may sell flavors like "chocolate" or "strawberry," Johnson Creek insists it doesn’t market to children, as was the focus of a recent New York Time article.

"Our flavors aren’t called ‘strawberry,’ they’re called ‘Marango,’" says Braun, a non-smoker who has never tried her own product, and points out her company uses child-resistant packaging. "If a kid picks a bottle up and sees "strawberry" on it, they might think its strawberry milk or it’s strawberry flavoring," she says. "But what the hell is ‘Marango?’ No thanks."

Of course, Johnson Creek does sell "Black Cherry" and "Summer Peach" flavors, but neither contain any graphics at all that would indicate the juice is any sort of food.

In fact, Braun says the company’s success comes largely from its corporate decision to do business the right away, to avoid short cuts and to anticipate a time when this "wild west" $1.8 billion industry is more regulated than it is now.

"If someone said to me, ‘Hey I’m pregnant, I want to stop smoking, but I really want the nicotine.’ We tell you you’re nuts. No, you may not use this product; you should not use this product."

"This is an alternative, it’s a choice," says Susan Geiger, Johnson Creek's director of communications. And she says she understands why some anti-smoking advocates are very opposed to her product.

"Well, I think a lot of people in the world have worked the theory very hard to get rid of smoking and to make it anti-social and to get it out of our culture, and this is a huge threat to them," says Geiger.

To that end, Johnson Creek deliberately chose to make its vaping device, the Vea, look very little like a cigarette.

Says Braun, We didn’t want people to think immediately of cigarettes when they see the vapor of their smoking. We also wanted to really design it from the ground up … we really wanted people to be able to come up to you and have it be a conversations piece. ‘What is that? What are you doing? I’m e-smoking.’"

In fact, everything about Johnson Creek Industries is a little surprising from the outside looking in. Braun says most people don’t realize that the company employs 62 people in its 51,000 square foot office in Waukesha County, and the business is already five years old – and is very profitable.

And, because Johnson Creek isn’t affiliated with "big tobacco," it's not pushing its cause on Capitol Hill, although that may change as the affiliation with Republic Tobacco, which took a 50 percent ownership in the company, grows stronger.

In fact, Geiger recently spoke to the Wisconsin State Assembly.

Says Geiger, "It was a packed room, absolutely packed. It’s a highly controversial subject matter. I was treated respectfully, I actually ended up on NPR, which I didn’t even know that they were recording it. Regardless, there are two sides to the story and so everyone was given an equal chance to talk about it, and we didn’t get any negative feedback about our company in particular."

"As a matter of fact, some of the people that were speaking out against it specifically pointed to us and said if all e-cig companies were like Johnson Creek …"

But they’re not, and Braun is aware of her competition – and embraces it. That’s partially why the company chose to become ISO90001/2008 certified.

"You have to have innovation, you have to be able to execute plans, but if you don’t have anyone that’s nipping at your heels every day, you might be able to sit back on your laurels," she says.

Still, despite its growing success, Braun says e-cigarettes will never completely replace tobacco products.

"Traditional cigarettes will always be around, there will always be a market for it, but I think you’re going to see in the next five to 10 years a tremendous leap from e-cigarettes being a taboo product or a taboo item to it being mainstream," says Geiger. 

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.