The juice-bar brawl

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Mashing up produce at home tends to leave a sloppy mess in the kitchen, so marketplace demand led to the birth of small companies that generated gallons of fresh elixir before dawn and delivered it to homes or offices.

Mashing up produce at home tends to leave a sloppy mess in the kitchen, so marketplace demand led to the birth of small companies that generated gallons of fresh elixir before dawn and delivered it to homes or offices.

For a symbol of how quickly the juice business has changed in the United States, just look in the bottling room at the BluePrint factory in Long Island City, Queens.

Not far from a conveyor belt and vats of bright nectar that has been freshly extracted from beets, you will see a Norwalk juicer about the size of a toaster oven. Seven years ago, in a catering kitchen in Chelsea, Zoë Sakoutis and Erica Huss hatched BluePrint with nothing more than that humble appliance.

They still keep it around, and if it is supposed to be a good-luck charm, consider it effective. Today Ms. Sakoutis and Ms. Huss, both in their 30s, have two factories (the other is in Los Angeles), scores of employees and a multimillion-dollar partnership forged in December with the Hain Celestial Group. You can find transparent bottles of BluePrint at Whole Foods or that sandwich shop around the corner, and the company is grossing more than $20 million a year.

Half a decade ago, most people who were found guzzling and gushing about juice — not grocery store O.J., but the dense, cold-pressed stuff that is made by pulverizing mounds of ingredients like kale, beets, ginger, spinach and kohlrabi — were either zealots from the raw-food fringe or Hollywood celebrities who believed that a “juice cleanse” would nudge their toned bodies even closer to radiant perfection.

But along the way, more people started drinking it. And for consumers and entrepreneurs, a realization took hold: juice did not have to be part of a challenging, expensive cleanse. It could simply be lunch. Suddenly, cold-pressed juice morphed from a curiosity to an industry.

Starbucks has acquired its own line, Evolution FreshDanny Meyer, the force behind Shake Shack and restaurants like Union Square Cafe, has developed Creative Juice, to be sold in some Equinox gyms and stand-alone shops. In New York, big-name investors are pouring cash into local chains like Organic Avenue, which has nine stores that it wants to double within 18 months, and Juice Press, which has 9 shops and plans to open another 10 by the end of 2014.

The money that companies have thrown around, as Hain did in buying BluePrint, has stirred up an entrepreneurial gold rush. Could premium juice conquer America the way premium coffee has? Venture capitalists are counting on it.

“We’re talking some serious dollar signs here,” said Danielle Charboneau, 29, who in 2010 started Juice Maids, a delivery service in Los Angeles that she merged early this year withJuice Served Here, a forthcoming chain of shops. “That’s why everyone is getting into the juice business, because in five years they want to sell the business for a hundred million bucks.”

The scramble has some of the mood that surrounded the dot-com start-ups in the 1990s. And while many of the prospectors huddled around this thick, algae-hued revenue stream have a wholesome epidermal glow, they can be as fiercely competitive as any Silicon Valley programming shark.

“There’s nobody else in this industry that understands the science of nutrition the way that I do,” said Marcus Antebi, a former muay Thai fighter who started Juice Press in 2010. “There’s no competition. I started because there was nobody who had the product that I’d be happy buying. Everybody had tremendous flaws.”

Spend a little time chatting with the rising juice lords of New York and Los Angeles, and you will hear terms like HPP, live enzymes and detoxing. You’ll also hear variations on these themes: no one else’s juice is as fresh as ours, or as organic, or soulful, or healthful.

Many of those claims are hard to back up with science. (Magically cleaning out your insides? Your body already knows how to do that.) Still, nutritionists do not deny that fresh juice can help deliver the vegetables and fruits — albeit without some useful and lovely fiber — that many Americans seem determined to avoid. And with practices like yoga and veganism being absorbed into the mainstream, it’s only natural that many of us would aspire to do as Gwyneth does.

But mashing up produce at home tends to leave a sloppy mess in the kitchen, so marketplace demand led to the birth of small companies that generated gallons of fresh elixir before dawn and delivered it to homes or offices. The owners of Ascending Health Juicery, in Santa Barbara, Calif., are still up at 3 every morning to whip up the day’s nutrient-dense brew. Others, like BluePrint, which started out by hauling its thirst-quenchers around in Zipcars, have blossomed into national powerhouses. (They now send it out via FedEx and courier services.)

Then there are the juice bars; among the early pioneers in New York were Liquiteria, in the East Village, and Melvin Major Jr., whose juicing skills and fist-bumping, Rasta-hatted bonhomie have drawn a downtown cult following for years, most recently at Melvin’s Juice Box in Greenwich Village.

But what all players in this new wave of juicing share (and what distinguishes their product from the sugary slurp you get at a not-from-the-garden-variety smoothie shop) is a painstaking, decades-old process called cold-pressing. Fruits and vegetables are ground into a slurry, placed in a permeable pouch, then squeezed with tremendous pressure so that nearly every viscous drop of juice bleeds out, leaving behind a pulp that is almost dry.

Some juice fanatics like to spread the notion that cold-pressing is much better than using a faster centrifugal machine because the produce is not “cooked” by heated-up rotary blades. That heat, they say, neutralizes some of the nutrients and “live enzymes” that make the juice attractive in the first place. (They want theirs as raw as possible, without ingredients that have ever been frozen or warmed up.)

But Mr. Antebi, who has tested this theory at Juice Press, said it’s an “erroneous idea,” because blades can heat up during the initial pulverizing phase of cold-pressing, too. The real advantage of cold-pressing, he said, is that it pushes almost every drop of nectar out of the fiber, producing a drink dense with hue, tang and nutrients.

Like many of his fellow juice tycoons, Mr. Antebi, 44, does not lack confidence. His philosophy: “The way you get people obsessed with the product is by creating the most biologically perfect product.”

As he stood in his flagship store at 122 Greenwich Avenue in Manhattan, the air filled with a fragrance that called to mind the mulching of topiary, and a high-decibel grinding sound rose from the juicers operating behind the cash registers. These, he said, were good signs.

“The stores that do the best are the ones that have that horrible noise in the background,” he said. “It’s noisy. It’s messy. It smells.”

The point, Mr. Antebi said, is that Juice Press cranks out its product on the same day you will probably drink it.

“My competitors are helping me if they’re no longer selling a juice made four hours ago,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘Here’s a $12 bottle of juice that might be 24 days old.’ ”

Although Mr. Antebi did not name names, he was referring to companies — most of which seek national distribution — that use a process called high pressure processing, or high pressure pascalization (HPP). When fresh juice goes through HPP, it can last on a store shelf for more than three weeks, not just a few days.

Of course, when juice is less perishable, it’s easier to sell more of it, in far-flung places. But many advocates of the just-made-now approach scoff at HPP, which they sometimes (mistakenly) refer to as “high pressure pasteurization.”

“It’s really just totally cheating,” said Alex Matthews, 36, the chief executive of Juice Served Here. “Essentially what you’re doing is just heating all the micronutrients and live enzymes that live in and are found in all fruits and vegetables.”

Companies that do opt for HPP say much of the criticism amounts to sniping and an attempt to confuse the consumer. The process “was a game-changer for us,” said Ms. Sakoutis of BluePrint, and people who do not use it often fail to understand it.

“It’s not pasteurized,” Ms. Sakoutis said. “That’s heat. This is just pressure.”

When juice goes through HPP, the users say, it has already been bottled, and the bottles float in high pressure in water for about 80 seconds, stunting pathogen growth.

The BluePrint duo isn’t shy about going on the offensive, either. They boast about scoring federal organic certification.

“We always use organic,” said Keith Irwin, quality assurance manager at BluePrint. “Our motto is, if we can’t get it, we won’t produce it.”

BluePrint is also more than happy to hurl a few tomatoes at competitors whom they see as copying their marketing ideas, like clear bottles, which are now ubiquitous in bars and stores.

“This is the part where I won’t be modest: we sort of created the blueprint for what juicing should look like,” Ms. Sakoutis said. “Our competitors — our copycats — are following the instruction manual that we created. I’ve never seen such copyright infringement. Neither has my I.P. lawyer. She’s just floored. We send a lot of cease-and-desist letters.”

What makes BluePrint a target for nit-picking and copying is its growing national profile. The juice is not cheap, often around $11 a bottle. “Quality was of the utmost importance for us, and there is a price that comes with that,” Ms. Sakoutis said. “There’s six pounds of produce in a bottle of green juice.”

Matthew Kenney, an acclaimed raw-food chef, has been creating dishes with fresh juices for years, and he recently began offering the elixirs at his M.A.K.E. Out snack stand in Santa Monica, Calif. As juice goes, he said he’s not necessarily a fan of “something sitting in plastic” for days or weeks.

“If you’re traveling, it’s definitely a better option than drinking a soda,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s something that could compare to something that’s made to order.”

The BluePrint team has never made any secret of its desire to juice the masses, and to do so with a product that does not taste like stagnant pond water.

“Just because it’s green doesn’t mean it’s disgusting,” Ms. Sakoutis said. “That’s a big thing for a lot of people to get over.”

Danny Meyer, too, is banking on something that some of the most militant juicers never get around to mentioning: flavor.

“What I’ve learned time and time again is that if you tell someone, ‘This is good for you,’ that’s the surest way to slow down the progress of the movement,” he said the other day at an Equinox gym at Broadway and 50th Street, where Creative Juice is sold. (He plans to have 10 spots by the end of the year.) “If you can appeal to people’s desire for pleasure and hedonism, that’s the best way to speed it up.”

Blended with ingredients like cacao nibs, Bosc pear, shiso leaves, blood-orange marmalade and dried Black Mission figs, as well as the requisite kale and spinach, the sips from Creative Juice should be, as Mr. Meyer sees it, delicious and complex enough that a wine connoisseur would appreciate them, yet populist enough that Creative Juice could evolve into a drop-in magnet, as Shake Shack has.

“We don’t have the little wheatgrass grinder here,” he said. “If that’s what people beg us for, we’ll do it. But that’s not our original point of view.”

Mr. Meyer is well known for preaching good will toward customers and competitors. And in the juice wars, typically, he presents himself as above the fray.

“I have nothing bad to say about all of those other companies at all,” he said.

But he did offer an observation, in vogue now in the business world, about “red ocean strategy” versus “blue ocean strategy.” In a “red ocean” scenario, a trend takes hold and companies that want to capitalize on it start chewing one another up.

“All the sharks come in and they start going for it, and the water gets red from all the blood,” Mr. Meyer said.

He’s going for a different approach, one in which the plasma (or beet juice) doesn’t cloud things up.

“Blue ocean thinking says, ‘I don’t have to be part of that scrum.’ ” he said. “I can swim in fresh water.”

Courtesy of The New York Times

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