It could be argued that fruit smoothies have been aroundas long as there have been blenders and fruit. In their purest form, smoothies are simply liquified combinations of fruits and fruit juices. But the fruit smoothies now starting to grab the attention of the health conscious got their start in the early ’70s, when vegetarianism was as much a political as a dietary statement and nutritional supplements had barely made an impact on American habits. These smoothies were more than just a fun way to eat fruit; they presented an opportunity for the health conscious to boost their nutrition with powders and vitamins.
Katherine Ingrassia, managing partner of
Chicago’s Green Grill, is betting smoothies and
wraps will become as popular as pizza and beer.
Today, fruit smoothies are catching on nationwide, and whether people drink them to boost their immune systems or as an alternative afternoon snack, this blender-driven trend is piquing the interest of many mainstream restaurant operators, as companies across the dining spectrum begin to see the profit potential in these good-for-you beverages.
In fact, fruit smoothies are showing up everywhere: in fancy grocery stores, such as Whole Foods Markets; in the lobby lounges and restaurants of Hyatt Hotels; in espresso bars, health clubs and in quick-serve restaurants paired with wrap sandwiches and bagels. At Chili’s Bar & Grill, for instance, which in 1994 became one of the first to introduce smoothies to the casual/theme restaurant segment, yogurt smoothies ($2.49) appear between the kids menu and the dessert menu. T.G.I. Friday’s also now carries signature smoothies, which are particularly popular at lunch. Last summer, Applebee’s introduced a frozen drink special called the Summerita, a non-alcoholic, smoothie-like beverage.
Owners of the recently-opened Green Grill in Chicago decided to start small when introducing their smoothies, which began as accompaniments to their wrap program. “The wrap concept, as it originated, has historically been paired with smoothies. Smoothies actually can be a small meal in themselves, but I see a lot of people ordering a pound wrap with a 20-ounce smoothie,” explains Katherine Ingrassia, one of Green Grill’s managing partners. “We decided to introduce the wrap-smoothie pairing in Chicago not knowing what the atmosphere here would be. We started small with only three smoothies, and at this time, there are no health shots added, but we’d like to do that in the future.”
The Smoothie King
According to Smoothie King, a company headquartered in Louisiana, founder Steven Kuhnul sold the first smoothie in 1973 (although there are plenty of Californians who will challenge that claim). Kuhnul had been suffering from debilitating allergies and tried many alternatives to relieve his symptoms. He soon began to experiment with blended fruits and fruit juices, adding nutritional supplements to boost the drink’s supposed curative powers. Consuming the fruit smoothies relieved his allergies, he believed, and became a component of his first health food store in 1985. Soon, however, the smoothie’s popularity became his primary focus and the first Smoothie King soon followed. Today the company operates 150 locations in 13 states, mostly in the southeast, and New York City’s first unit opened recently in Penn Station with rave reviews.
Smoothie King’s consumers, according to Richard Leveille, vice president franchise development, are “body builders and aerobics fans, young mothers and professionals, teenagers and thirty-somethings, and cardiovascular-aware seniors and weight loss consumers of all ages.” The stores sell 45 different combinations of blended fruit and juice with various herbs, vitamins, and energy boosters added, depending on the desired effect–with such specialties as the Power Punch Plus, a blend of bananas and strawberries and added nutrients that supplies 499 calories and 2.5 grams of fat and is marketed to the workout crowd; and the Immune Builder, also made with bananas and strawberries and an added “dynamic immune mix” that gives the drink a graham cracker taste, packed with vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients at 300 calories and 1.4 grams of fat.
By 1996, the smoothie expansion from niche market add-on to juice bar must-have was in full swing. Smoothies started receiving acceptance among traditional chains in casual/theme, fast-service and family restaurants, as well as such upscale concepts as Smeraldi’s Ristorante at The Regal Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, where a signature papaya fruit smoothie has been served as part of their Power Breakfast since 1990.
Whether created by an entrepreneurial allergy sufferer or in a California health restaurant, smoothies hit significant paydirt in the West where smoothie stores started showing up on every corner. In California alone, there are 275 smoothie-serving juice bars spread among six competing companies. By the end of 1998, these chains are expected to add 60 more units.
These thick and creamy ice drinks appeal to fast track, health-conscious West Coast dwellers. Jamba Juice, a relatively new chain, has seen rapid expansion recently. Founder Kirk Perron was 27 and an avid bicyclist in the college town of San Luis Obispo, CA, when he started making his own smoothies at home to satisfy a craving for quick, healthy and portable post-ride meals. In early 1990, he opened his first store there, calling it Juice Club. Now Jamba Juice and Juice Club stores are located throughout California, in Arizona, Denver and on the Yale campus in New Haven, CT. Jamba Juice has also recently signed a deal with Whole Foods to introduce Jamba Juice kiosks in the growing supermarket company’s units.
Adding smoothies to the menu is not difficult, say operators who’ve done so. But there exist two schools of opinion–the purists and the innovators. Purists say smoothies should be made of only fruit juice and fresh fruit, with added “health shots” of such nutrients as vitamin C, ginseng, protein powder and echinacea allowable, depending on what ails one. Innovators may add ice, frozen yogurt, sorbets, sherbets, milk, even butter-fat-laden ice cream. Most smoothie chains list the calorie counts and the fat grams of each drink on their menus, but while most smoothies are low in fat, not all are equally low in calories.
Some operators use room temperature or refrigerated fruit and juice and add ice to provide the frozen effect. The Green Grill uses fresh-frozen berries and frozen fruit purees imported from France that have been spun in a centrifugal force machine to eliminate extraneous matter.
Jamba Juice uses frozen yogurt or sherbet in many of their 24-ounce. drinks to provide a smooth iciness. They also advertise that each smoothie includes one free “Juice Boost” and can be whipped up in a non-dairy version. One non-fat version uses non-fat frozen yogurt, but weighs in at 486 calories. Smoothie King smoothies are made from only fresh and frozen fruits, frozen juices and concentrates and thus are all naturally low fat.
While smoothies have gained a certain healthful cachet based on their supposed health benefits, there’s no reason why the concept won’t extend to became a new component in a creative beverage alcohol program. Frozen fruit margaritas and daiquiris are basically smoothies made with added liquor. At DIVE! in Los Angeles, frozen drinks include frozen pink lemonade with vodka; strawberry and fruit punch with rum; and “Tropical Torpedo”, a pi