Smoothie Sensation

Chain stores pushing fruit-and-yogurt concoctions are popping up all around the Old Pueblo. Are they a passing fad, or here to stay?

Jamba Juice recently became the largest smoothie chain in the country, according to Lindsay C. Page, the local president/owner operator.
Just like fashion fads, culinary crazes come and go, only to come back yet again. Take that whole '70s fondue thing as a fine example. It's back, to an extent, here in the aughts (or whatever we're calling this decade).

Don't believe me? Then try to get a table at The Melting Pot on a Saturday night without a reservation. I double-dog dare ya.

But fondue is not the craze on the table for discussion today. Our topic: smoothies.

Yeah, smoothies: those blended, thick drinks with fruit, yogurt, ice, maybe juice, a vitamin or other supplement of some kind, and god knows what else. They're popular around these parts for a number of reasons: They're fairly healthy, often low in carbs, filling and cold--a nice little feature in the blistering Sonoran Desert heat. Heck, they may be the perfect Tucson summer food.

And they're getting easier to find in Tucson. Today, three chains--one local, one regional, one extremely national--dominate the smoothie biz, with 10 locations between them (although not one can be found south of Broadway Boulevard, which sucks). In some cases, they've displaced locally owned smoothie stores, much like the chain bookstores, music stores and restaurants have done to their indie counterparts. All of these chain locations are new, no more than 5 years old, most of them no older than 2. Beyond the Big Three, more and more "normal" shops and restaurants these days sell smoothies, often with a fair degree of success.

With all this in mind, I set out to survey the Tucson smoothie scene. I've been drinking smoothies off and on since 1993--that's when I had my first, and now-favorite, Pumpkin Smash smoothie in Palo Alto, Calif., at a place called the Juice Club, which would later become Jamba Juice. I know a smidgen about smoothies, but I wanted the folks behind these shops to answer some questions, such as: Why the sudden smoothie popularity? How's the local vs. nonlocal chain dynamic working in terms of competition? And what does the future hold for smoothies?

Away we go.

My first stop was Xoom Juice. There are three Xoom Juice locations in Tucson--and the world, for that matter, at least for now. I went to the location at 6222 E. Speedway Blvd. (790-XOOM); the others are located at 3055 N. Campbell Ave. (318-XOOM) and 2739 E. Speedway (321-XOOM).

If you didn't know any better, you'd think Xoom was a big-time chain. The stores are all impeccably clean and decorated, with lots of metal, and each with a signature martini lamp on the counter. Zoom is the brainchild of Ari Shapiro, a refugee from the San Francisco clothing business, as well as a musician, athlete and an all-around nice guy. He's a hard worker, too; you'll find him behind the counter at one of his stores about six of the seven days of the week.

I walked in and asked Ari--as I would ask all the counter folk on this smoothie search--to make me the "best" smoothie the place offers. This ended up being a cool exercise, in the sense that it completely freaked everyone out.

"Can I pick two?" he pleaded. "It's like asking me to pick my favorite child."

I said no, because I am a bastard. Ari hemmed and hawed; meanwhile, he gave me a taste of a coffee-chocolate concoction he'd been dreaming up during a slow spell in the shop. He then went to help a customer, whom he'd helped the day before. Stunningly, he already knew her order, after only one previous encounter.

"I am such a Rainman when it comes to smoothies," Shapiro noted.

After making the customer's smoothie, and hemming and hawing some more, Ari finally made his selection for me: a Max Daddy ($4.25), a 24-ounce mix of soymilk, bananas, raspberries, cherries, granola, oat bran, honey, frozen yogurt and a triple protein "Xoomer" (or supplement). It's one of the 44 or so smoothies Xoom offers, in various categories (max power, protein power, berry therapy, Amazon Acai, max on the beach, squeeze box, teatonics and infusionals). I am glad to report the Max Daddy was delicious--the granola stood out, giving the drink a delightfully earthy taste, along with the requisite fruit sweetness.

I asked Ari why smoothies are so damn popular these days.

"Smoothies, in their purest sense, have always represented just that--pure, wonderful nutrition you can give your body in such a wonderful way," he said,

Shapiro, who opened the first Xoom in October 2001 (which, if you think about it, was a really unfortunate time to start a business), believes in purity, for sure; he says he only uses pure, fresh ingredients. This means no sweetened juices, or sweetened sorbet, or other "non-pure" items go in Xoom smoothies. (This means Xoom will probably never offer a pumpkin smoothie, because the pumpkin would have to come out of a can. Sigh.)

He said this is one of the things that sets him apart from his bigger-chain competitors, Keva Juice and Jamba Juice. However, Shapiro had primarily nice things to say about the other two places.

"They're all different, and they offer a dynamic array of choices," he said. "It builds customer awareness of smoothies."

As for the future, Shapiro said he'd like to open more Xoom locations (and perhaps make some money), but he has no immediate plans--at least when it comes to Tucson. But he did have some news to reveal: He is allowing a college friend of his to open a Xoom in Boulder, Colo.

He's excited about his smoothie dream expanding. And he says that business is quite good.

"It's solid, and it's getting better."

My next stop came just down the street from Zoom: Keva Juice, located at 6302 E. Broadway Blvd. (745-8423). It's one of three locations in the Tucson area; the others are located at 8250 N. Cortaro Road (572-7575) and in Oro Valley at 10785 N. Oracle Road, No. 143 (297-8122). All total, the 6-year-old chain has about 30 locations in seven Western and Midwestern states; home base is Albuquerque, N.M.

Keva Juice, like all the other smoothie joints we surveyed, is bright and impeccably clean. Yellow and green make dominate the color scheme of the Wilmot/Broadway location, as upbeat pop plays overhead. A poster explains the Keva creation myth, that these smoothie recipes came from some wonderful tropical kingdom somewhere.

This story fit in with what the pleasant young man behind the counter chose when I asked him to pick the best smoothie. After the requisite hemming and hawing, he decided on the Keva Kolada, a 24-ounce mixture of pineapple juice, coconut, banana, pineapple sherbet and non-fat yogurt for $3.72. Here, the supplements are called "gizers" (as in energizers), and I got the vita-gizer, which contains "100 percent of all recommended vitamins and minerals." The Keva Kolada was a nice beverage--it tasted just like a pina colada, without the alcohol. It's one of the island blend smoothies; there are also categories called orchard sensations, berry blends (with and without banana), Keva tempters and power blends, totaling about 25 smoothie offerings.

I later caught up with Gin Shindel. She's the managing partner of the three Tucson-area Keva Juice stores. A former controller for a lighting agency in Phoenix, of all things, she got into the smoothie game a couple years ago when her Albuquerque-based partner, a friend of her husband, bought the Keva Juice rights to Pima County.

Her new gig's been a good fit, she said. "I love it. It's been very fun, and I enjoy it."

She loves smoothies, too. Like Shapiro, she credited the healthy nature of smoothies for their popularity--and she says the media may have given the smoothie biz a boost.

"There has been so much on the news lately about obesity, health issues and cancer, that it's making us want to do good things for ourselves," Shindel said. "Then there's the Atkins diet. People are more conscious of doing a good thing for their bodies rather than just putting junk in them."

She said smoothies make for a good meal replacement for dieters. "It's an easy breakfast," she said.

As for the competition in Tucson with Xoom and Jamba Juice, Shindel said she really doesn't think of them as competitors.

"We each have our own little niche," she said. "Xoom offers a lot of soy and chai, and you have to have an acquired taste for that sort of thing. Jamba and us are very similar, but our formulas are different."

Shindel said that the energy offered by Keva and its employees--the company once stated a goal to "wow" each customer--sets them apart.

"We're trying to be on the hip side," she said. "We're steering toward the Starbucks customer. We play Top 40 hits in our stores. We want energetic, young people."

And if it's up to Shindel, you'll be seeing a lot more Keva Juice locations in the future. As Jamba Juice continues to expand, Shindel says Keva wants to keep up (although Keva is WAY behind nationally, with 30 stores compared to Jamba's hundreds).

"They're (Jamba Juice) trying to take over the world, like we are," she joked. OK, maybe she wasn't joking. She said there are local expansion plans, "but whether or not that happens, that's another thing."

On my survey of the Big Three, the biggest came last: Jamba Juice. I phoned Lindsay C. Page, the president/owner operator of the four local Jamba Juice locations. He insisted I meet him to take a tour, and we agreed to meet at the store at 2904 N. Campbell Ave. (572-8545). The others are at 7155 E. Tanque Verde Road (722-2212), Park Place Mall (514-5654) and the Tucson Mall (which is so new that the Jamba Web page didn't have a number as of press time).

I arrived before Page, so, as usual, I asked the person at the counter what the best smoothie was. She chose the Orange Dream Machine: A blend of fresh-squeezed orange juice, soymilk, orange sherbet, nonfat frozen yogurt, ice and a protein "boost" (that's what the supplements are called here). Unlike Xoom and Keva, which only offer smoothies in 24-ounce sizes, Jamba--in a relatively new move--offers 16-, 24- and 32-ounce sizes. I chose a 16-ounce Orange Dream Machine ($3.35). It, as advertised, tasted amazingly similar to an orange creamsicle. The Orange Dream Machine is in the "functional flavors" category; other categories are enlightened smoothies, berry bliss, citrus sensations, tropical getaways and creamy indulgences, in addition to whatever the seasonal offerings are, making up about 30 smoothie options.

When Page arrived, with his son (Justin Page, the district manager) and daughter-in-law (Desi, the marketing manager), we talked shop. He boasted that Jamba Juice had recently passed Smoothie King to become the No. 1 smoothie chain in the country. This means that of the millions of customers Jamba has, I am one of their relative first; I had my first smoothie, the aforementioned Pumpkin Patch (which tastes just like pumpkin pie), in 1993 at what was either the second or third store. Now, there are hundreds; Jamba came to Tucson in 1999, Page said, after buying out Zuka Juice.

Page, like Shindel and Shapiro, attribute the smoothie boom to health.

"People are getting a little more educated about healthy alternatives to fast foods," he said. "It's a big craze right now. Everybody wants to do the grab-and-go thing."

On the surface, Jamba has a lot in common with Xoom and Keva. However, while talking to Page, it became clear that Jamba is, by far, the most corporate of the Big Three. Page said Jamba is looking at adding Tucson locations, but that they needed to do demographic studies first. When we discussed new flavors, he said they're tested with research and development groups at the San Francisco headquarters. (As opposed to Xoom's R&D, which consists of Shapiro fiddling around with ideas during slow spells.) And he also was confident about how Jamba would fare amongst its competitors.

After he said the usual thing about how competition is good for everyone, Page noted: "The interesting thing about this area in Tucson is that I've seen five smoothie places come and go." Why did Jamba last while the others didn't? After talking about the importance of quality ingredients and location, he said: "The proof is in the pudding. ... Our customer service speaks for itself. We do things differently. We get to know our customers. It's more of a personal touch." He explained that Jamba trains its employees on five building blocks for each transaction, called FIBER: fun, integrity, balance, empowerment and respect."

Very corporate indeed. But very successful, too.

The Big Three done, I decided to check out one more smoothie place before ending my search. There are literally dozens of other places in Tucson that sell smoothies, but not just smoothies, from Wild Oats to a bunch of places on Fourth Avenue. However, I chose Café Joe. Located at 1800 N. Stone Ave. No. 1101 (393-8619), smoothies are fairly important to this new business, if its signs and menus are to be believed; "Sandwiches. Smoothies. Cappuccino." they read.

You can tell the difference from the Big Three right away; Café Joe has, that I could see, one blender, period. Only nine smoothies are on the menu (including a couple "protein smoothies" featuring 20 grams of whey protein), although they do offer supplements with them. I asked the woman working the counter my standard "Which is best?" query, and she chose the strawberry banana (24 ounces, $3.80). Of the four smoothies I enjoyed on my search, this concoction, featuring apple juice, strawberries, bananas and non-fat frozen yogurt, was the weakest of the three. It was still palatable, but it couldn't compare.

I later spoke to Café Joe's manager, Sunny Lewis. She, like everyone else, said the smoothie popularity stems from people becoming more health-conscious. She said that students, especially, like the whey protein smoothies, as they're perfect as on-the-go meal replacements.

"They're extremely popular," she said. "It's hot out, and it's a frozen drink. You get not only the Atkins dieters, but people like weightlifters, too. And they taste good."

Lewis says she doesn't see the Big Three as competition at all.

"I really don't see the comparison, because we're in such an isolated area," she said. "And there are 250 students who live right behind us."

Lewis, however, did note that the 20-gram whey protein smoothies set Café Joe apart, as does the fact that at Café Joe, you can get a smoothie AND a sandwich, whereas you can't at Xoom, Keva or Jamba

So there.

With that, my search was over. My questions were all answered: Smoothies are popular because they're healthy; in terms of competition, everyone says nice things about each other, but in reality, they wouldn't be heartbroken to see the others go (Jamba especially feels this way), although they'd NEVER say that publicly; and the future holds, well, probably more chain smoothie places for Tucson.

And I'd eaten enough smoothies in the course of a few short days to kill off an orchard.

But I'll be back. The Max Daddy's calling my name, except for those days when a Keva Kolada sounds especially good. And the fall, harkening the return of the Pumpkin Smash, can't get here soon enough.

As far as I am concerned, this smoothie fad can last forever.

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