The demand for smoothies is higher than ever, at least that’s what dollar signs say.
The market, valued at $27.2 billion in 2023, is expected to reach $52.5 billion in 10 years, according to research firm Fact.MR. That’s a CAGR of 6.8 percent.
Smoothie King was well-positioned to capitalize on the COVID-driven health and wellness craze. In 2019 the company completed a years-long menu overhaul that saw it swap out nearly every ingredient with better-for-you options.
Coming out of the pandemic in 2021, same-store sales were up 16.5 percent. Chief marketing officer Marianne Radley says the legacy smoothie chain has managed to maintain its momentum since, but it isn’t resting on its laurels. As the category matures and the competition from smaller players intensifies, Smoothie King ramped up innovation on multiple fronts.
It recently embarked on its largest menu launch. The company this spring debuted a new smoothie bowl platform, serving up menu items with a spoon instead of a straw for the first time in its 50-year history. It also opened its first drive-thru-only prototype. The design stands at 800 square feet and features a traditional drive-thru lane on one side of the building, with a lane dedicated to online ordering and third-party delivery on the other.
Smoothie King last year opened 77 new stores and grew its footprint to more than 1,400 units. It also signed franchise and area development agreements to add over 160 stores to new and existing markets. It plans to open at least 100 new locations this year, and Radley says the drive-thru-only design will help fuel that ongoing national expansion.
“We’re seeing a lot of success with that model,” she says. “It’s all about providing ease of access for our guests. We’re spending a lot of time making sure that our models are really optimizing the off-premises business and optimizing digital sales.”
Consumer demand for convenience also is shaping prototype innovation at Tropical Smoothie Cafe. The company last year opened its first double drive-thru location. Like Smoothie King’s latest model, the design includes a designated lane for delivery and digital orders, which now account for more than a third of the brand’s total sales.
Digital is a top priority for Tropical Smoothie Cafe, which has more than 1,200 locations across 44 states. It recently invested in upgraded app technology, enhanced mobile ordering capabilities, and a new loyalty program to elevate its digital experience.
Chief marketing officer Deborah von Kutzleben says the company is working with franchisees to develop more double drive-thrus, and it’s exploring additional prototypes that will cater to the growing strength across digital channels.
“How can we get people their smoothies as quickly and as seamlessly as possible? That’s always at the forefront of our minds,” she says. “At first blush, customers might not think a smoothie would be a great experience from a delivery perspective, but we really stand by how it holds up to time.”
Tropical Smoothie Cafe opened 158 stores last year, the highest number of new cafe openings for the brand in a single year. It also achieved its 11th consecutive year of same-store sales growth. While much of that growth can be attributed to the namesake beverage’s health halo, the company has made a point to balance health with indulgence. From functional smoothies to dessert-inspired blends that satisfy sweet cravings, a steady stream of LTOs has helped the brand stay relevant with a broad base of customers.
Despite its name, von Kutzleben says the company doesn’t see itself competing squarely in the smoothie space. It also offers a robust food menu centered around flatbreads, wraps, sandwiches, and salads.
“We know our guests are cross-shopping a lot of more mainstream [quick-service] and fast-casual brands, so we sort of sit in between all of them,” she says.
An all-day breakfast menu is a key differentiator. Earlier this year the company bolstered its breakfast menu with new morning-centric flatbreads and smoothies, which helped drive an increase in traffic for the daypart.
Main Squeeze Juice Co. also is aiming to bolster its breakfast business. Around 70 percent of the brand’s revenue comes from juices and smoothies, and much of that business is lunch driven.
“Our challenge is being able to educate that we have something other than juices and smoothies,” says chief operating officer Julie Canseco. “That means maximizing our lunch by sampling things out, so people are primed to come back for breakfast later. We’re really focused on that 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. window—think overnight chia seed pudding and different types of breakfast wraps. We’re also looking at making bars out of our juice pulp to really make a more robust breakfast daypart program.”
Main Squeeze is a newer player in the smoothie space. It opened its first store in New Orleans in 2017. Since then, it has expanded to 28 units throughout the South, with around 60 locations currently in development. The company’s footprint almost doubled this spring when it acquired Tennessee-based I Love Juice Bar, a 23-unit concept offering a similar selection of juices, bowls, and smoothies.
Canseco says the current environment, marked by inflation and economic uncertainty, makes growing through acquisitions a better option. The company is continuing to explore opportunities to purchase similar concepts and expand into markets where it can convert existing stores into Main Squeeze locations.
“Mom and pop juice bars have really struggled lately because the costs have been so out of whack. They don’t have buying power and they don’t have any leverage. It’s just a lot harder to make a fresh product,” she says. “Second-generation sites are everywhere, and they’re already built for this.”
The deal with I Love Juice Bar was struck with Conscious Growth Capital, an investment firm that first partnered with Main Squeeze last summer to fast-track franchise sales and real estate development to scale nationally. Following the investment, Main Squeeze inked a 30-unit development deal with an operator in Arizona and opened new locations in Texas and Missouri.
Canseco says faster and more accurate service will help improve unit-level performance and position the brand for long-term success.
“The problem is that when you’re making products as fresh as we are, that could mean three to five minutes for a ticket,” she says. “But we know the faster we can make our times, the more frequently people will visit us.”