Andrew Pudalov didn’t have any experience in the restaurant industry when he left his Wall Street career to pursue a passion for healthy living. He only had his financial acumen and a vision of serving up wholesome and convenient meals in a bowl. 

The idea was to combine the taste and texture of smoothies with the crunch of granola, topped with honey, fresh fruit, and other nutritious fixings. It’s a familiar concept today and one that’s surging in popularity as more consumers seek out better-for-you alternatives to standard fast-casual fare. That wasn’t the case when he opened the first Rush Bowls location nearly two decades ago. 

“We were the pioneers,” Pudalov says. “A lot of our time early on was spent on education. People weren’t familiar with the format at first, but now, more people are aware of bowls, and more people are getting into the space.”

Pudalov created a separate wholesale business after opening his first store in Colorado, partnering with Whole Foods to distribute frozen bowls across the country. That venture came to an end in 2014 when his co-packer closed. By then, he was thinking about franchising, and the wholesale business had given him the crash course in national distribution he needed to make that happen. 

Rush Bowls has expanded to more than 40 units across nearly two dozen states since it started franchising in 2015. It plans to open 20-25 new stores in both new and existing markets this year. Competition in the segment has only accelerated alongside acai’s rise to fame as a celebrated superfood, but Pudalov says his brand maintains a competitive edge by focusing on what it does best. 

“We don’t do a lot of esoteric items,” he says. “We’re not distracted by things like salads or sandwiches. We’re focused on premium bowls and smoothies, and we have a lot of diversity within that narrow subset.”

Playa Bowls also is ramping up its nationwide expansion. The fast-casual concept emerged in 2014 as the brainchild of wave riders Robert Giuliani and Abby Taylor, who drew inspiration from the acai bowls they encountered on surfing expeditions to Central America. What started with a blender and a folding table on a boardwalk in Jersey is now a 175-unit chain operating in 20 states. 

“We’re heavily populated on the East Coast in beach towns and vacation spots. That’s the core of where we started,” says CEO Dan Harmon. “Now, we’ve recognized that we do really well in airports, we do really well in colleges, and we do really well in the suburbs, so our ability to expand and go into new markets and areas feels really strong.” 

Harmon took the helm at Playa Bowls this spring after a five-year stint at Smoothie King, where he was president and chief operating officer. Before that, he spent more than three decades growing his passion for franchising and restaurant operations at Papa Murphy’s, Potbelly, and McDonald’s. Part of what drew him to Playa Bowls was its approach to the franchisor-franchisee relationship, which is different from what he’s experienced in the past. 

The company works with a diverse group of operators, from Gen Z entrepreneurs launching their first venture to surfers with seed money and retired Wall Street execs.

“The people that we’re attracting love the brand,” Harmon says. “They’re not just trying to open a business. They’re really thinking about how to grow the store pipeline.” 

Playa Bowls opened 37 new stores and entered nine new markets in 2022. It also signed 77 development agreements in seven new territories. It plans to open at least 60 locations this year. Harmon sees that number reaching triple digits “pretty soon.”

He says the competitive landscape for healthy bowl concepts is “getting aggressive,” but a refusal to cut corners helps the brand stand out in an increasingly crowded category. As an example, Playa Bowls sources acai berries from Brazil to formulate its proprietary blend, which contains around 50 percent more pulp than the typical acai product.

“We have a lot of conversations around the quality of our ingredients,” Harmon says. “There is no compromise. We need our vendor partners to deliver on that, and we’re not going to settle for something that doesn’t meet our standards.”

Playa Bowls also offers coconut bowls, pitaya bowls, mango bowls, smoothies, juices, specialty coffees, and more. Harmon believes opportunities exist to optimize the menu as the brand continues growing its footprint. 

“Making the menu easier to navigate for customers could also take out some of the costs for franchisees,” he says. “We have good unit economics, but I think we make it even better.”

Menu innovation has been a key growth driver for Vitality Bowls. The “superfood cafe” concept specializes in acai bowls but is finding success with a savory menu that features grain bowls, wraps, and other healthy bites. More recent additions include a line of frozen acai bowls and a proprietary line of bottled beverages, which it plans to roll out nationwide this year. Founder and president Tara Gilad launched the company in 2011 after discovering her daughter’s severe food allergies, so all of the products are prepared in kitchens that are designed to avoid cross-contamination. 

“We launched the savory menu during the pandemic, which was challenging, but also exciting, because the numbers proved to be very successful,” Gilad says. 

On the heels of that sales momentum, Vitality Bowls is ramping up its restaurant growth plans. Last year it opened nine new locations and signed 20 development agreements. It’s on track to ink 30 deals this year. The brand operates in 19 states and has more than 120 locations either open or in the construction stage. 

Last year marked a significant milestone for Vitality Bowls. Gilad says it entered a new phase of growth with its first five-unit development agreement. The deal was struck with an operator in Arizona. 

“When we first started, we wanted to work with hands-on owner-operators who could bring the brand into their community and prove the concept could be successful, then potentially grow into a second location,” she says. “Now, we’re able to scale and we’re open to multi-unit franchisees. We’re more focused on operations, increasing our corporate team, and putting together those checklists and training materials for those larger franchisees.”

A focus on second-generation sites has helped the company lower the cost of entry for franchisees, enabling some existing partners to become multi-unit operators for the first time. The company also has introduced architectural changes that reduce the cost of new builds, enabling both new and existing partners to ramp up the pace of new openings. 

“Our goal is to help each franchisee become a multi-unit franchisee,” Gilad says. “We also want to keep entering new states and new markets that we’re not currently in.”

The category has grown at a faster pace coming out of the pandemic. Along with the heightened interest in functional foods, healthy bowl concepts typically carry a lower upfront investment. They tend to operate with limited square footage, limited labor needs, and limited equipment. 

“By being really efficient, we’ve been able to withstand and succeed during COVID,” Pudalov says. 

Consumer Trends, Emerging Concepts, Fast Casual, Menu Innovations, Story, Playa Bowls, Rush Bowls, Vitality Bowls