The rise of health-conscious eating has been a boon to the produce industry as Americans seek more fresh and healthy ingredients in their meals.
But while vegetables are a natural fit in limited service—whether as toppings on a sandwich, burger, or pizza or as a side dish or salad—fruits are less so. The sweet and tart flavor profile of most fruits has generally confined them to either the breakfast menu (think parfaits) or as a standalone side item (apple slices, anyone?).
But a new quick-serve segment has emerged as a starring vehicle for fruit: the juice-smoothie-bowl category.
Juice brands started to spring up 20 years ago as the health craze took off and Americans sought more convenient ways to consume beneficial nutrients. The movement thrived on the cold-pressing technique to juicing, which eliminates the juice’s exposure to heat and air, allowing it to retain nutrients.
Today, alongside stalwarts like Jamba Juice and Juice It Up! that have been around since the ’90s, there are growing juice-bar concepts all over the U.S., from Main Squeeze Juice in New Orleans to Project Juice in San Francisco, and from Juice Press in New York to Clean Juice in Charlotte, North Carolina. The juice-and-smoothie-bar category was a $2 billion industry in 2017, according to market research firm IBISWorld.
Southern California–based Juice It Up! is one of the original juice brands, having launched in 1995 with juices, smoothies, and fruit bowls. The brand’s research and development scientist Noah Burgess says the secret to menu innovation is to balance acid and sugar (or sour and sweet) to create something both tasty and healthy. “The key to developing great dishes is looking past what’s near you and taking the time to learn from other cultures around the world,” he says. “We’re constantly doing our due diligence regarding research and development, and we look everywhere to find new trends and fruits.” The menu includes juices like the Awakener with orange, carrot, and ginger; the Optimizer with beet, carrot, celery, cucumber, pineapple, and red grapes; and the Invigorator with orange, spinach, kale, and pineapple.
Smoothies are a natural complement to juices, simply blending fruits with creamier elements like yogurt for a more substantive treat. Tropical Smoothie Cafe is one of the largest brands committed to smoothies, as the franchise now has more than 600 locations across the country (along with smoothies, it also has a robust food menu).
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Lake Dawson, Tropical Smoothie’s product development and innovation brand chef, says the restaurants have more than 20 fresh fruits and vegetables on their menu at any given time. But it’s not just standard produce that finds its way into the brand’s smoothies; he says he’s been experimenting with ingredients like cactus and beets.
Many of the leading juice and smoothie quick serves also feature fruit bowls, particularly açai and pitaya bowls. Pitaya is another name for dragon fruit and is the fruit of several cactus species, while açai is a South American berry that is rich in antioxidants, fiber, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids. When blended, these fruits serve as tasty bases for bowls that can include granola, sauces, and other fruits.
“Açai has a rich and complex flavor, somewhere between a blueberry and chocolate,” says Andrew Pudalov, founder and CEO of Boulder, Colorado–based Rush Bowls. “Its flavor is not overpowering; rather, it enhances the other ingredients and flavors combined with it, making it the perfect addition for a bowl.”
New Jersey–based Playa Bowls was founded by surfers Rob Giuliani and Abby Taylor, who traveled the world and discovered that many cultures served a version of açai or pitaya bowls. Along with those two fruit-based bowls, Playa Bowls also offers bowls using frozen coconut, chia pudding, or banana as the base.
Gary Moss, vice president of business development and operations, says Playa Bowls pairs familiar fruits like strawberries, bananas, blueberries, and mango with the unfamiliar, like açai and pitaya. “The combination of traditional and nontraditional fruits is a refreshing, healthier alternative to more familiar meal choices,” he says.
Moss says many of Playa’s bowls use coconut milk, which provides a sweetness to the dish and changes the consistency. Toppings like chia seeds, coconut flakes, and granola add a texture and crunch, he adds, and drizzles like Nutella or honey provide additional sweetness.
Vitality Bowls, a San Ramon, California–based “superfood cafe,” was founded by Roy and Tara Gilad when they discovered that their daughter had severe food allergies. Uriah Blum, vice president of operations, says smoothie bowls are the “perfect platform” for uncommon superfoods like açai, moringa, acerola, and aronia.
“We have South American Graviola (soursop), which tastes like pineapple-watermelon-strawberry and is a delicious base for our bowls and smoothies,” he says. “One of our new smoothies, the Matcha Madness, combines matcha—an earthy green tea—with salty almond butter and sweet dates. Maca is a Peruvian root that tastes like savory butterscotch, which we combine with fresh-juiced apples and blueberries in our Maca Me [smoothie].”
Also in Southern California is SoBol, which chef Jason Mazzarone founded in 2012 and dishes customizable açai and pitaya bowls and smoothies. Guests select from among standard toppings—banana, strawberry, blueberry, coconut, and honey—as well as specialty toppings like mango, kiwi, almond butter, cookie butter, and chia seeds. Mazzarone says the trickiest thing about operating a concept designed around fresh fruits is the storage situation.
“Fruit prices fluctuate every day, and therefore you must understand how to preserve these ingredients,” he says. “At SoBol, we overcome the challenge of food waste by freezing any extra ingredients we have and using them for smoothies the next day.”