Village Juice & Kitchen was born out of an RV at a music festival nearly a decade ago. After seeing the positive feedback from the juices Lonnie Atkinson was preparing for her friends and fellow campers, her husband, Nathan Atkinson, and his former college roommate, Clyde “CP” Harris, decided to invest in some equipment and bring her knack for mixing healthy recipes to the masses.
The co-founders purchased their first juicer in 2014. They acquired some commercial kitchen space and started selling an array of cold-pressed juices and almond milks at their local farmers market in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The business quickly gained traction from there.
“It went from a farmers market to a food truck to a brick-and-mortar location within two years,” says Harris, who left his career in commercial real estate to become the company’s director of finance six years ago. “There wasn’t anything like it in the middle of North Carolina, which is all about barbecue, fried chicken, and biscuits and gravy… The community embraced it even more than we anticipated.”
Founders: Lonnie Atkinson, Nathan Atkinson, and Clyde “CP” Harris
Headquarters: Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Year Started: 2015
Annual Sales: $4.5 million
Total Units: 9
Franchised Units: 2
Licensed Units: 5
Village Juice opened its first brick-and-mortar location in Winston-Salem in 2016 and gradually expanded the menu beyond smoothies and juices. It evolved to encompass a wide variety of health-forward offerings, like salad bowls, sandwiches, wraps, soups, toasts, and breakfast items, plus a line of plant-based desserts called Billy Cakes.
“I like to say that it’s food you can trust,” Harris says. “It’s all minimally processed. We make as much of it from scratch as possible, and we made it so that we can meet just about any dining preference. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, we’ve got you covered. If you’re paleo, gluten-free, or dairy-free, we’ve got options for you.”
Village Juice built a corporate kitchen, commissary, and training facility in Winston-Salem in 2018. That same year, it opened two licensed locations at Wake Forest and Elon University. Harris says the brand’s emphasis on healthy, plant-forward offerings and commitment to accommodating a range of dietary restrictions make it a natural fit for college campuses, where many students aim to reduce their meat intake and half of them follow a special diet or avoid at least one food allergen.
With the brick-and-mortar restaurant experiencing steady growth, the corporate kitchen up and running, and more opportunities for college outlets on the horizon, Village Juice was setting itself up for rapid growth when the pandemic hit and put many of its plans on hold.
“We had a lot of buzz in our ear about demand for the concept, then 2020 came and we had to hit the brakes for two years,” Harris says. “It was all about staying in business, just like every other brand. We had just built this whole thing to scale, and all of the sudden, we couldn’t scale. That was challenging, but we made it through it.”
Over the past five years, the footprint has grown to include two more licensed units at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of South Carolina, one company-owned location inside of a hospital, and two franchised stores in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Harrisonburg, Virginia. Future growth will be driven largely by more licensed units in nontraditional venues like colleges and healthcare facilities, thanks to a deal it inked with Aramark three years ago.
Village Juice first got on the foodservice company’s radar when it opened the outlets at Wake Forest and Elon, both of which are Aramark schools. That relationship eventually led to a national licensing agreement in 2020. Siler Southerland, vice president of business development, says the partnership is “just starting to pick up steam.”
“We’ve got that structure built into the Aramark system to where we can grow within them, use their marketing efforts in combination with ours, and attack it from two angles,” says Southerland, who joined Village Juice in 2018. “It’s exciting to have this in place at the national level, because it makes the intimate nature of dealing with the schools so much easier… Now we’re seeing where else this can take us. It’s opening up things like airports, stadiums, and everything else in that world.”
Village Juice is gearing up to open a new location at High Point University in North Carolina and has several additional colleges in the pipeline. The company also is continuing to target the healthcare vertical and recently signed an agreement with UNC Health. Three additional licensed units are slated to open by the end of the year. That will push the total footprint into the double digits. Another six to 12 licensed locations are expected to open in 2024.
The two franchised restaurants are owned by single-unit operators that came on board early in Village Juice’s history. Eventually, the company wants to accelerate growth by bringing in multi-unit franchisees, but Harris says it needs to build more corporate stores before embarking on that journey.
“It’s expensive and risky to build a restaurant, so what we’re doing right now is raising capital to grow the business,” he says. “With that capital in hand, we don’t have to go out and get a bunch of debt. We don’t have to go out and sign a bunch of personal guarantees. We can build more stores, beef up our whole team, and make sure that we’re growing responsibly.”
The plan is to add three to five corporate locations next year, including a restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina, that’s slated to open in Q1, but that number could grow if Village Juice exceeds its funding goal. Those stores will go a long way toward building the infrastructure needed to support more aggressive franchise growth down the line.
“We’re not in a place to push into the franchising world yet, but that would be a different story if we had six or eight corporate stores,” Harris says. “That’s what our goal is. We figured out this licensing thing. Now, let’s identify a couple of strong markets, penetrate those markets with multiple locations so we can hit economies of scale, and then with that validation, really go after franchising.”