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Afruitful market

Afruitful market

“I see smoothies where the specialty coffee industry was just 10 years ago,” says Sheri Miksa, the former chief operating officer of Seattle’s Best Coffee. Miksa now heads up the 118-unit Robeks’ chain, which serves made-to-order smoothies in 15 states and the District of Columbia.

Citing a recent report by Mintel International Group Ltd., a London-based consumer and market research firm, Miksa says Americans are buying about $2 billion worth of puréed fruit drinks a year and are expected to buy 10 percent more than that next year.

“We are at an exciting time,” she says of the burgeoning smoothie world.

“Every half-dozen years or so, chain restaurants respond to demands from public health advocates and others to add more healthful items to their menus. Traditionally those items sell badly and are soon dropped, but this time groups ranging from aging baby boomers to working mothers to high school and college students are sipping and slurping their way through satisfying drinks that are targeted as being good for them. If they can buy those options quickly and drink them with one hand while driving a car, all the better.

But, of course, some smoothie buyers just want a tasty pick-me-up, and rich, indulgent frozen beverages are selling well, too, such as Godiva Chocolatier’s “Chocolixir” line, which was just expanded with dark chocolate raspberry and white chocolate raspberry flavors.

“It’s for someone who really wants to enjoy that chocolate decadence,” says Erica Lapidus, Godiva’s head of public relations and promotion, noting that the $4.75 drinks have succeeded at bringing in younger and more frequent customers.

On the lighter side, Robeks recently launched a line of “naturallylight” smoothies with one third fewer calories, on average, and no artificial sweeteners. The new smoothies eliminate the frozen yogurt and sherbet in Robeks’ other beverages, replacing them with more fruit and fruit juice along with a fiber and protein additive.

“They are really in response to what our guests are asking for,” Miksa says, pointing to a desire both for fewer calories—and fewer carbohydrates and sugar—but also for food that does not have sugar substitutes and seems natural.

Even when customers want sugar and sugar substitutes in their smoothies, the more natural they seem the better: Barbara Valentino, director of marketing and communications for Tropical Smoothie Café, a 10-year-old chain based in Destin, Fla., with 245 units in 31 states, says the chain’s smoothies contain either turbinado sugar or, in the case of their “Splendid Smoothies,” a sugar substitute that’s marketed as “natural.”

The convenience of smoothies isn’t lost on patrons of higher end restaurants, either.

“People who want to eat their breakfast on the go… They order it at the bar on the way out instead of grabbing, like, a yogurt,” says Kristine Subido, chef of Wave at the W Chicago Lakeshore hotel, noting that they sell them in clear plastic cups there.

Her most popular smoothie is the “Peacharific,” made with peaches, banana, vanilla yogurt and orange juice, which is $6 for eight ounces.

Although most of her smoothies are bought during breakfast, they sell reasonably well all the way until noon, and then kids like to get them for afternoon pick-me-ups.

“I know a lot of parents order them for their children,” she adds.

Efrem Cutler, corporate executive chef and vice president of food production for UFood—a Massachusetts-based chain formerly known as KnowFat Lifestyle Grill—also sees kids ordering his fruit-based “Smuuthies” as afternoon snacks, often with the chain’s air-fries, while active college students and others will drink protein-enriched “Prolatta” drinks before or after working out. The Prolattas are “a little bit fluffier” in texture, owing to the added protein that’s beaten into them, he says.

Jim Baskett, vice president of business development for Emerald City Smoothie, a 48-unit chain based in Seattle, says he also sees a demand for functional foods from his customers and has noticed police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians using his protein-enriched smoothies as meal replacements.

James Boyce of Studio in Laguna Beach, Calif., has jumped on the antioxidant trend with his gojiberry-açaí smoothie. Both goji and açaí are fruits that are praised for their high antioxidant content.

“Açaí is sort of gritty,” Boyce says, noting that the purée he buys is about 95 percent pit and 5 percent flesh. “So I thought we’d smooth it out by adding the chewy gojis.”

He describes the flavor of açaí as being similar to boysenberry. Gojis are tart, he says, “almost between a cranberry and a raspberry.” He purées them with a banana, apple juice, soy milk and ice.

Boyce also makes seasonal smoothies, so now he is making one of peach and other stone fruit. “Sometimes we’ll throw a cherry in there,” he says.

Starbucks also jumped on the antioxidant bandwagon with the recent release of its Blueberries & Crème Frappuccino.

For David Guas, executive pastry chef of Acadiana, Ceiba, DC Coast and TenPenh restaurants in Washington, D.C., the idea of smoothies didn’t come from health or indulgence, or even convenience, but as a way to deliver an intense berry flavor without much fuss.

He makes blueberry shooters by mixing blueberries with limoncello, light corn syrup and salt, macerating them at room temperature for an hour and then refrigerating the mixture. To serve he pours it all into a blender, adds ice cream and blends it until smooth, then puts it in a 1.5- to 2-ounce shot glass and serves it on the side of fruit desserts.

“Customers think it’s fun and cute,” he says, noting that he will add a shot of bourbon to peach smoothies for a more adult drink.

Sometime he will add egg white powder and froth it a bit to make it reminiscent of an Orange Julius.

“There’s something about a blended drink, for whatever reason, whether it’s a daiquiri, a shake, or a smoothie, that touches the child in people,” he says. “There’s some kind of recognition and comfort level with it.”

But some studies have indicated that when people drink liquids, they don’t feel as full as when they eat solid food. That, some scientists have suggested, could lead to overeating.

Jamba Juice is launching a “chunky smoothie” to address two issues, says Paul Coletta, senior vice president of marketing and brand development: the fact that more smoothies are being used as meal replacements, and the trend in smoothies toward more texture and, as a result, satiety.

“We started playing in the lab with bringing [textured] ingredients into the smoothie,” he says.

So drinks with fruit and granola pulsed into it are being tested in Jamba’s home market, the San Francisco Bay area, and plans are under way to roll it out systemwide to its 577 units in 2008.

“We are looking at it to be a significant driver of our comp store sales,” he adds, noting that the new line of smoothies will be available all day but are being positioned as breakfast items.

Coletta adds that Jamba Juice already does 18 percent of its business at breakfast, compared with 11 percent on average in the quick-service segment.

The chain also launched this month a smoothie category called Jamba “Functionals,” which focuses on specific health issues that its customers are looking to address. Coletta said the company’s research found that its customers’ top demand in food was taste—but functionality was No. 2.

So the new line includes a Nike Protein Berry Workout Smoothie, developed with Jamba Juice’s shoe-producing marketing allies, with 19 grams of protein in a 24-ounce serving.

The Heart Defender includes a “Happy Heart Boost,” one of many supplements available at this and other smoothie chains. This particular “boost” is made with a heart-healthy plant sterol.

The other three new items are the Açaí “Super-Antioxidant,” the Cold Buster and, for people looking to lose weight, the Fit and Fruitful.

Jamba Juice is also adding a new “boost” to its offerings—the Green Caffeine, which is derived from green tea and engineered to be high in antioxidants and caffeine, but nearly neutral in color and flavor.

Smoothies also can fit into a nonsmoothie restaurant’s brand positioning, such as at Pico’s Mex-Mex in Houston, where avocado, yogurt, agave syrup, ground almonds, vanilla and nutmeg are blended into a smoothie. “The yogurt gives it a very nice texture, and so do the almonds,” says restaurant owner Arnaldo Richards.

But he admits that more people order daiquiris.

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