Fighting a brutal battle for ultra-healthy juice

Decisions ride on how it was extracted, and how many hours ago?

New York TimesApril 20, 2013 

For a symbol of how quickly the juice business has changed in the United States, just look in the bottling room at the BluePrint factory in New York.

Not far from a conveyor belt and vats of bright nectar freshly extracted from beets, you will see a Norwalk juicer about the size of a toaster oven. Seven years ago, in a catering kitchen, Zoe Sakoutis and Erica Huss hatched BluePrint with nothing more than that humble appliance.

They still keep it around, and if it is supposed to be a good-luck charm, consider it effective. Today Sakoutis and Huss, both in their 30s, have two factories (the other is in Los Angeles), scores of employees and a multimillion-dollar partnership forged in December with the Hain Celestial Group.

You can find transparent bottles of BluePrint at Whole Foods or that sandwich shop around the corner, and the company is grossing more than $20 million a year.

Half a decade ago, most people who were found guzzling and gushing about juice – not grocery store O.J., but the dense, cold-pressed stuff that is made by pulverizing mounds of ingredients like kale, beets, ginger, spinach and kohlrabi – were either zealots from the raw-food fringe or Hollywood celebrities who believed that a “juice cleanse” would nudge their toned bodies even closer to radiant perfection.

But along the way, more people started drinking it. And for consumers and entrepreneurs, a realization took hold: Juice did not have to be part of a challenging, expensive cleanse. It could simply be lunch. Suddenly, cold-pressed juice morphed from a curiosity to an industry.

Starbucks has acquired its own line, Evolution Fresh. Danny Meyer, the force behind Shake Shack and restaurants like Union Square Cafe, has developed Creative Juice, to be sold in some Equinox gyms and stand-alone shops. In New York, big-name investors are pouring cash into local chains like Organic Avenue, which has nine stores that it wants to double within 18 months, and Juice Press, which has nine shops and plans to open another 10 by the end of 2014.The money that companies have thrown around, as Hain did in buying BluePrint, has stirred up an entrepreneurial gold rush.

Could premium juice conquer America the way premium coffee has? Venture capitalists are counting on it.

“We’re talking some serious dollar signs here,” said Danielle Charboneau, 29, who in 2010 started Juice Maids, a delivery service in Los Angeles that she merged early this year with Juice Served Here, a forthcoming chain of shops. “That’s why everyone is getting into the juice business, because in five years they want to sell the business for a hundred million bucks.”

The scramble has some of the mood that surrounded the dot-com startups in the 1990s. And while many of the prospectors huddled around this thick, algae-hued revenue stream have a wholesome epidermal glow, they can be as fiercely competitive as any Silicon Valley programming shark.

“There’s nobody else in this industry that understands the science of nutrition the way that I do,” said Marcus Antebi, a former muay Thai fighter who started Juice Press in 2010. “There’s no competition. I started because there was nobody who had the product that I’d be happy buying. Everybody had tremendous flaws.” But what all players in this new wave of juicing share (and what distinguishes their product from the sugary slurp you get at a not-from-the-garden-variety smoothie shop) is a painstaking, decades-old process called cold-pressing. Fruits and vegetables are ground into a slurry, placed in a permeable pouch, then squeezed with tremendous pressure so that nearly every viscous drop of juice bleeds out, leaving behind a pulp that is almost dry.

Some juice fanatics like to spread the notion that cold-pressing is much better than using a faster centrifugal machine because the produce is not “cooked” by heated-up rotary blades. That heat, they say, neutralizes some of the nutrients and “live enzymes” that make the juice attractive in the first place. (They want theirs as raw as possible, without ingredients that have ever been frozen or warmed up.)

But Antebi, who has tested this theory at Juice Press, said it is an “erroneous idea,” because blades can heat up during the initial pulverizing phase of cold-pressing, too. The real advantage of cold-pressing, he said, is that it pushes almost every drop of nectar out of the fiber, producing a drink dense with hue, tang and nutrients.

‘Biologically perfect’

Like many of his fellow juice tycoons, Antebi, 44, does not lack confidence. His philosophy: “The way you get people obsessed with the product is by creating the most biologically perfect product.”

The point, Antebi said, is that Juice Press cranks out its product on the same day you will probably drink it.

“My competitors are helping me if they’re no longer selling a juice made four hours ago,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘Here’s a $12 bottle of juice that might be 24 days old.’ ”

Although Antebi did not name names, he was referring to companies – most of which seek national distribution –that use a process called high pressure processing, or high pressure pascalization (HPP). When fresh juice goes through HPP, it can last on a store shelf for more than three weeks, not just a few days.

Of course, when juice is less perishable, it’s easier to sell more of it, in far-flung places. But many advocates of the just-made-now approach scoff at HPP, which they sometimes (mistakenly) refer to as “high pressure pasteurization.”

“It’s really just totally cheating,” said Alex Matthews, 36, the chief executive of Juice Served Here. “Essentially what you’re doing is just heating all the micronutrients and live enzymes that live in and are found in all fruits and vegetables.”

Companies that do opt for HPP say much of the criticism amounts to sniping and an attempt to confuse the consumer. The process “was a game-changer for us,” said Sakoutis of BluePrint, and people who do not use it often fail to understand it.

“It’s not pasteurized,” Sakoutis said. “That’s heat. This is just pressure.”

Green but not ‘disgusting’

Matthew Kenney, an acclaimed raw-food chef, has been creating dishes with fresh juices for years, and he recently began offering the elixirs at his MAKE Out snack stand in Santa Monica, Calif. As juice goes, he said he is not necessarily a fan of “something sitting in plastic” for days or weeks.

“If you’re traveling, it’s definitely a better option than drinking a soda,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s something that could compare to something that’s made to order.”

The BluePrint team has never made any secret of its desire to juice the masses, and to do so with a product that does not taste like stagnant pond water.

“Just because it’s green doesn’t mean it’s disgusting,” Sakoutis said. “That’s a big thing for a lot of people to get over.”

Danny Meyer, too, is banking on something that some of the most militant juicers never get around to mentioning: flavor.

“What I’ve learned time and time again is that if you tell someone, ‘This is good for you,’ that’s the surest way to slow down the progress of the movement,” he said the other day at an Equinox gym in New York where Creative Juice is sold. (He plans to have 10 spots by the end of the year.) “If you can appeal to people’s desire for pleasure and hedonism, that’s the best way to speed it up.”

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