Smoothie bars are sneaking into small sites that other caterers cannot reach. And they are packinga healthy punch to boot. Tessa Fox reports
They promise to cure a hangover and flush toxins from your body they'll provide your daily vitamin requirements in a few convenient glugs and a shot of wheatgrass or a dash of a superfood such as echinacea, ginseng or gingko will have you fighting colds and digesting efficiently, improve your brain performance, your concentration and your stamina, lift depression and stop your hair going grey. Smoothies, it seems, can do no wrong.
The health claims are mirrored by impressive sales results. Sales of packaged crushed-fruit drinks doubled year on year between 2001 and 2006 to create a UK market now valued at £134m. British consumers drank a staggering 34 million litres in 2006 - up from just 6.3 million in 2001 - and if market analyst Mintel's figures prove correct, that figure will treble to about 100 million litres by 2011.
Although Mintel's statistics refer to retail sales of bottled smoothies rather than made-to-order drinks, the figures reflect a growing overall popularity. This popularity is in no small part thanks to the high-profile campaign run by Innocent, says Anthony Round, franchise development manager at Irish smoothie bar operator Zumo. "First, people started to buy pasteurised smoothies from the supermarket rather than a Coke. Now, that means they're more likely to go into a smoothie bar. So we're seeing the benefit."
Clever marketing, combined with the Department of Health's determined "five a day" campaign, makes for great growth potential for smoothie bars, says Brooke Ruscuklic, international business and marketing manager at leading Australian brand Boost Juice Bars. She adds: "We've seen a gradual shift in attitudes over the past few years. People are looking for healthier alternatives and now expect nutritious options within the fast-food category."
Boost is clearly hoping to meet those needs via its nine UK bars, but Richard O'Sullivan, who brought the brand to the UK following the sale of his Millie's Cookies chain in 2003, is not expecting a quick return. "It took me 20 years to build 100 successful Millies stores," he says.
Round is similarly cautious. "It's taken six years to build Zumo to this size," he says. (It claims to be Europe's largest operator, with 48 outlets in Ireland and 25 in the UK, as well as bars throughout continental Europe.) "It took us 18 months to open our first location, because there was no proven track record. People didn't see how it would work."
Round does, however, admit to a target of 10 new Zumo stores a year in the UK, and others have big plans, too. Chris Fung, managing director at Crussh, one of the earliest entrants to the UK market 10 years ago, hopes to have 30 Crussh stores by the end of March 2009 and ultimately wants to take the chain overseas and Lovejuice, where spirits are high following their recent opening in Heathrow's Terminal 5 and acquisition of rival operator Barefruit Juice, has its sights set on building a 50-strong chain.
The plans might suggest frenetic opening is in the offing, but all are quick to stress the importance of getting the location right. The favoured protected environments such as airports, railway stations and shopping or leisure centres are fought over fiercely.
"You need to be where the people are," says Lovejuice founder, John Heseltine. "Smoothies are not high-margin products. It's not like coffee. Costs are high - labour, rent, raw materials - and you can't cut corners or you fail."
Lovejuice bars tend to average 300sq ft. The site at Heathrow's T5 is a prime example of a great location, says Heseltine: "We are right by check-in. At Stansted, [where Lovejuice opened its original outlet in 2003] 26 million people a year pass our store, and at T5 numbers will be similar. To convert just half a percent of that volume means great business."
And operators moving into shopping centres are equally optimistic: the eighth Boost Juice Bar opens about now at Sheffield's Meadowhall shopping centre, and a ninth will compete with Lovejuice at the new Westfield shopping centre in London's White City. Crussh, meanwhile, has been tempted to make its first move away from London when it opens at Bristol's new Cabot Circus centre this autumn.
The North of England has seen particularly energetic development, with operators attracted, according to Round, by the higher disposable income triggered by generally lower house prices. Much of Zumo's expansion is directed north, with bars due to open in Middlesbrough, Runcorn and Manchester in the next three months. It's the point of focus for Lovejuice, too, following the company's recent acquisition of Northwich-based Barefruit Juice.
This acquisition seems to mark the beginnings of consolidation in this still-young market. Round says he is regularly offered sites by small operators who have found that it's one thing to identify a trend, but quite another to turn that into a successful business. There's starting to be a graveyard. "The concept is simple it's the detail that's challenging," says Fung. "Take supply. If you have a 10kg bag of coffee, that will last you all day, but a 10kg bag of carrots is only going to make a few juices."
The general consensus among operators is that there is room for three or four big brands with a smattering of independents.
Whoever stays the course, it's unlikely they will move far from the original concept of the smoothie as a healthy, convenient and tasty product - or, as O'Sullivan puts it, a dose of "wellbeing in a cup". Shane Bilsborough, nutritionist at Boost Juice Bars in Australia, argues the case: "Smoothies are made from fruit, juice, and yogurt. Collectively, this is a much healthier alternative than junk food, soft drinks or fast food."
Balance is the key, of course. Bilsborough continues: "Drinking the juices is health-giving, but we don't suggest people rely on them for all of their ‘five a day'."
Fung believes his Crussh model, with its healthy food offer of salads, wraps, porridge and so on, provides the balance. "Technically, you might get two or three portions of fruit in a smoothie, but the recommendation is also based on fibre intake, which you don't get in a drink. Hence our food offer," he explains.
Functional smoothies provide another powerful marketing angle and are a small but growing sector. Superfood "boosters", such as açai (the energy-giving Brazilian berry, super-rich in essential fatty acids, antioxidants and vitamins), acerola (with 20 times the vitamin C content of an orange, weight for weight) and guarana (delays sleep and is great for hangovers) are commonly listed alongside shots of wheatgrass (purifies the blood, neutralises toxins, improves digestion) and the more standard yogurt-based smoothies. Bilsborough is skeptical about the health properties, arguing that the evidence for some of the claims can be thin. And all operators agree that the best-selling smoothies remain the more familiar flavours with no wacky additions.
It all points to, if not an infant market, then perhaps a junior one. There are still clearly opportunities for the good operator. Watch this space.
Smoothies on wheels
Bottled smoothie giant Innocent is hoping to increase sales in the catering sector with the launch of a smoothie trolley.
The grass-covered trolleys are a fun version of the traditional tea trolleys that once clattered round offices, says Ed Barnard at Innocent. "The trolleys sell Innocent smoothies, fresh fruit and healthy snacks and do the rounds at the time people want a snack - breakfast, mid-morning and mid-afternoon - and they don't have to move from their desk."
Innocent has worked closely with Compass to develop the concept and has already put the trolleys into about 50 Eurest and Restaurant Associates sites. There are trials under way in universities also, with some hospitals to follow. The trolley could boost an already significant area of business for Innocent, which in 2007 boasted sales of about three million bottles of smoothies (500,000 litres) through catering outlets.
How smoothies can complement coffee
Trade supplier Metropolitan Coffee has launched a range of prepacked smoothie purées.
"This product is very accessible," says managing director Angus McKenzie, and he urges caterers to think added-value. "Bring your smoothie-maker front of house so customers can see their smoothie being made. Let them choose additional ingredients. And when it comes to presentation, give it the same attention you would a cocktail." He suggests dressing the drink with mint leaves, fresh fruit chunks, mango slices, ginger, pomegranate seeds or lemon grass, depending on the flavour.
Six flavours of 40% crushed fruit purée - mango, peach, strawberry and banana, fruits of the forest, and exotica - are available in one-litre ambient cartons. The smoothies cost 45p per portion and will sell for between £1.75 and £2.50.
Super smoothie selection
Summer berry smoothie
Rick Stein demonstrated this smoothie on his BBC TV programme Fresh Food.
Ingredients (Serves 2-4)
450g mixed summer berries
2 oranges, juice only
1/4 watermelon, flesh only
2.5cm piece ginger, grated
Crushed ice to serve
In a blender, mix the summer berries with the orange juice. Add the watermelon flesh and grated ginger. Process again. Pour into long glasses half-filled with crushed ice and serve.
• As a variation, try using mango flesh or bananas.
Chef Michael Caines demonstrated this smoothie on Countryfile Summer Diaries on BBC2. Blueberries are high in antioxidants and are thought to reduce cholesterol.
Ingredients (Serves one)
175ml apple juice
120ml natural yogurt
1 banana, peeled and roughly chopped
170g blueberries, defrosted if frozen
Place all the ingredients in a blender and blend till smooth. Pour into a glass to serve.
Cantaloupe and peach smoothie
Melon is a great rehydrator, so this drink would work on a summer menu. This recipe is from the Innocent Smoothie Recipe Book.
Ingredients (Serves two)
1/2 apple (or 25ml apple juice)
1/4 Cantaloupe melon, in chunks
2 peaches, chopped, stones removed
Juice of 1 orange
1/2 banana, chopped
Wedge of lemon
Cut the apple into wedges and put through a juicer. Pour into the blender and add the melon, peach and banana chunks and the orange juice. Whizz. Stir in a squeeze of lemon juice and serve.