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Top 400 chains: Smoothie Moves – US Food Trends

25 July 2008

Whatever form they take-as sippable snack or a meal replacement-smoothies satisfy.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2008 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.

By Christine LaFave, Associate Editor

Behold the smoothie, the Little Beverage That Could. Born in the late 1960s out of an at-home effort to find a meal solution for a guy who suffered from numerous allergies and hypoglycemia, the smoothie has been reinterpreted to become a midafternoon pick-me-up, an on-the-go breakfast or an anytime inexpensive treat.

Consumers seem to be getting the message. The U.S. smoothie market reached $2 billion in 2006, representing an 80% jump over the previous five years, according to Chicago-based market-research firm Mintel. Generation X-currently a generation of active young professionals and parents of young children-seems particularly enthusiastic. In R&I's 2008 New American Diner Study, 27.1% of Gen Xers (ages 27 to 41) said they usually opt for a smoothie when buying a snack from a restaurant. Gen Y's (age 26 or younger) smoothie-selecting population totals an also-healthy 21.8%. By comparison, 26.0% of Gen X members and 16.4% of Gen Y members said they usually choose coffee or coffee-based drinks.

This isn't to say that smoothies have been an unqualified success. All smoothie-serving operators, but especially those who built their brand around the product, face challenges in terms of consumer perceptions of smoothies' value. As with coffee drinks, smoothies represent an expense that is relatively easily eliminated for the large number of consumers watching their spending more closely than they did two years ago.

And smoothies don't have what Steve Kuhnau, co-founder and CEO of Covington, La.-based Smoothie King (and aforementioned allergies and hypoglycemia sufferer), calls "the chew factor." In considering a smoothie as a snack or a replacement for breakfast or lunch, many consumers wonder whether an item sipped through a straw will be able to satiate them until their next meal.

Still, the planned entrance into the smoothie market of such large-scale players as Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's and Starbucks, has meant that smoothies are getting more attention than ever before. McDonald's units in Wheaton, Ill., and Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., tested a strawberry-banana smoothie earlier this summer (strawberry and mango smoothies already are a staple at Australian McCafe units), and Starbucks announced at its second-quarter earnings call in April that it would debut a "protein and fruit-blended" beverage this summer as part of its new Health and Wellness beverage platform.

Fun Before Health

The goal of the smoothie experience at each operation dictates the message delivered to customers. At Maui Wowi Hawaiian Coffees & Smoothies, where the tag line is "Where it's always 72 degrees and sunny," the emphasis is on a refreshing, taste-of-the-islands treat. "We've always marketed ourselves as a fun product that is healthy, not a healthy product that is fun," says Michael Haith, CEO of the Greenwood Village, Colo.-based chain, which made its Top 400 debut this year at No. 385.

Smoothie King, on the other hand, aims to reap increasing rewards from its "healthful meal replacement" positioning. "People who are into smoothies and are into nutrition, they know the difference," says Richard Leveille, Smoothie King's executive vice president of development and real estate.

Promoting the smoothie as a functional meal replacement rather than merely a sweet midafternoon snack or an accompaniment to a sandwich conveys, from a product-development perspective, a focus on health and wellness, say Leveille and CEO Kuhnau. "We put the smoothie right on the center of the plate, where they put it off the plate," Leveille says.

Adds Kim Larson, director of brand experience at Emeryville, Calif.-based Jamba Juice: "We've seen a real significant shift in our business from a lot of our classic smoothies to either All-Fruit or Blended with a Purpose smoothies."

Tapping the Potential

Operators looking to capture consumers' growing interest in wellness are focusing on function-on the smoothie that can be tailored to individuals' goals and needs.

Atlanta-based Planet Smoothie's "A Smoothie for Every Lifestyle" campaign touts the chain's five distinct smoothie lines: Energy Smoothies, Weight Loss Smoothies, Multi Vitamin Smoothies, Cool Blended Smoothies and Protein Smoothies. In May, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Cold Stone Creamery introduced NrGize Smoothies, which can be blended with Anti-Stress, Energy, Protein or Antioxidant supplements.

The health angle is an ideal one to pursue, operators say. "I think the natural progression for us is to be a healthier and healthier alternative to fast food," says Brad Williford, director of operations for Planet Smoothie. "There's tons of opportunity and tons of potential for us."

Ice-cream chains and other operators known for indulgent treats also are testing (or further exploring) smoothies' potential. Atlanta-based MaggieMoo's Ice Cream & Treatery sells its new Zoomers Fresh Smoothies as a supersnack with the tag line "Refresh. Refuel. Re-Zoom Your Day." The Zoomers are available in six varieties, including two made with still-trendy pomegranate and two boasting the caffeine boost of coffee.

"I think it provides more of an in-between-meal snack option as well as a more-refreshing type of dessert," Jack in the Box Division Vice President for Marketing and Promotions Tammy Bailey says of the chain's new Real Fruit Smoothies. "It behooved us to open our menu up to things that [consumers] were already choosing at other sites."


Sippin' Pretty

Smoothies are being embraced by a variety of chains. Among notable smoothie debuts for 2008:

  • Steak 'n Shake: Breakfast Fruit Smoothies. Made with milk, fruit and low-fat frozen yogurt. Introduced this spring in raspberry, strawberry, banana and strawberry-banana flavors.
  • Jack in the Box: Real Fruit Smoothies. Made with a national-brand fruit juice and frozen yogurt. Available in three flavors (Strawberry Banana, Mango and Orange Sunrise).
  • Cold Stone Creamery: NrGize smoothies (previously available at units of sister Kahala Corp. concept NrGize Lifestyle Cafe, inside fitness centers and sports clubs nationwide). Made with fruit, a proprietary smoothie mix and crushed ice. Available in eight flavors (Banana Banana, Banana Strawberry, Raspberry Banana, Blueberry Banana, Pineapple Coconut Orange, Mango Strawberry, Mango Pineapple and Blueberry Pineapple). Can be blended with one of four complimentary supplements: Anti-Stress, Energy, Protein or Antioxidant.
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