Chicago chef Jared Van Camp is perhaps best known for his work with charcuterie. You could say he wears his penchant for pork on his sleeve, with a vintage-looking English butcher’s diagram of pig parts proudly tattooed on his left forearm.
Not the type of guy you’d expect to see pushing pints of liquefied kale, carrot and collard greens. “I’m not a vegetarian by any stretch of the imagination,” says Van Camp.
Come springtime, however, he plans to be slinging all sorts of cleverly crafted plant-based concoctions at a fancy new juice bar called Owen + Alchemy.
“The timing is right to inject some liquid green vitality into the land of deep-dish and sausage,” says Chicago native Anne M. Owen, a former magazine publisher who is Van Camp’s partner in Owen + Alchemy.
The Windy City duo is aiming to capitalize on a trend that’s swept across New York and Los Angeles like a superfood tsunami in recent years and is now spilling throughout urban America.
“These days, you throw a rock, you hit a juice bar,” says Melvin Major, Jr., operator of New York’s popular Melvin’s Juice Box, with two locations in Manhattan and plans for a third.
Since Major opened his first Juice Box in 2012, he’s watched competitors Organic Avenue, Juice Generation and Juice Press launch their 10th, 12th and 15th locations, respectively. Just last week, the venerable Grey’s Papaya in Greenwich Village was shuttered to make way for a new Liquiteria outpost. Newcomers including Healthy Creations and Magic Mix Juicery have joined the pack, as well as reputed Midas touch restaurateur Danny Meyer, who launched his own label, Creative Juice, in partnership with Equinox fitness clubs.
The juice boom has infiltrated the city’s fine-dining sector too, with fresh-pressed blends available from the bar at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s ABC Kitchen and on the breakfast menu at Andrew Carmellini’s Lafayette. The nightlife scene is feeling the squeeze too. One outfit, American Juice Company, produces a line of premium juice blends intended solely as mixers for high-end cocktails.
To Major, who got his start in juicing more than two decades ago, at a time when the produce press was usually relegated to the back corner of some yoga studio or health-food store, the deluge of all this juice is simply stunning. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see a juice bar in a Chinese restaurant,” he says.
And why not? Juice is hip, it’s high-end, and it has that ever-desirable celebrity factor. Virtually every brand seems to boast of some famous client, often a crash-dieting actress or underwear model. In Miami, Savannah James, wife of NBA star LeBron James, recently opened a fashionable juicery of her own, The Juice Spot, propagated by frequent shout-outs on her hoops icon hubby’s Twitter feed.
Where this green-themed gold rush may be headed, though, is murkier than your typical kale-apple-ginger-spinach-celery-lemon blend. Is it just some passing fad? Or, a revolution in the way we think and drink?
Kale Ale: The New Craft Beer
As a chef, Van Camp explains the current juice boom as a natural extension of Americans’ growing thirst for wholesomeness in their eating and drinking habits — the same societal push toward organic, free-range, locally sourced meats also encourages you to seek out a purer way to gulp down your vitamins. “We’ve gotten so far away from eating good wholesome food,” says Van Camp. “You’re now seeing that pendulum swing the other way.”
Some people will pay an astounding price for that sense of integrity. In New York, an organic green juice costs about as much as a craft cocktail, often in the range of $9 to $12. In Los Angeles, one new company, Juice Served Here, charges a whopping $20 for a blend of coconut, bee pollen, vanilla bean and colloidal silver, among other ingredients. This big-ticket item is aptly named “Twenty-Dollar Juice.” According to the company’s web site, this “nutritional powerhouse” is “anti-aging” and even “enhances libido.” A dubious claim to be sure. But, psychologically anyway, the sheer ability to afford such a pricey beverage should instill anyone with little extra self-confidence.
According to one beverage industry expert, America’s fledgling “ultra-premium juice” business – which includes every drop of the stuff from Starbucks (with its line of Evolution Fresh libations) to your local organic grocer (labels such as BluePrint and Suja) to your neighborhood juice bar (check Yelp) – has mushroomed to an estimated $200 million in annual retail sales nationwide.
Couple that with the burgeoning home juicer business, which has ballooned to nearly $300 million in U.S. sales annually, according to one leading manufacturer, and you’re talking about a half-billion dollar industry whose future is wide open.
It’s easy to see why an entrepreneur might look at those numbers, envision sky-high profits and think about diving right into the juice game.
“We get a lot of inquiries from angel investors, wanting to meet people in the cold-pressed juice industry,” says John Craven, CEO of BevNet, which tracks national beverage trends. Craven draws parallels between the current juice boom and the early craft-beer movement, with far too many small-scale start-ups to get a very accurate count, some bound for stunning success, others doomed to obscurity.
Ask an experienced retailer, and he’ll likely crush your get-rich-quick-on-juice dream. “It’s no different than any other food business,” says Marcus Antebi, CEO of Juice Press, a fast-growing N.Y. chain scheduled to increase its footprint from 15 to 21 locations within the next four months.
In some ways, the juice game might even be tougher. Food costs for organic produce alone can run as high as 50 percent, “which is very, very high for the food industry,” says Antebi, who then launches into a colorfully lengthy overview of his other regulatory, labor and marketing expenses (put simply: “my corporate overhead is huge”).
Mostly through persistence, heavy media outreach and sheer volume, Antebi says his company has figured out a way to be profitable. “We’re lucky, at the 20-store level, to have a 10-percent net margin, and that’s really good,” he says. “I had more money when I had my old business than I have with juice bars,” he added, “and I had a lot of free time. I don’t have any free time, anymore. I’m concerned about every dollar coming in, every dollar going out. You know, hopefully, one day, I’ll look back and I’ll be the guy who invented the Home Depot of the juice world and I’ll have a hundred billion dollars….Right now, that’s not the reality.”
A Different Blend
To better understand the buzz about cold-pressed juice, it’s helpful to know about the technology. This is not simply some modern spin on the fresh-squeezed juice you might remember Lois Lane fussing about in the Superman movies of the late ’70s, early ’80s. Well, it kind of is — only replace the orange with kale and a whole bunch of organic produce, then add a few tons of hydraulic pressure.
Raw food idealists are sticklers for the cold press because of the way it’s supposed to preserve nutrients and live enzymes during the juicing process. Stick your Swiss chard in a conventional blender and the heat of those fast-spinning blades may kill off a lot of the good stuff. To the purist, that juice is “cooked.”
A cold press, as you can probably guess, doesn’t get so hot. That’s the idea, anyway. Take the popular and pricey Norwalk brand, sometimes called the Rolls-Royce of juicers. First, your chard goes into the pulverizer, where slower-spinning blades shred that veg; the pulp is then crushed flat under a hydraulic press, squeezing out about as much juice as possible.
Not every upscale juice joint uses a cold-press machine, even though it might charge just as much as ones that do.
“To me, any type of machine heats up,” says Major, who uses a centrifuge-style juicer at Melvin’s Juice Box. Major suggests that his product may actually come out colder than some of his cold-press competitors. He might have a point.
Even some cold-press devotees admit that simply possessing the machinery is no guarantee that your juice won’t get cooked. “You have to know how to use it properly,” says Juice Press CEO Antebi. On an industrial level, especially, this can be tricky. “You can’t just sit there and grind produce,” Antebi explains. “If I allow a cold-press machine to keep grinding, the friction will eventually heat-up the blades, and the machine itself.”
Antebi goes on to describe the constant vigilance it takes to ensure that his juice never rises above 107 degrees Fahrenheit, a process that includes icing down overheated machines and regularly using a thermometer to monitor the temperature of all pulverized produce before it gets pressed. “If you have an idiot just sitting there, jamming carrots into a machine for four hours straight, the blade is going to be 200 degrees, the pulp is coming out at 160 degrees, and you’re effectively cooking the juice,” he says.
The Raw Deal
Another wrinkle to the cooked-juice discussion deals with how these premium-priced drinks are marketed, and it’s a question that goes straight to the heart of the raw food movement: What is raw?
Grab a carrot from your local farmers market and take a bite. Most people would probably agree that it’s raw. Take a knife and slice it up. Still raw, right? Now, put it through a pulverizer and press its pulp under tons of hydraulic pressure. That carrot has been significantly transformed from its natural state — processed even. But in the view of Antebi and other raw juice aficionados, it’s technically still raw. So long as its juice stays below a certain temperature threshold, anyway.
OK, now package and seal that uncooked cold-pressed carrot juice, submerge it in water and apply high hydrostatic pressure. This controversial method, known as pascalization or high pressure processing (HPP), is where some raw-food advocates draw the line.
There are cold-pressed juice companies that take this extra step — one exec even calls it a “game-changer” for the industry — because it extends the product’s otherwise-short shelf life, killing micro-organisms that promote spoilage while preserving some beneficial enzymes.
It also allows juice makers to operate in a sort of gray area, enjoying some of the perks of pasteurization but still advertising their products as unpasteurized. And, because the process involves high pressure as opposed to high heat, manufacturers can also claim that their juices are uncooked.
Add a more debatable word like “raw” to the marketing materials, though, and there might be a problem.
Just ask BluePrint, one of the country’s leading producers of cold-pressed juices, with manufacturing facilities in New York and California. Last August, a group of consumers filed a class-action lawsuit, accusing the company of false advertising. According to the complaint, BluePrint misrepresented its lineup with slogans such as “100% Raw” and “Raw And Organic,” though its pressure-processed juices “lack the characteristics and qualities traditionally associated with such products.”
Raw food idealists are sticklers for the cold press because of the way it’s supposed to preserve nutrients and live enzymes during the juicing process.
BluePrint, which has defended the HPP practice and even promotes it on its packaging, never formally answered the complaint. The lawsuit was settled out of court in December.
But the ripple effects are evident. Other juice makers have since abandoned the raw descriptor altogether.
“It’s just one of those markets where it’s so early on that consumers kind of don’t know what to believe,” says BevNet’s Craven.
How these types of issues get worked out might foretell more than just the fortunes of juice makers.
“This is the stuff that’s going to shape the future of what we drink,” says Craven. “We’re probably not all going to be drinking $20 juices. But I think this is going to lead to a pretty different landscape of mainstream affordable beverages. Right now, entrepreneurs are just trying to figure it all out.”
Video: The Norwalk, a Rolls-Royce of juicers, in action.
Cult Of The Cleanse
Whether or not you believe that raw juice is the way of the future, it’s hard to deny its impact on the current culture.
“People don’t say they’re on a diet, anymore,” notes New York-based dietician and cookbook author Ellie Krieger. “It’s not fashionable, it’s not cool, it’s not respected. Instead, they say ‘cleanse’.”
She’s referring, of course, to the trendy method of fasting, where a person forgoes solid foods and subsists for a period of days, or weeks — or sometimes, in extreme cases, a whole month — on nothing but juice. The idea is to help purge your system of all the horrendous toxins and byproducts of fatty, processed foods. Many raw juice brands package and market a strict regimen of their products for the specific purpose of undertaking a cleanse.
Some nutritionists are skeptical of the benefits of a juice cleanse, noting the total lack of fiber and flood of sugar, among other concerns. “It may, for many people, contribute to an eating disorder,” says Krieger.
“If you have an idiot just sitting there, jamming carrots into a machine for four hours straight, the blade is going to be 200 degrees, the pulp is coming out at 160 degrees, and you’re effectively cooking the juice,” says Juice Press CEO Marcus Antebi.
L.A. dietician Lisa DeFazio describes a prolonged cleanse as “unnecessary torture,” advising participants to avoid the gym and other strenuous activities — and stick close to a bathroom.
Then there’s the larger picture. “Societally, it’s a reflection of this world of extremes we live in,” says Krieger. “We totally indulge and mindlessly gobble down whatever, and then we purge.”
Talk to a true believer in the power of juice, though, and he’ll tell you the critics simply don’t get it.
“Juicing has sparked the awareness of just a finite amount of people, who can actually put a second sentence behind it,” says Juice Press boss Antebi.
To hear him tell it, juice is not intended to be a once-in-a-while cure-all, enabling the cycle of feast and famine to continue. Rather, it’s supposed to work like a gateway drug, leading to an entirely different type of food addiction — a healthier, low-protein, salad-packed lifestyle that eschews processed foods.
And getting there is not easy, no matter how many pie-in-the-sky promises the juice pushers may make. “If I told you that you’ll slow down your aging process, you’ll be a phenomenal athlete well into your 80s, you’ll get a hard-on until you’re 96 years old, you’re not going to be dribbling in a fucking wheelchair when you’re 70…you’d struggle with it,” Antebi says. “It’s a process.”
You could accuse Antebi of simply acting like a shrewd businessman, and maybe drinking too much of his own carrot-forward Kool-Aid. But even the critics say that drinking some of this stuff is probably good for you.
If you can afford it.