Starbucks tickles $50 billion Health & Wellness market with Evolution Fresh juice bar

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Evolution Fresh is now following me on Twitter. Who's that, you ask? Short answer: a new juice bar concept from Starbucks. CEO Howard Schultz told me at the opening of the first store in Bellevue Square Monday that he'll have more to say about Evolution Fresh at the company's annual meeting today.

Meanwhile, here's what they say about themselves on their Twitter page: "We have the opportunity to change people's lives and to change trajectory of nutrition for the future generations." Muddled grammar aside, it sounds awfully self-important, wouldn't you say?

Wasn't it Schultz himself who reminded us, in the title of his first book, about the virtues of humility, that you build a company "one cup at a time"? That book, by the way, was a rewriting-of-history memoir published in 1997, after Howard had returned, triumphant, from his shortlived exile from Seattle's best-loved coffee brand and had wrangled Starbucks from a local chain to a worldwide player. (In the book he describes an "epiphany" on his first trip to Milan and Torino when he sees passionate Italians duck into tiny coffee bars for their morning thimbleful of espresso; Gordon Bowker used to tell that very story ten years before Schultz joined the company he and his two roommates had founded.)

In his second book, titled "Onward: How Starbucks Fought for its Life Without Losing Its Soul," Schultz cites the impressive statistics: 16,000 stores, $10 billion in revenues, 200,000 employees, and, most impressive of all, 60 million customer visits a month. By virtually every measure, the Starbucks mermaid is a huge success, the world's most frequented brand, so why does she continue to behave like a petulant teenager, constantly trying on new outfits, desperate for approval, afraid she is unloved?

Down at the SoDo headquarters, the suits are never satisfied. It's their job to be hungry, to look for new opportunities, new markets. Most recently, Starbucks introduced a blonde roast, finally acknowledging that not everyone enjoys the strong, bitter flavor of a Full City Roast. They're finally opening shops in India. At the company's annual meeting, four years ago, the emphasis was on healthier snacks in the stores, and on the acquisition of a premium coffee machine called the Clover. The company shut down for a full day to "retrain" team members in the finer points of coffee-making and customer service. Few people remember that the Vivanno, introduced in 2008, was a banana smoothie with protein powder. More recently, there was a big dustup about single-serve coffee machines made by Keurig.

And, what with Starbucks canned "refresher" drinks making their way into grocery stores, the company was clearly aware of something called the cold-crafted juice category. It's worth some $3.5 billion and growing. Even a small piece of that was enough for a San Bernardino, Calif., company called Evolution Fresh, but Starbucks sniffed around the company and smelled a new conquest. It bought Evolution Fresh for $30 million last November. You get the feeling that Starbucks was just waiting to pounce: they banged out the first store, complete with graphics, equipment, new products, staff training in under four months. (TV's "Restaurant Impossible" pretends to do this in three days; don't believe it.)

There are three main sections to the new, 1,100-square-foot Evolution Fresh store, carved out of the Starbucks coffee shop at Bellevue Square. First is a bar that dispenses eight taps of juice: carrot. beet, pineapple, cucumber, blueberry, coconut with pineapple, and an herbal tea. The juices are cold-pressed under high presssure at the original Evolution Fresh plant in San Bernadino, California. A staff of "juice partners" function as baristas to blend drinks for customers, mixing greens, blueberries, beet, apple and ginger, for example to create a beverage called Garden Gathering. The juices run $7.99 for 16 ounces, $4.99 for 8 ounces. The juice partners will also blend 16-ounce smoothies (carrot, mango, etc.) for $6.99. There's no doubt that High Pressure Processing results in a better, fresher, healthier product. No need for added sugars, either. Customers can also specify their own add-ins, including a shot of "Wheatgrass+" for $1.95, the "+" being a touch of lemon juice that makes the lawn clippings quite palatable.

The second section is a traditional grab-n-go: sandwiches on organic wheat bread ($7) and wraps in collard greens ($7.50), along with bottled juices ($3.95 to $5.95).

The most perplexing part of the enterprise is the salad bar, which offers breakfast of oatmeal, yogurt, muesli, granola, and "hot scrambles" with wild rice or quinoa. There's no grill, so the egg dishes are made ahead, off-site somewhere, and reheated with a steam wand. The bar continues into lunch and dinner, with three signature bowls ($8.75) of healthy fare (lentils, wild rice and kale; quinoa, kale and squash; buckwheat noodles with spinach and roasted peppers). You can add chicken of beef toppings for $2.50, and "extra sauce" for another $1.50. And if you're feeling chilly, they'll top off your bowl with a ladle of vegetarian vegetable stock ($1.75) which, of course, must be warmed with the steam wand.

Calories, fat grams, protein, fiber and sodium content are given for every item on the menu, albeit in teensy type. There's an abundance of W symbols for items that contain no wheat, and a pelthora of V symbols for vegan items.

Starbucks insists this isn't about pandering to a faddish crowd of self-diagnosed gluten-intolerant young moms. "It's a trend," Arthur Rudinstein told me. He's the Starbucks President for Global Store Development who put this whole concept together in under four months. "Wheat grass? I swear by it. All those anti-oxidants! It's alive with freshness! Let me get you a shot!" He returned with a plastic cup of green stuff. I gulped it down.

It was amazingly delicious.

"So how's the food?" Schultz asks me. "How's it taste?" And what can I say? That I have a cold, that everything tastes a little dull? No, the wheat grass shot impressed me. The beet juice, too. But the signature bowls, with their lentils, wild rice, quinoa, and buckwheat, don't send me into paroxyms of delight. Nor do the sunflower seeds, flax seeds, and pepitas, You can order extra sauce (garlic, tahini, harissa, and something called tamari five-spice), but I'd just as soon add a squirt of two of that organic sriracha on the tables. There's a snack-like bite called the Mel Bar, concocted by Melody Beal, one of the company's food developers. Almond butter, millet, nuts, seeds, cranberries topped with flakes of coconut. One bite reminds me that granola bars (to me, to me) all taste like dirt.

Cynicism aside, Starbucks has been a key element in a cultural shift in American cities. In the space of a generation, coffee shops have become what bars, taverns, diners and private clubs once provided: a third place, between home and work, neutral territory where people can gather. Do the SoDo Suits know something we don't? Is coffee itself no longer the catnip it once was? If Evolution Fresh provides an alternative to caffeine, then Starbucks will succeed with this transformative concept. If not, well, no harm done.

When Starbucks removed its name from its logo last year, it was, Schultz said, so that future ventures wouldn't necessarily be tied to coffee. Ironically, Evolution Fresh carries no Starbucks branding or logos whatsoever. This may be playing it safe. If the concept tanks, it would be far easier to sell off or shut down without the Starbucks baggage. What's more significant is that Starbucks is moving away from a reliance simply on coffee-based experiences (romantically ducking into an Italian caffè in Milan or Torino) and wading instead into that vast market the Italians call benessere: health and wellness. It's worth a cool $50 billion a year.

This is way more than spas and massages. At its worst, its nothing more than catering to the whims of distracted, 30-somethings with eating disorders and food allergies. At its best, however, health-and-wellness is a defense against the stress of modern life. If Evolution Fresh can get us there, can "change the trajectory of nutrition," then more power to the Mermaid.
545A Bellevue Way (Corner Bellevue Way & NE 8th)

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This page contains a single entry by Cornichon published on March 21, 2012 8:00 AM.

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