Juice Nation: How (and Why) Chefs and Somms are Getting into the Juicing Game
If you're a pro football player in the stands at a Major League Baseball game, you might be tempted to leap in. No, the sports aren't the same, but you've got the necessary agility, power, and competitive spirit. You just might be able to knock that baseball into the next county. Now, imagine a chef or sommelier walking into a Liquiteria or Juice Press (or a Juice Generation or an Organic Avenue) and watching as T-shirted 20-somethings (non-culinary professionals) put together blends of fresh produce, hocking magical, high-priced elixirs to an audience thirsting for beet nectar with a spirulina bonus. They just might want to get in the game, too.
If you've stepped in to your local Whole Foods recently—where a veritable ROYGBIV of options tempt customers into impulse (yes, impulse) juice consumption—you're well aware the juice wave has crested at tsunami heights, soaking us in all its free-radical killing, nutri-babble, enzymatic glory. And it's nothing like the old days: no long-haired dudes talking supplements, manning the juicer at a health food store for a fanatical few. This is Juice 2.0. Starbucks is in the game. Celebrities are in the game. And now, and arguably far more appropriately, chefs and sommeliers are in the game. The green they see in juice isn't from the handfuls of raw spinach.
The Halla Berry- blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, strawberry, banana, lime, spinach, coconut water
The Halla Berry- blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, strawberry, banana, lime, spinach, coconut water
The J. Cordray- sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach, beets, apple, kale, celery, pear
Vitamin C kick- oranges, carrots, beets, ginger
A Somm Walked Into a Juice Bar
"There's just a demand for it," says Fred Dexheimer, Master Sommelier and professional "Juice Man" (though the "juice" there is strictly for the 21 and older set). Together with Chef and brother-in-law Adam Rose, Dexheimer has converted a barn studio space in Durham, North Carolina, into a triple-pronged restaurant project. Phases two and three include a restaurant and beer garden, set to open in March and April 2014. But phase one is the Straw Valley Café, a multi-purpose juice, wine, and raw bar grafted onto the bones of an operating coffee shop—with the help of an investor and good timing.
"The only business doing anything with juice of any measure was Whole Foods," Dexheimer says of the neighborhood, which is pock-marked with big name chain stores like Marshall's, Walmart, and Best Buy. "We looked at that as an opening in the market," which in Durham, as elsewhere, is increasingly wellness-oriented. "There's all the health conscious people here, doing yoga, cycling, biking. There's a yoga studio next to us," says Dexheimer of the literally built-in fan base for his juicing program. "They love it."
But he isn't pandering. Juice's popularity just happens to coincide with his interests. A recently converted coffee geek, and general guru of all things liquid, Dexheimer's more interested in finding the angles, basically squeezing all the possibilities of juicing to the last drop. "Like a wine list, you want a balance of different drinks, a range of colors, different types of main ingredients. My juices aren't a final destination; they can be a starting point." Given his sommelier's credentials, it's no surprise Dexheimer pays attention to things like acidity, texture, and sweetness in the final product. What may surprise is his emphasis on color. "The main thing when I created the recipes was to have six juices that had six different colors," like the bright magenta of We Got the Beat or the leafy garden green of Straw Valley's requisite kale juice, and most popular offering, The Fountain of Youth. Color, maybe more than anything else, indicates what a juice is to a consumer—shade sells.
But what excites Dexheimer most are the possibilities for cross-pollination. Once the other two outlets open, "juice will be part of every operation," providing a base for brunch mimosas in the beer garden, some of Chef Rose's sauces in the restaurant, and—the big money maker—cocktail programs across the board. "The cocktail program in the restaurant is completely reliant on the juice program," says Dexheimer, who uses his juicer to sidestep muddling and build in complexity with batched juices. "I can make a cocktail that has three ingredients, but actually has ten."
He's already begun cross-juice-pollinating as the Straw Valley Café transitions from day to night, and yoga practitioners return for the raw bar and some less virtuous imbibing. Not only does it "take some of the pressure off" the profits of the daytime operation, but the cocktail program also expands the possibilities for juice (again, we're far from health food counter territory here).
Dexheimer has plans to swap specific types of juice compost for farm fresh eggs at local Funny Girl Farm, with a plan to create corresponding, nutrient-packed breakfast sandwiches. Versatile beyond expectation, juice has become a kind of lifeline for the business itself, rescuing it from the bland anonymity of its chain store environs. "Juice is a restorative thing," Dexheimer says. "There's a metaphor of restoration for your body that exists in the restoration of our project."
Chef on a Mission
Restoration is a concept near and dear to Chef Franklin Becker. Diagnosed with type II diabetes, Becker's been cooking—and talking—healthier than most chefs for some time now. But with the streets running pulpy with juice in New York City, and health at the forefront of the national conversation, he knew it was time to get into the game.
"The timing is right. In fact, maybe a little late looking at the rate of diabetes, Celiac, and obesity in the United States," says Becker. "We [needed] to do something." That something, The Little Beet, dedicates a separate menu for cold pressed juices.
Becker is a chef at heart—his heart pumps with stock, not kale juice. "I created all of the juices for Little Beet," says Becker. "They were created for flavor, and then I backed into the health benefits." Kind of an inevitable collision, when you're dealing in spinach, avocado, carrot, and cashew milk. "Bottom line is, if something doesn't taste good, who's gonna buy it?"
It's a simple proposition, but an important one for Becker, who uses only organic produce. "The yields vary," he says. "While juicing is very profitable, if it doesn't sell, it can be quite costly." With labor costs up to $11 per hour for 40 hours, Little Beet can produce about seven-hundred 16-ounce bottles with its Angel juicer, offsetting some of that significant up front cost. "We are moving to an X1 next, but that's expensive."
Fortunately, incorporating cold press into a larger restaurant space allows for new approaches to juice salesmanship, such as the ability to cross sell. Becker's clientele aren't coming in for a chlorophyll boost, necessarily. They're looking for dishes with the possibility for juice pairings. "Think of the Carrot Eyes—blend of carrots and apples. Simple, right? With a lentil salad and grilled chicken, it's a flavor enhancer. You also get tons of vitamins and minerals." Then there's The Wake Up Call, a blend of avocado, pineapple, mango, apple, agave, and lemon with a smoothie-like consistency and tons of fatty acids, which, in carboxylic acid harmony, goes great with salmon. "Listen, any combination a chef can think of is possible." From a vaulting restaurant space in Midtown, a world away from juicing ground zero, all manner of combinations seem possible.
Of course, the beauty of the juice renaissance is that since demand is so much more mainstream, juicing programs don’t have to be embedded in larger restaurant operations or necessarily give way to nighttime cocktail programs. Like the artisan coffees of yesteryear—today morphed into a pour-over, Clover, and cold brew renaissance—high quality (and more often cold pressed) juices are expected now. Major cities play host to competing juice chains, and smaller stand-alone juice bars are opening up around the country.
But it’s a double-edged sword. “Because it’s so mainstream now, people are losing the meaning behind juicing,” says Smarel Nicole Brown of the relatively smaller juice outpost Dellz Vibez in Charleston, South Carolina. “People think ‘I don’t have to come here anymore, you’ve inspired me, I’ll do my juices at home.’ It took me months to put together those recipes,” says Brown, a raw food chef and holistic health practitioner. “They’re not necessarily putting the right things in their bodies.”
And it’s not just an issue between professional and amateur juicer. Even among pros, there are differences of opinion about best juicing practices—everything from masticating versus cold pressing (the latter seems to have reasonably won that debate) to a process called “High Pressure Pascalization,” or HPP, the pressurizing of bottled cold pressed juices to elongate shelf life. Well-respected companies like BluePrint use HPP, making it possible to store juices in retail for several weeks at a time, while equally well-respected companies like Juice Press absolutely reject the process.
“We want the product to be the freshest it can,” says Juice Press founder Marcus Antebi. “We will not HPP our juice to get extra shelf life.” The cost to a growing business—“we have expanded all over Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Hamptons”—can be significant, given the turnover rate and spoilage propensity of fresh juices. But for Antebi, a former Thai kickboxer with decades of sobriety and an aggressively healthy diet, it a non-negotiable standard. “Wine gets better with time; juice gets nasty. One month old juice should not be called ‘fresh.’”
Fewer juice consumers concern themselves with HPP, but a more immediate, if less commonly debated, issue is what exactly qualifies as juice, and how it’s being sold to the public. Turns out, there’s a fine line between health-promoting, nutrient rich juices and fructose-bombs parading as good for you. “It’s a good thing doing people a lot more harm,” says Brown of juice’s recent surge in popularity. “People are buying juicers now, but they’ll just use everything they have in the fridge and get straight sugar. You might as well just go drink a soda.”
Culinary professionals know better than anyone: once something good becomes trendy, it begins to lose a bit of its soul (remember when bacon was just bacon?). For Brown and other career juicers, it’s about getting the message out that juice can, and should, be nutritive first. “It’s good people have a desire for it. My only concern is [the trend] could make juice look bad.” Brown most definitely isn’t fighting the juice wave; she’s surfing it. Part of a chain of health-oriented Dellz businesses (Brown’s mother Maudell opened the original, Dellz Deli, on a single $250 paycheck), Dellz Vibez is where Brown is able to fuse her food-conscious outlook and holistic background to guide and (gently) instruct some of the juice furor of the day—straddling an increasingly apparent divide between juice as food and food as medicine. “I have more of a niche in my community as a holistic health practitioner, a bit of training and love for using food as healing. People come to the juice bar because they know that.” Antebi and Juice Press operate on a similar beneficial level, albeit on a slightly different scale: “We win people over because of the taste, but they become loyal customers because of the way they feel.”
For Juice Press and similar standard-bearing, big city juice outlets, the message is built into the brand. Smaller operators like Brown are literally face to face with the neighborhood, meaning accountability and community are vital business considerations. A recent partnership with Joseph Bill Farms, Charleston’s first Certified Organic farmer, means about 90 of Brown’s product will be local and organic. Her next step? Getting a Norwalk (cold pressing, long the sine qua non of The Gerson Therapy, is aspirational industry standard). “It’ll be hard for me to invest in such a big juicer that’ll cost me more time and more money. But now that I have a good niche on what our community wants and what I can do, and now that I have more employees, I can upgrade.” She can also raise the prices, something she’s been hesitant about. “When I first opened, I was more concerned about what people would think when it came to prices,’” says Brown. “Recently I’ve had customers telling me that I should up the price.” It’s hard to imagine the same thing happening at a Starbucks.