Juice Money

With its gray skies and soggy weather, Chicago wouldn’t seem as welcoming a locale for juice bars as sunny California. But Kirk Perron, founder of Jamba Juice, hopes the city will fall hard for what he incessantly refers to as the “healthful alternative.” In just ten years this west-coast chain of juice and smoothie bars has become the industry leader, with 270 outlets and combined annual revenue of about $100 million, but until now it’s never opened a store any farther east than Denver. On Wednesday, Jamba Juice debuted its first Chicago location at the corner of Clark and Diversey, and at least four more are expected within the next year: at State and Randolph; in the shopping atrium at the Chicago & North Western station; near suburban Woodfield Mall; and at one more site yet to be chosen. Michael Connolly, a Minneapolis franchiser previously associated with Wendy’s and Chili’s, is bankrolling Jamba Juice’s expansion into the midwest; he expects to open between 35 and 50 outlets in Chicago before the market is saturated. “The health food trend has been gradual but steady,” says Connolly. “I think people are looking for an opportunity to have a healthy break.”

Though it’s well behind the west coast, Chicago does have a market for fruit and vegetable juices. Whole Foods offers freshly squeezed juice. Six years ago Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises opened Foodlife, a restaurant in Water Tower Place where customers visit different stations to order their meals; according to manager Bob Sagerstrom, the juice and smoothie bar is one of the most popular options, but volume does wax and wane with the seasons: “With the onset of winter we do notice that juice consumption drops and coffee goes up.” Three years ago Jeff Bersh opened Fresh Choice, a small health food restaurant and take-out store near North and Wells, selling not only fruit juices and smoothies but other health-oriented items like turkey and veggie burgers. “People here like health food, as long as it tastes good,” he says, and the menu of nonliquid items cushions him against the winter drop in juice and smoothie sales. Bersh thinks it’s all a matter of time before the juice bar craze hits Chicago. Sherwyn’s, a health food store directly across the street from the new Jamba Juice, opened its own juice bar about ten years ago but closed it two years ago to make better use of the space. Bradley Sears, a manager at Sherwyn’s, welcomes the store’s new neighbor. “We’re happy they’re opening up across the street,” he says. “They’ll be a draw for health-oriented customers to come into the neighborhood.”

Perron launched Jamba Juice in 1990 in San Luis Obispo, and the idea was an immediate hit in balmy California. In 1994 Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks Coffee Company, became one of the first venture capitalists to invest heavily in the chain. According to Perron he’s been a helpful adviser as the company has developed its brand. A number of new stores–including the one near Woodfield Mall–are going up next door to new Starbucks outlets. “We’ve often found ourselves vying for the same piece of real estate, so we split it up,” explains Perron. Last year Jamba Juice increased its number of stores from 145 to 270 when it acquired Zuka Juice, a competitor based in Salt Lake City, and Perron says that rapid expansion, rather than any skittishness about the midwest market, persuaded Jamba Juice to let Connolly roll the dice on its midwestern campaign. “The company is simply growing too fast for it to shoulder the cost of rolling out the juice bars nationwide by itself.”

Yet Perron and his executives don’t know for sure whether the heartland will take to Jamba Juice as eagerly as patrons in the west. Two years ago the company opened a bar in New Haven, Connecticut, in a Barnes & Noble near the Yale University campus, but the experiment failed earlier this year. “It was not a good partnership,” admits Perron. Over the past year the company has introduced soups and toasted health breads to help buttress sales when weather or other factors might reduce people’s thirst. At the moment juices and smoothies come only in large sizes–24 and 32 ounces–which is part of the company’s campaign to position the drinks as a “healthful alternative” to a meal rather than just a snack. Adds Connolly, “We’re trying to take it from being just a juice bar company to more of a wellness concept.”

NU’s Hot Ticket

Oprah Winfrey’s fall class at Northwestern University is filled to capacity. According to a source at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management, 152 students submitted point bids to enroll in the leadership course to be taught by Winfrey and Stedman Graham. Originally the limit was 100, but the school apparently made a last-minute decision to keep the class small: only 61 students were admitted, and no audits will be allowed. At Kellogg a student gets 3,000 points to bid for nine courses during the year; the minimum bid for Winfrey’s course was 1,031 points, and some of the 61 students probably bid well above that number. Sources say that bidding over 1,000 points is unusual but not unprecedented; Marty Stoller, a longtime professor of communications at the school, reportedly commanded a minimum bid of 1,006 points for a course this fall.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.