Ones to Watch | By Lynne Miller
Before she opened Vitality Juice, Java & Smoothie Bar in New Orleans, nutritionist and naturopathic doctor Catherine Wilbert was on a mission to let people have their cake and eat it too.
Knowing most people will not give up their sweets, Wilbert was determined to find a natural, chemical-free substitute for refined sugar to make a functional shake taste good. Wilbert, who has a pharmaceutical and product-formulation background, tried unsuccessfully to reformulate a sweet herb. After years of development, she came up with a sugar replacement. While the recipe is a secret, Wilbert says the sweetener is derived from the fibrous parts of fruits and vegetables through a natural enzyme process. Commercially known under the name Swerve, the sweetener contains no calories or chemicals, is easily digested and tastes remarkably similar to the real thing.
“If I gave it to you, you wouldn’t know it’s not sugar,” says Wilbert, a nationally recognized wellness expert who holds a dozen bodybuilding titles, including three national championships.
Swerve’s creation led Wilbert to open the first Vitality Juice, Java & Smoothie Bar inside The Nutrition Company, her nutritional supplements store, in 2004. Vitality specializes in smoothies that are high in protein, and low in carbs and calories. Other offerings include fresh organic juices; organic and fair-trade coffee; fruit and herb-flavored hot and ice teas; soft-serve, low-carb ice cream and shakes; as well as herbal tonics. Since none of the items contain refined sugar, Vitality has a following among diabetics.
“The most exciting thing is you would never know we don’t use sugar,” Wilbert says.
It didn’t take long for the juice bar to develop a following among local residents, either. Wilbert says the 4,000-square-foot store in Metairie, Louisiana, was projected to bring in more than $1 million in supplement and foodservice sales when Hurricane Katrina knocked it out of business in 2005. Recovering from the storm was a slow and costly process. After being closed for nine months, the store reopened but couldn’t make it. Former customers were gone, and multiple problems with the building and funding plagued the business.
“We’ve had a lot of setbacks due to Katrina,” she says. “But we’ll overcome those.”
Vitality’s new corporate store, which is 40 percent smaller than the original store, is “busting at the seams,” says Wilbert, who wants to relocate to a bigger space.
Designed to look contemporary with wood and stainless steel finishes, the store is decorated in shades of rust, avocado, and purple. Half the space is dedicated to foodservice. The rest serves as a sales floor for nutritional supplements. The dining area can seat about 40 people. Wilbert’s goal is to double the size of the store to accommodate more seating.
Mornings are the most hectic. Employees typically see customers waiting for the doors to open at 7 a.m. The majority of breakfast customers place their orders to go, including those who call in their orders. Popular breakfast beverages include the Rudy and the Perfect Fast Food. The Rudy, named for Wilbert’s border collie, combines soft-serve chocolate with coffee, while the Perfect Fast Food blends greens, vitamins, and minerals with banana and blueberries. The beverage’s nutritional profile is comparable to a meal of salmon, broccoli, and a green salad, Wilbert says.
Two caffeinated smoothies, the Spunky Monkey, a mix of strawberry, banana, and orange, and the Açaí Energy, a blend of berries, are also in demand, along with high-protein yogurt parfaits and fresh, made-to-order fruit and vegetable juices. The average check is $10.
Because they’re made with Swerve, not sugar, the drinks and the food are much lower in calories than similar products sold at competing chains, Wilbert says.
“If you get a Rudy, a blended coffee smoothie, it’s 150 calories, 30 grams of protein, and one gram of sugar,” she says. “If you get a blended frozen coffee drink from anywhere else, you’re looking at 750 calories and 80-plus grams of sugar.”
Offering products that taste indulgent yet are truly healthy sets Vitality apart from rivals, says Wilbert, who hopes her company can set a healthy example for other juice and coffee bars. “We really are healthy,” she says. “Everything we do has some nutritional value. You can teach people all day long to make better food choices. But they still want coffee and ice cream. We wanted to create a place where you could have those indulgences.”
For potential franchisees, Vitality offers three store formats with the smallest requiring a minimum of 600 square feet and the largest needing at least 2,400 square feet. Franchise fees range from $15,000 to $35,000.