At New York City’s The LCL: Bar & Kitchen, customers are sipping their vegetables in a martini glass. The full-service restaurant serves several cocktails including its popular juice-inspired one, Seeing Red, made with rye whiskey, ginger, lemon, and an organic juice blend of beets, carrots, and pears.

Scott Gerber, CEO of the Gerber Group, which opened The LCL, drinks raw juices daily and discovered customers were interested in doing so, as well. He says customer demand for a healthy cocktail that incorporates raw juices inspired the drink. But before jumping into adding it to the beverage program, which revolves around cocktails and a wine list nearly 150 bottles deep, he had to consider one factor: cost.

“It’s very expensive,” he says. “It’s not a big moneymaker; it’s more of a lifestyle offering.”

Natural juices and smoothies have been part of quick-service and full-service menus for years, but their current surge in popularity is the culmination of trends in the dining and health segments, a simple way for consumers to participate in the farm-to-table and locavore movements. Sales at U.S. juice bars and smoothie concepts totaled $2 billion in 2012, according to financial publication Barrons, while the restaurant industry as a whole hit $383 billion two years ago, per Technomic. Analysts predict juicing sales will increase 4-8 percent each year.

One of the newest players to join the juice bar segment is Red Mango, the frozen yogurt and smoothie quick-service chain. The company began menuing fresh squeezed fruit and vegetable juices at Red Mango Cafe and Red Mango Smoothie Factory co-branded stores in May. Dan Kim, founder and chief concept officer at Red Mango, says he wanted to incorporate raw juicing retail into his business in a way that felt “natural,” no pun intended.

Red Mango worked with a team to test and taste fruit and vegetable blends before introducing the flavors to the public. “We’re bringing in produce like kale that we don’t usually use in our stores,” Kim says. Test locations of the cobranded stores have opened in cities including Chicago and Austin, Texas. “We plan on moving [juice bars] into all of our locations because they were so successful,” says Kim.

Testing flavors is important, but so is adapting those flavors to changing consumer sensitivities as time goes on. Eric Helms can attest to that as founder and CEO of Juice Generation, a chain of smoothie and juice bars in New York City that opened in 1999.

“It was very much a niche market,” he says of the company’s first few years in business. Now the stores serve thousands of customers daily. “I think when we first opened, customers were looking for sweeter things … and now, they definitely want things that are fresh, local, and not genetically modified.” Juice Generation bought an entire crop of vegetables from a farm in upstate New York to ensure it meets consumers’ desire to support local food. Helm says that recently customers have also been “very into green drinks,” made with hearty green vegetables like kale and spinach.

Gerber at The LCL advises restaurant owners weigh their options when adding raw juices to their beverage program. “The shelf life is very short, [so] you have to be careful,” he says.

Most raw juices only have a shelf life of three days. The LCL decided to use Organic Avenue juices because of their longer shelf life. Organic Avenue uses a process called high pressure processing to stabilize raw juice, elongating the shelf life to about three weeks, says Gerber.

Additionally, owners need to “think about the cost of the drink,” Gerber says, meaning the alcohol and mixers operators may choose to add to the juice. Purchasing raw juices can be expensive, but producing them in-house can also affect the bottom line of a restaurant. “If you make your own juices you have to think about labor and ingredients, and work on making it taste good,” Gerbers says.

Helms at Juice Generation doesn’t see the trend going away anytime soon. He sees the increase in popularity of natural juices and smoothies as a convenient way for people to consume vegetables. “I think people always want to do more in less time … with juices you can consume three pounds of vegetables in a 16-ounce glass,” he says. Helms also sees the increase in juicing as a new way to eat local. “The farm-to-table movement was a huge trend. This is farm-to-glass.”

By Korsha Wilson

This story will run in the winter 2015 issue of RestaurantBev.

Health & Nutrition, Industry News, Menu Innovations