There's been a steady shift for a couple of years now, I can see it in my own neighborhood as three juice bars have opened in the same square block. People are making their post school drop off, post exercise, late afternoon energy stop at the local juice bar instead of the usual coffee spot. Going 'green' doesn't just mean being eco-friendly anymore, it's all about the juice.
Alexis and Steve Schulze, co-founders of Nekter Juice Bar are definitely giving the coffee store a run for it's money. The juice craze is not a fad, it's an obsession and it's roots are growing super fast for Nekter. In only it's fourth year, Nekter is about to open their 50th location.
Easing Into the Green Juice Habit
Alexis, their Chief Visionary Officer isn't a registered dietician or scientist, she's not a hard core vegan or a food snob. Rather, she's like your BFF who just tries to be healthy whenever possible and found her A-ha! moment through juicing.
Nekter has brought the concept of juicing out of the health food store realm and into everyday lives. Alexis used to enjoy a juice after yoga class at her local health food store, but says:
There wasn't a welcoming way to ease newbies into juicing there. The taste of straight greens wasn't the best introduction to the concept of fresh pressed juices. It's an acquired taste at that level. I wanted to find a way to ease into that green juice and develop my palate. It's really as simple as adding an apple to sweeten it up a bit. I realized that this type of juice could be the gateway!
Then like any good BFF, she wanted to share her insight with everyone and began by juicing at home and sharing her concoctions with friends and family. Their response validated her instinct and translated into initial investment funds as well. Soon after, Alexis and her husband, Steve signed the lease for their Costa Mesa, CA flagship store in Oct. 2010.
That's when the race began. Alexis had been a teacher, has her Masters degree in Education and no experience running a business. Steve has been an entrepreneur and is a marketing and branding guy, so he ran with that side of the biz while Alexis continued with the hands on research with taste testing and innovating. The timing was right on a couple of levels. She had been ready for a shift in her life since her younger son was starting kindergarten. She says she needed something for herself at that point. This was also the time when the health food industry was in full swing and tangentially doing a lot of the consumer education that welcomed these type of businesses.
Nekter isn't just for yogis and moms, Alexis wants it to be a destination for kids and teens as well. The teacher in her knows that every mom has great intentions when they pack their kids' lunches, but she says:
The truth is, the kids pass those veggies out at school or they likely get trashed for a cookie or junk food. So moms need to find tricky ways to fit in the greens and juicing and smoothies is the way now. It's easy and accessible to develop your kids' taste for smoothies early. If kids start young, they will drink an apple juice with greens and be used to it.
Above and beyond the juicing, Alexis wants to create a store with a high energy vibe where people want to gather within their community, connect and be healthy.
From 1 Store to 50 in 4 Years!
So, how do you go from one store to fifty in four years? Alexis says, "I'm not even sure how to answer that because it's been a whirlwind effort of daily learning and growing." It seems that she hasn't had the time to analyze the success yet, she's still in building mode. It's a crowded space to be in now, lots of competition in the juicing niche but Alexis follows her instinct and continues to innovate based on what she wants as a mom and a health conscious Southern California gal. As they re-launch their flagship store this week, they are slowly rolling out grab-n-go healthy food options and a salad bar.
Innovation is key in any business and Alexis and Steve are now able to hire others to support the business side. She's most happy when she can focus on constantly innovating, researching and tasting. They now have a corporate office where the staff taste tests frequently. They also offer yoga class twice a week during lunchtime.
As the business first took off, Alexis says the biggest challenge was learning every single aspect of the business as they went along. The food biz is a unique industry to be in, they had to research the rules and regulations and learn how to work with perishable products. They also had no real inventory system in the beginning, they did the best they could just to keep everything going.
They had no idea how out of whack their lack of inventory was until a couple years later when an ex-employee came back to say that she stolen from them in the past. "She was going through a program and making amends." Alexis explains:
She asked for forgiveness and offered to pay back the upwards of $10,000 that she had skimmed from the business. Instead of taking the small payments that she was able to make at the time, we just wanted to know how she managed to do that so we could build in the necessary security so that it can't happen again. It was an expensive lesson, but the silver lining is that we could be proactive about it. This happened when we only had three stores.
Alexis has learned many valuable lessons along the way.
Business is stressful. I had no idea what goes into building a successful business! Training staff was our biggest challenge. We wanted to find the right people who would buy into our vision and embrace our mission. We had to learn as we went along and pick up the pieces everywhere. When our deliveries weren't right, I'd find myself running around to all the local stores to stock up on what wasn't delivered. There was always something to do, so it's a relief now that we have an amazing support staff to grow with us.
Working With Your Spouse
The other big adjustment, in addition to learning how to build a business was running it with her husband. Alexis says,
Working together illuminates all the other regular issues that a couple has, getting angry about business issues was another level of stress. We've since learned to grow together and respect what the other was doing, knowing we were both making it up as we went along. There were plenty of mistakes made, but we learned to talk it out.
Now, they have the strength of support from each other as the expansion continues at record pace, doubling in size every year.
Like so many entrepreneurs in a new business, Alexis says "We went as far as we could on passion. We probably waited a bit too long before hiring experts. But we just didn't know, although it's never too late to lay the foundation."
To Franchise or Not?
They had gotten lots of requests to franchise, so they did bring in an expert for that and eight of the fifty stores are franchises.
But they are all local so that we can be somewhat hands on and many of the franchisees want to open even more stores. The challenge there is that because we are still a growing brand, we need to be sure the franchisees are keeping the products and messages consistent. There is a creative component, but franchises have to stay within the brand.
One of her favorite surprises came back when they first opened and she would frequently go to the local office supply store to print their coupons. "I gave the sales clerk (a heavy, not health focused kind of guy) a Nekter gift card and when I came back the next time, he said 'My body tingled after I tried the juice!' I was so happy that he tried it and really enjoyed it. There's a level of green juice for everyone there."
The Schulze's get stopped by a lot of local people now, telling them how their juices have been life changing. Alexis says, "It's fun for our kids to see and hear this now too. They get a real kick out of it." Their boys are now 10yrs. and 13 yrs.
Alexis says, "Never in million years did I dream I would do this! I was a teacher. I was never so driven. But now that I've seen how Nekter can improve lives and how important healthy options are for kids and families, I have a new sense of confidence. It's empowering to create something!" In addition to being a leader in the juicing industry and a busy wife and mom, Alexis continues to set new goals for herself and Nekter Juice Bar. What's next? "Finding a way to bring the benefits of juicing to lower income populations through education and schools," says Alexis.
When people ask what her exit strategy is, she says she has no idea. Clearly, this is still her baby and she has lots of nurturing to do.