Invasion of the juice bars

Some believe the trend towards fresher, healthier, more varied juices began in Redondo Beach with a mysterious surfer/juicer named Bruce in the 1970s. Forty years later, it has come full circle.

Vincent Rodgers, owner of Juice It Up in Hermosa Beach, makes one of the store’s popular vegetable-based juices. Photo

Vincent Rodgers, owner of Juice It Up in Hermosa Beach, makes one of the store’s popular vegetable-based juices. Photo

A few years ago I was driving with a friend who saw a juice bar and asked, “What’s the deal with juice bars? I can get juice at the grocery store, or make it at home. Why do people go to these places?”

It was a valid question. You can buy fruit and vegetable juice in grocery stores – canned, frozen, or fresh, though the “fresh” juice in the store might have been reconstituted, or might have been sitting there for a week. Some people obviously think there’s enough of a difference that they patronize specialty juice bars. A host of these have opened up in the South Bay in the past decade, and more are on the way.

To figure out who is buying these fresh juices and why, I posed a question to Hayden Slater, founder and CEO of Pressed Juicery: Are people drinking the same amount of juice they did ten or twenty years ago, but buying it from specialty places rather than stores? I had expected him to claim that juice was the wave of the future and an ever-expanding market, so was surprised when he replied that he wasn’t sure.

“Juice has been around for thousands of years; it’s nothing new or revolutionary, but the category has evolved and people want a product that is better and fresher,” said Slater, who left a career in television in 2007. It wasn’t a smooth and calculated career change — he went on a pilgrimage to Asia where he discovered more healthful living, lost 60 pounds, returned as a juice evangelist of sorts and co-founded Pressed in 2009.

Hayden Slater, co-founder of Pressed Juicery, began his journey towards better juice on a pilgrimage to Asia. Photo courtesy Pressed Juicery

Hayden Slater, co-founder of Pressed Juicery, began his journey towards better juice on a pilgrimage to Asia. Photo courtesy Pressed Juicery

“I think what’s happening in the juice category is what happened with coffee, how it went from buying ground Folgers or instant crystals to specialists,” Slater said. “Starbucks created this retail formula, and it started a demand for the artisanal form. In a way we’ve gone backwards; people used to juice their own oranges, and then came convenience products like frozen and pasteurized juices, even powders like Tang. We’ve brought back the cold-pressed, fresh, and raw category that brings back the flavor and nutrients, and it’s making noise in this area.”

This would be a satisfying answer if modern juice bars were selling mainly artisanal versions of commodity products like orange or apple juice, rather than items that are blends of fruit, vegetables, and herbs that only need a shot of vodka to be called a particularly innovative cocktail. I pointed out that while drinking juice may be traditional, the concoctions sold by modern juice bars are unlike any traditional beverage on Earth. Who, I asked, had the idea of mixing beet or carrot with orange juice, or any of the other outré ideas that are now available at most juice shops? Hayden thought a moment and then mentioned David Otto, who started the Beverly Hills Juice Club in 1975.

Otto’s road to juicing started differently than most other nutritional health advocates. He started on the road to juicing not because he was personally unhealthy and seeking a cure, nor because he had a philosophical or religious reason to lead a pure life or he thought he had figured out a secret about how the digestive system worked. He changed his diet, his life, and the way Americans drink their vegetables because the giant angry bull he was hallucinating told him to. Otto had dropped acid and ordered a steak in a restaurant (in 1967 this kind of decision wasn’t as odd it would be now), and as he cut into his T-bone the spirit of the bull appeared in front of him. Otto “had a mental communication with this creature,” and decided he would stop eating creatures. This started his journey into vegetarianism and evolution from a talent booker for local bands to a juicing and natural foods guru.

I called Otto, who at 79 years old is still at his shop on Beverly Boulevard, and mentioned that Hayden told me he was the founder of the juice bar craze. Otto was modestly unwilling to claim credit.

“That’s very nice of him,” Otto said. “It is the general perception in Southern California that I started doing this in 1975, but there was one juice bar that was in business before I was, at the Grand Central Market Downtown. It was called La Hood’s… There was another guy in Redondo Beach named Bruce who also had a juice bar back then, but he was kinda irregular — if the waves were good the store was closed and he was out surfing. There were also health food stores here and there that made fresh juices, but [Bruce’s Juices and LaHood’s] were the only places that specialized in juice. The guy who really should get the kudos is a guy named Norman Walker, who wrote books about the health benefits of juice. He died at about 100 years old after a lifetime of promoting juices. That’s where I got a lot of my information.”

I’ve been unable to find out anything about Bruce the surfing juicer, even his last name, but Norman Walker has an interesting history. Walker was indeed a pioneer of juicing fruit and vegetables for health, and his 1936 book “Fruit and Vegetable Juices: What’s Missing In Your Body?” was the first to champion juice as a cure-all. While his theories about the functioning of the human digestive system were definitely wrong and he repeatedly inflated his credentials, claiming to be a doctor despite a lack of any degree, the diet he invented fits modern nutritional ideas about nutritionally balanced vegetarianism. It worked for him, since he lived to be 99 and was reportedly physically and mentally vigorous into old age. Walker also invented one of the first mechanical juicers, though it is less efficient and harder to clean than those used today. This matters in the world of juicing, as some advocates claim that the method and speed of extraction of juice alters the nutritional content. The people who run juice bars are frequently partisans of different technologies, and Hayden Slater rhapsodized about the merits of the system he uses.

“We use [the term] ‘cold pressed’ to compare with pasteurized or heat-processed juice,” Slater said. “We do use a different process from places where the juice is blended right there using a centrifugal juicer. That makes a tasty product, but the way it is extracted starts it oxidizing immediately. You have to drink it extremely quickly. If you take it home or consume it later, the flavors and nutrients are lost. Our juices are made with the entire vegetable fruit or vegetable turned into a pulp, then subjected to 10,000 pounds of pressure in a refrigerated room. Some studies say that you get 90 percent more nutrients and enzymes that way. Our shelf life is longer for that reason.”

I was curious about the change in juicing technology, and in the meaning of “cold pressed” since I had never seen a competing product that was called hot pressed. So I asked David Otto about it. He explained that juicing technology was a lot more primitive and unsuited to mass production when he started his business.

“I built my own press because I couldn’t find one that was big enough and did what I wanted,” he said. “Every press that was made back then was extremely slow. I’m still using that press today, and it’s very fast. Back in 1975 I put the words cold pressed on the side of it, and that’s the buzz word everywhere now. I don’t know what it means, I just made it up. Maybe it came to me because we pressed it in a cold room…”

Otto had fruit shipped to him so he could press it at his shop; Slater did the opposite and located the company’s factory where he could be sure to get fresh produce.

“Our manufacturing is in Central California,” Slater said. “We press juice seven days a week, and our distribution is designed so that everything is in a store within 24 hours. We positioned ourselves in the Central Valley because that’s where our produce comes from.”

I wanted to check with someone who uses a different business model, so contacted Christian Padua, manager of Hermosa Beach’s Juice It Up. Rather than claim that his juice had the same shelf life, he readily admitted that it didn’t.

“We recommend that people consume fresh raw juice within the first thirty minutes,” Padua said. “A smoothie can stay frozen for a day if you keep it in the freezer. That isn’t generally an issue because of our place in this community. Most of our customers are pretty local, some come from the gym next door, and they drink their juice as soon as we give it to them. If anybody asks, we tell them that the longer they wait, the more it loses nutrients and flavor.”

There is certainly a difference in flavor, and probably one in the nutritional value, between supermarket juice pressed days before and the fresh products. The water in the juice begins to separate, the bright, sharp flavors are lost to oxidization, and any citrus pulp in the mix begins infusing its more bitter flavor into the rest of the ingredients. In complex blends of fruit with vegetable juices or spices like turmeric the shift in flavor is more pronounced, with some flavors disappearing and others intensifying. It’s harder to say what the health effects of keeping fresh juice around for days might be, but one of the main reasons for drinking juice is the beneficial antioxidants and digestive enzymes, and both are damaged by prolonged storage. While some have argued that there are few negative effects of storing fresh juice, nobody argues that the practice has any benefits.

Forty years ago, juices were largely confined to the use of fruits. Today, vegetables such as kale and cucumbers are frequently used. A juice at Juice It Up, pictured, includes six different kinds of fruits and vegetables.

Forty years ago, juices were largely confined to the use of fruits. Today, vegetables such as kale and cucumbers are frequently used. A juice at Juice It Up, pictured, includes six different kinds of fruits and vegetables.

Beverly Hills Juice Club, Pressed Juicery, and Juice It Up all offer exotic blends that include fruits, vegetables, nuts, and greens like cilantro ands wheatgrass. Padua said that at the Hermosa location, like the others where he has worked, the vegetable-based juices are most popular. Asked whether this is unique to his Juice It Up store or chain, or even across the industry, Christian Padua thought a moment and then was refreshingly honest.

“I think at this point most juice places are serving slight variations on the same thing,” he said. “You find a place that is close to you, with people you like, and explore the menu.”

Menus everywhere seem to be getting more baroque, and grocery stores and big chains like Starbucks now offer their own juice products. Fresh juices have moved beyond the core group of health enthusiasts, and for better or worse are now part of the American mainstream. Better, because all modern products are healthier than the powders and concentrates they replaced. If there is a downside, it’s that the new business climate may make it hard for young entrepreneurs with a juicer and some fresh ideas about health and flavor. That is ever the fate of pioneers like Dave Otto, who create a world in which they must compete with their own ideas gone mainstream.

If you have any information about Bruce the surfing juicer of Redondo, any pictures of his juice stand, please send them to me at ER



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