Startup Spotlight: Juicy Leaf brings healthy drinks to market

To really appreciate one the region's newest startups you have to know a little bit about how juice is made.

One way involves putting vegetables such as carrots through a centrifugal juicer that heats them up and in the process kills the live enzymes in the juice.

Juicy Leaf does not make its juice that way. It uses a top-of-the-line Norwalk juicer that shreds the vegetables and fruits then presses the juice from it using hydraulic process, leaving behind a dry pulp. The enzymes in the drink are living and stay alive for three days.

The mobile smoothie and juice bar--Juicy Leaf, the Cold-Pressed Juice Company--started by Josiah Doyle, Toya Ohtsuka, and Scott Parker six months ago is the realization of a dream they've had of going into business together that has been ongoing for many years.

Doyle and Parker have been best friends since elementary school. Ohtsuka has been dating Doyle and they often talked about different business possibilities.

It's not a stretch to suggest that the seed for the business was planted as the three were growing up. 

With a grin, Ohtsuka says she was the girl who got in trouble for juicing everything the house, when she was about 10 years old.

Parker says his mother was always trying to convince the family to drink juices she made. He recently dug the juicer she used out of the basement and found it still works. 

And Doyle's parents are vegans and gardeners who have passed on their gardening skills to Doyle. He will be in charge of the small garden the three plan to use to supply some of the produce they need for their drinks. Doyle also fulfills the utility role of the group, doing whatever needs to be done to keep the business going. He's also in charge of quality control.

Ohtsuka comes from a family of entrepreneurs -- her great-grandfather started Musashi Auto Parts in Battle Creek where she currently has a day-job as a transmission gear inspector. She says she's seen how big a company can get from small beginnings and it has inspired her to start her own business.

After discussing and discarding many business ideas over the years, the three collaborators decided to pursue a mobile juice business. The idea for cold-pressed juice grew from the experience of Ohtsuka's cousin. When he began drinking juices he lost a lot of weight and his health improved.

The group began to research the business and found no one was offering cold-pressed juice and food made of raw vegetables locally. They realized there was a niche they could fill. "There were lots of discussions and we entertained lots of ideas," Ohtsuka says. "This one was perfect for all of our passions."

They began to research recipes and learn what flavors worked well together. "The most important thing at the end of the day is that it taste good," Ohtsuka says.

Parker says they also liked the mobile nature of the business as food trucks are a way to bring life to public spaces. "It's a way to liven things up. You bring life to the streets," says Parker, who is a consultant for cities and land banks using federal neighborhood stabilization grants.

They were excited about the possibilities that come with a business that has lots of benefits to the community.

"We couldn't find anything negative about the business," says Parker. "It helps people. It's good for the community and it helps local farmers."

Their business plans kicked into high gear when the Michigan Economic Development Corp. offered grants to food trucks across the state in 2013. Saying mobile food trucks attract foot traffic to downtown areas and create a unique dining experiences, the state ended up awarding $77,775 to eight trucks, though Juicy Leaf was not one of them. (If the state offers grants to food trucks again, Juicy Leaf is ready.)

More progress came about when the Can-do Kitchen, the small-food business incubator in Kalamazoo, provided the Juicy Leaf team with a list of steps it needed to take. The incubator was full when the tasks the company had to do were finished. So Juicy Leaf has rented space the Springfield Farmers Market made available to startups and small businesses to serve as its base of operations.

Juicy Leaf made its first public appearance, offering samples at the Nov. 30 opening of the Bank Street Winter Market, followed by sales in subsequent weeks.

The public got to sip or gulp the juices that the trio has been researching and developing. There is Kalemazoo, a green drink; Beetnick, made of beets; Glow, with carrots; seasonal drinks such as Sweet Potato Pie and basic apple for the less adventurous juice drinker.  

In early outings, Ohtsuka says most people knew about the benefits of cold-pressed juice and eating raw vegetables. But as more people order the healthy drinks they expect there will be some education that must go on to address sticker shock of being asked to pay $5 to $7 for a glass of juice.

The price of convenience can be one's health, Ohtsuka says. And it's not unusual for one pound of vegetables to go into one cup of juice.

Right now many of the vegetables going into the juice is being supplied by the Sprout Urban Farm in Battle Creek.

"We're trying to keep things as local, organic, and seasonal as possible," says Ohtsuka.

They also will be creating their own menu of wholesome foods in coming months. They will start with veggies people already are familiar with in their salads. A raw carrot cake that has great nutritional value also is being developed, says Ohtsuka. "Our motivation is to make it easy and accessible to get the healthiest, most nutritional food."

One of the company's goals is to obtain its own vehicle in 2014 to attend various farmers markets, festivals and events like disc golf tourneys. "It could be a truck or a minivan. The more mobile the better," Parker says.

Though the business is young, the entrepreneurs don't hesitate when asked advice they might give others thinking of starting up a company of their own.

"Keep it simple," Ohtsuka says. "Do what you can be good at."

"Keep your costs low to start with and use your network to learn things" says Parker. "Talk to other people doing what you want to do and use the resources they recommend."

"Stay fluid. Explore all your different options," Ohtsuka says. "Juicy Leaf has evolved so much since we started."

"Learn as you go," Parker says. "Use your resources to take one step at a time. Don't be afraid."

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.

Photos by Erik Holladay.
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