Vitality Bowls is a self-described superfoods café. The acai berry serves as the star ingredient for a menu that includes bowls, smoothies, juices, Paninis, salads and soups that staff make to order. Uriah Blum, the chain’s vice president of operations, describes Vitality Bowls’ service style as a cross between fast-casual and quick service, given the high-touch approach and the speed with which customers move through the line. Here, Blum discusses the chain’s approach to food safety, sustainability and more.
FE&S: Can you provide a brief overview of Vitality Bowls’ concept?
UB: Vitality Bowls is a superfood café with 25 locations. We source superfoods that the average person might not be used to. We have a well-educated staff that can counsel people about our menu. Everything is made to order, which gives customers the option to add or remove anything from their order. Our service style is a cross between quick service and fast casual.
The typical Vitality Bowls location is 1,100 to 1,200 square feet. The largest location is 1,600 square feet and the smallest is about 550 square feet.
FE&S: How do you describe your menu?
UB: Acai bowls and vitality bowls are the main attractions. They center on the Brazilian acai nuts, which are pretty amazing and offer lots of health benefits. We use them as the core ingredient. We make them into a smoothie and pile on lots of other good-for-you options. We also do all natural smoothies, salads, soups, etc. All of our superfoods are organic.
FE&S: What do you look for in a location?
UB: We have stores in malls and shopping centers and even thriving downtown locations that have done well. We are really popular with high school students and athletes — anywhere there are gyms, schools or other health-focused concepts.
FE&S: Describe the experience you want customers to have.
UB: We want customers to enter into a warm, welcome atmosphere. There are some educational posters that provide customers with information about the superfoods we offer. We call our front-of-the-house people educators because we want them to be able to answer their questions about our unique offerings.
FE&S: What are some of the key elements of your equipment package?
UB: Key parts of our equipment package include freezers, refrigeration and blenders.
FE&S: Freezers? That seems unique for a better-for-you concept, particularly when so many farm-to-table concepts are swapping their freezers for refrigeration. Why are freezers so important to Vitality Bowls?
UB: The acai berry is something you can’t get fresh here in the U.S. We get these in 100-gram packages that contain about 50 to 80 berries. The berries need to be kept frozen, too. We get other fresh fruits from Brazil that need to be kept frozen so we can share them with our other locations. Also, our smoothies and base blend consist of frozen fruit because we do not have any icemakers in our restaurants. So this helps make our smoothies cold.
And frozen fruits are picked at the peak of ripeness so you actually get more nutrients out of frozen fruit. And that’s why we have more freezers than refrigeration.
FE&S: Blenders represent a key element of your equipment package. What do you look for in a blender?
UB: We put a heavy load on our blenders and it is important to have a high end, quality blender that can turn out 300 bowls a day. We are definitely rough on them.
FE&S: But you also use fresh fruit and other fresh ingredients, right?
UB: We get fresh produce in four times a week and try to have the freshest blueberries, strawberries and even spinach. We want the freshest and best-looking fruits on the top of our bowls.
FE&S: Given that your menu uses ingredients that come from outside the U.S., as well as lots of fresh items, how do you maintain a food-safe operation?
UB: We have to put trust in our vendors. We work with a group of people that have their own land and farms so we know exactly where the product is coming from. And in five years, we have never had any issues with the products coming in.
Also, all of our employees have their food handler cards and our managers are ServSafe certified. Our health inspector checklist is posted so we see every day what the health inspector is looking for.
FE&S: How much food safety training do you provide to your staff?
UB: We do three days of rigorous training and that includes allergy training. We check back in with them and test them regularly.
FE&S: Properly serving customers with food allergies is a very important part of food safety. How does Vitality Bowls handle this?
UB: We take food allergies very seriously. Our founder Tara’s daughter had a food allergy and it made it difficult for her to go out to eat anywhere. So it is an important part of our philosophy to promote allergy safety. We have dedicated allergen-free equipment and knives. We have knives and equipment that don’t go near peanuts.
If someone asks for something that’s gluten free or to eliminate an ingredient, we ask if it’s an allergy. It prints on the ticket and we yell it all the way down our assembly line so they can make the necessary preparations. They change out their gloves, cutting boards, equipment and even grab an allergy kit if necessary.
FE&S: How do customers react when they see this unfold?
UB: They appreciate it. Most people, if they have an allergy and it is severe, they will let it be known. They appreciate that we take the precautions, care and measurements.
FE&S: Consumer-facing technology, such as online ordering, smartphone apps and even in-store, tablet-based ordering platforms continue to shape the guest experience. How is Vitality Bowls addressing this emerging trend?
UB: We have an app on the App store people can interact with. We have online ordering, too. And we work with lots of third-party delivery services. The app is intuitive, so customers have the ability to customize their experience by removing or adding items to their orders. And we don’t want to ruin the integrity of the product when delivering it to a customer. The product is frozen and thick and as it starts to melt the granola can get soggy. So we partnered with delivery companies that have ice boxes to keep the product cold.
FE&S: Speed of service is a key factor for any operation today. Given that your menu is made-to-order, how does Vitality Bowls address speed of service to ensure it meets customer expectations?
UB: The biggest challenge we face is the wait time that can occur. It takes three minutes to make the bowl from start to finish because [many] steps go into this. So a big part of this is educating our customers to make sure they know what goes into making a quality product for them. We don’t want to cut steps. And we have to train our team on how to prioritize to meet everyone’s expectations. It’s something that all fast-casual, quick-service restaurants deal with.
FE&S: A key factor in speed of service is labor. Unfortunately, labor also seems to be a rising expense. How does Vitality Bowls get the most from its labor pool?
UB: It starts with hiring the right people. And it’s a challenge because this is a demanding job. It’s a fast-paced, stressful and multitasking environment. It’s not meant for the average person. It takes a special person to be successful in this environment. We don’t want to be overstaffed because we want to keep our labor costs in line. So we want our employees to feel just the right amount of pressure that keeps them motivated and moving fast but not too stressed. We get a lot of employees that like the concept and believe in what we are doing. But we never want to cut corners or sacrifice the quality of the product. Customers see it and they are willing to pay a premium for a quality product.
FE&S: Can you describe your approach to sustainability?
UB: We try to operate a zero-waste kitchen. We don’t have any waste. If strawberries, for example, sit there for a couple days, we will freeze them and use them in our smoothies. There’s nothing wrong with using strawberries we froze. We will eat, reuse or give away our mistake bowls. We have compost programs in place where the city will allow it.
FE&S: What comes next for Vitality Bowls?
UB: Our company is family run and operated. We don’t have investors or a big team. My sister and her husband started the company and brought me in to help it grow. We just want to spread that awareness and love. We have sold about 45 licenses and are opening 2 stores a month. Our end goal is to get to 200 or 300 stores in the next 5 years.