Food Philosophy: The Mystery of Juice Bars

The Mystery of Juice Bars

A few weeks back I was putts-ing around in my kitchen and listening to one of my all-time favorite pod-casts, America’s Test Kitchen.

Every episode they do this incredible 5 minute segment on food philosophy. This may not interest all of you, but man – this section speaks it’s own dialect of nerd that my Nerd-Brain just can’t get enough of. Keep in mind I went to school for economics, so the study of (or probably better put, the thought process about) why people do what they do has always fascinated me. Mix that with food, and I’m a total gone-r.

In that particular episode they were discussing the recent craze of juice bars, something that has had me some-what baffled for a while, really. The idea of people spending incredible amounts of money for something they could just as easily make at home, and for a fraction of the price, always kind of stumped me…particularly because it has totally sucked me in too! So this episode whet my appetite, and I commissioned Nerd-Brain to do a little digging.

So what did I find? Well, remember a few lines ago where I corrected myself in saying that it was more of a thought process rather than an actual study? There’s a ton of ideas out there, but finding quantifiable units of measurement to clearly assert much fact is disappointingly lax, (sorry Nerd-Brain). I found studies and opinions that gave me some numbers, but I couldn’t find out exactly where those numbers came from…which makes my inner researcher a little skeptical.

Nothing is wasted, however, and from the research I did I will throw out some ideas for us to chew on

Remember when juicing was more of something that only the peripherals of food extremists would do? My Uncle was one of them. He is the coolest guy ever, I totally love him – but he has some extreme ideas about eating and nutrition. When I was a baby, he once fed me so much carrot juice that when my parents came back from their vacation they said I actually looked orange! Haha, I wish I had been old enough to remember that! Anyway, the trendy juice craze we are seeing now is obviously not like that anymore. Every time I go into a Sur La Table, or a similar home cooking/appliance store, or visit half a dozen popular food blogs, I am almost mowed down by the bombardment of “You should buy this $500 fruit juice processor!”.

I think a few things are happening:

1.) More people are becoming increasingly interested in food and healthy living:

Everyone (including me! :)) has a food blog. There’s T.V. shows, government programs, scary studies – all about one thing: obesity in America and loosing weight. We’re obsessed with it! It’s actually hip now to routinely alter eating habits in what used to be considered extreme ways. The age-old notion of “everything in moderation” that our mothers taught us just doesn’t have enough sex appeal, I suppose, to make it catchy enough. I realize obesity in America is a problem, so who knows? Maybe more extreme diet alterations are required. What I am saying though is that this mindset, fostered on multiple sides by several outlets, is changing the way our society thinks about, and defines, “healthy” eating. Because of that, we are seeing some interesting changes take place in societal paradigm shifts. It kind of brings me back to my economics question: what comes first, the consumer or the entrepreneur? Do consumer make decisions that the market responds to, or have we edged our way into a market that is so heavily saturated with media outlets that forces outside of the consumer are able to condition audiences into the product preferences they create? Let’s not make entrepreneurs the enemy here, either…they’re just trying to make a buck like the rest of us. But maybe advertising strategies have gone beyond simple consumer education to consumer creation…in other words, they make consumers for their products rather than adapt to pre-existing consumer demand.

2.) The principle of What Goes Around, Comes Around…and There’s Nothing New Under the Sun:

Believe it or not, we’ve seen this before. Think about it: a space that provides a convenient converging point for social interactions gathered around sweet drinks. It’s the modern-day milkshake diner. I never understood all those vintage signs depicting the great time had by all at the local diner guzzling down milkshakes. Now I do. And really, what is Starbucks if not a modern-day milkshake diner stiffened up with modern architecture, neutral color pallets, and some caffeine and scones? Does anyone remember the seltzer water craze? Pierrier and Sanpellegrino were kings! Which brings me to my next point:

3.) Why this doesn’t work (for the masses) at home. 

That incredible Espresso machine…that million-dollar juice blender, the at-home Soda maker…I think they all have one thing in common for most people: once you make these drinks for yourself at home, all the glamour goes away. I’ve totally done it. I’ve bought the Starbucks half gallon of Caramel Macchiato, and had a few glasses. It spoiled before I could drink the rest…and I’m someone who loves the feeling of snuggling down to read a book or do my work with a nice, creamy cup of coffee to keep me company. But pour it from a carton instead of receive from a Barista, and something changes. The social aspect is gone.

Suddenly, there is no one there to see you enjoy that premium cup of perfectly blended coffee. There’s no one there to think you’re a yoga stud for drinking kale in a cup. It’s this precise phenomenon that, I believe, eludes to the significance of the social interaction aspect of these trendy juice bars’ recent success. Which is actually really cool, if you think about it. Back in the day, the social gathering place was around the home-cooked meal and Mama’s table. Social gatherings expressed specifically in this way became harder after moms started participating in the work force. Everything started speeding up – work, family, 52 soccer games in a year, gymnastics, T.V., iPhones….everything makes a play for our time and there is only so much of it to go around. I’m a huge believer in the power of families eating together over a home-cooked meal. Yet, in this modern fast-paced world we have created, maybe we are still doing that, just in a different way. In the podcast episode I was listening to earlier in my kitchen, Food Philosopher and writer, Adam Gopnik, mentioned that his venture to the juice bar was one of the few places his 19 year old son would go with him.

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