What's an Açaí Bowl?: Spreading the Word, One Bowl at a Time
Let's start with what's an açaí berry. Looking like a cross between a grape and a blueberry, the açaí (ah-sigh-EE) berry is a small, reddish-purple fruit harvested from palm trees that grow around the Amazon River Basin. Its taste has been described as evocative of wild berries and chocolate. Its health benefits as an anti-oxidant "superfood" are well-known...
So, can you build a business around a Brazilian berry? Tara Gilad and her husband Roy think they can, and in 2011 founded Vitality Bowls, a Superfood Café.
"We think there's a really big gap in the market," she says. "People want healthy food and healthy options." However, she realizes that a business is not built on açaí bowls alone. The brand has a diverse product line that also includes other "super" or exotic foods (guarana seed, goji berries, bee pollen, spirulina, dragon fruit, maca, and the more pedestrian kale, to name a few)--as well as smoothies, paninis, salads, soups, specials, fresh juice, and a kid's menu.
Marketing a selection of fruits and berries that many customers have never heard of (or can even pronounce) means educational, missionary selling--at least in today's U.S., but Vitality Bowls and a growing number of other brands have been working hard to change all that. After all, it wasn't so long ago that anyone in the U.S. knew what a "chipotle" was, and now we can't seem to get away from it.
First, says Gilad, "We have to educate our employees, and then the public when they come in, to explain the benefits of the products"--literally "what's in it" for them. One of the most frequent questions, of course, is "What's an açaí bowl?"
One of her test markets for new bowl recipes is her husband's basketball-playing friends. One message they conveyed, she says, runs something like, "It's delicious, but I still feel like I need bread and meat." They responded by adding hot paninis with turkey, ham, and salami. But don't worry: it's all-natural meat with no additives, preservatives, or nitrates. There's even peanut butter for a non-meat protein fix, and the kid's menu offers grilled cheese.
"Paninis really complement our bowls well, says Gilad, and customers can add one to any bowl for $3.99. As the saying goes, it's an evolution, not a revolution. Power to thesuperfoods!
Name: Tara Gilad
Title: Co-founder, COO
Brand: Vitality Bowls
System-wide revenue: $1.5 million in 2015 (approx.)
No. of units: 20 (3 corporate)
International units: 0
Growth plans: $2 million in 2016
Public or private? Private
Year company founded: 2011
Year started franchising: 2014
Your years in franchising: 3
What inspired you to start your business?
After finding out my daughter had severe food allergies, I was inspired to create an allergy-safe, healthy restaurant where our family could eat comfortably. I've always loved açaí bowls and came up with the concept of a casual superfood cafe where people could eat delicious, chemical-free dishes from a kitchen that avoided cross-contamination of common food allergy ingredients.
What is your background? How did it prepare you for starting your business?
I have a background in entrepreneurship, from a successful accounting and finance recruiting company to a tanning spa. So it helped to know a bit about the challenges and rewards of starting my own business.
What's the best and worst advice you got when starting out?
Best: From my husband, who said, "We can do this." I was hesitant and scared, but he was right. Without him pushing me I probably wouldn't have moved forward.
Worst: "Don't open a restaurant! Are you crazy? You're going to be there every night and weekends." If you build a team and train properly you don't have to work 12 hours a day.
Why did you choose franchising?
We realized there were other entrepreneurs like us who wanted to bring healthy food to their communities. That really helped in our decision to franchise. I didn't open Vitality Bowls with the intention of franchising, but even though it happened organically, it turned out to be the best decision.
How did you get started in franchising?
After opening three corporate Vitality Bowls to huge success, we realized there were no other franchises that offered the quality and variety of our açaí bowls and other superfood menu items. People were begging us to start franchising. We finally took the plunge in 2014.
Did you have a partner/co-founder when you started? How important was that in building your company?
Yes, my husband and I started the business together. Since he's an entrepreneur with a background in finance and real estate, it really helped to have someone with that knowledge from the beginning. I then brought in my brother who has an extensive culinary background and experience in the foodservice industry.
How did you fund your company at the beginning? As you grew? We've been self-funded from the beginning and hope to continue to stay that way.
Building The Business
What has been the best and the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur?
Best: Watching the growth and success of our franchisees bringing allergy-safe and healthy food to other communities. The most challenging thing is that you are on call 24/7.
How has your experience in running a franchise business been different from what you expected?
Working with so many other entrepreneurs can be rewarding and challenging. Everyone brings different skills sets to the table, so identifying how I need to cater toward each can be a challenge.
How did you grow the brand at first? What changed as you expanded?
In the beginning, we were able to create new menu items and recipes to launch with little turnaround time. Now things take more time since we need to have consistency with each location. We have to make sure we give everyone enough time, educate them, source ingredients in different locations, and make sure our marketing material is ready.
How did you transition from founding a brand to leading a brand? How would you describe your leadership style?
Making decisions that affect only you is one thing, but making huge decisions that affect others is a tremendous responsibility. I try to lead by example and build strong relationships with each franchisee. Communication is everything! I try to be fair to every franchisee and take their suggestions or ideas into consideration. I want my passion for our food and brand to translate down to each franchisee. The most important thing is doing everything I can to help them all be successful.
What is the key to your company's success?
Having an incredible team I can count on, and partnering with dedicated franchisees who stand for the healthy lifestyle we're so passionate about. Also, having my husband and brother on board makes us a power team with our different skill sets.
Was being female an advantage or disadvantage for you in building your company? How?
I didn't think it was either. It could have been a disadvantage working with contractors who might try to take advantage of a female, but I'd built two other businesses before and knew what accurate costs should be.
Have you found specific advantages or disadvantages to being a woman business owner?
Advantages: I get to choose my own hours and balance my family life with my work life.
Disadvantage: Same thing: juggling and balancing work with family and giving each the attention they need.
What has been your biggest challenge as a woman entrepreneur?
Again, juggling family and work. As the mom, I'm the primary caretaker, making fresh dinners and spending quality time my two young children. I work a lot of late nights when they're sleeping.
Why do you think there are fewer start-ups with female founders than male ones?
I think many women are concerned with work/life balance and trying to manage having a family with the demands of their own business. I've not faced any challenges of being a woman entrepreneur other than trying to balance family life. With a 4- and 6-year-old, my schedule has to be flexible for them. I find being a business owner gives me more flexibility than a regular job. Even though I work late nights after the kids go to bed, I'm there for their schedules and needs. I encourage more women to create businesses of their own to ensure more control over their schedules.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
My kids are my first priority, and business secondary. I think that's what prevents most women from taking on starting a new company. Still, you get more balance when you're in charge of your own schedule.
From a woman's perspective, what notable changes have you seen for women in franchising since starting your brand?
We have several woman franchisees who now own their business and are experiencing success on their own. It's amazing to be a part of it.
Which female leaders do you admire? Why?
Lori Greiner. She is a mega entrepreneur! I met her last year and was actually starstruck!
Has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life? How?
Yes. It's very rewarding. We hire a lot of young adults and we mentor them. We teach them work ethic and job skills. I've been interviewed by many students for projects they are doing in school. It's a great feeling to empower young adults.
Are you involved in any female entrepreneur organizations?
No, I have no time! I would love to be a part of them.
What does your typical day look like?
I sneak in a quick workout, drop my kids off at school, and then head to one or two meetings, either with potential and current franchisees or with new distributors. I usually have two to three conference calls a day. Afternoons are at one of our three corporate stores spending time with my team. After picking up my kids from school, we typically eat dinner and spend time together as a family. After the kids go to sleep, I catch up on email, paperwork, and phone calls.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I try to schedule meetings so I'm able to drop off and pick up my kids from school. And as I said, we eat dinner as a family almost every night, and if need to I'll catch up on work after the kids are in bed.
What are your top 5 favorite things to do?
Day trips to my mom's organic farm, date nights with my husband, hiking, family dinners, traveling. What are 3 key words to describe yourself? Driven, compassionate, type A.
What's the most important lesson you've learned so far?
That we are making a serious difference in people's lives. We have to continue bringing healthy food to every community across the country. Eating healthy should be available to everyone!
If you could do one thing differently, what would it be?
I would educate myself on social media. I'm extremely social media illiterate!
What's the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
Years ago my dad said to me, "Why would you ever want to go work for someone else?" It resonated with me and I knew in college I wanted to start my own business. I come from a family of entrepreneurs.
What advice would you give to other women considering starting their own franchise brand?
Do it!! Don't be afraid. The positivity and rewards that come from it far outweigh the hard work and long hours.
What would you like to achieve in the next 5 years?
I'd like to see a Vitality Bowls in every community across the country!
What's coming up that you're excited about?
We're opening a new corporate location in Miami in February. We're also launching a superfood coffee bar at some locations with organic espresso and cold-brew coffee drinks made with antioxidant-rich açaí, pitaya (dragon fruit), matcha (powdered green tea), and more.
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